What can we learn from Mother Teresa?

A woman prays by a portrait of Mother Teresa in Calcutta (CNS)

I have just been reading a new book that has come out about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Titled The Love that made Mother Teresa and subtitled “How her secret visions and dark nights can help you conquer the slums of your heart” it written by David Scott and published by Sophia Institute Press.

The book provides some interesting details on the Albanian nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity: that rather like the late John Paul II, who had no personal possessions when he died, Mother Teresa left a prayer book, a pair of sandals and a couple of saris; that she took the name “Teresa” not “after the big St Teresa but the little one” (i.e. Thérèse of Lisieux rather than Teresa of Avila); that when she received her “call within a call” in 1946 to leave the Loreto Sisters and their comparatively comfortable convent in Calcutta to live among the poorest of the poor in the city’s slums, she at first was very reluctant to do so. She told Our Lord she was frightened of the hardship and the ridicule she would have to endure. This last detail reminds us how human the saints are: they don’t always jump up to embrace the cross that Our Lord invites them to take up. That Mother Teresa was able to do the work she did was, as she herself knew, the result of the grace she was offered and to which she responded so fully.

I also learnt from the book that the reason Mother Teresa spoke up so often about the evils of abortion was because she understood, as few people do, that violence done to an unborn child has a domino effect on the violence in society. As David Scott puts it: “It is not too much to say that Mother Teresa viewed the world as caught up in an apocalyptic struggle between the Immaculate heart of Mother Mary and a dark demonic perversion of motherhood at work in the world.” It was not for nothing that she named her House of the Dying “Nirmal Hriday” – the Place of the Immaculate Heart; she also did not see it as mere coincidence that the old building given to her for this work was next to Kalighat, a temple devoted to Kali, whose ancient associations, as Scott points out, are of a “mother who kills her young, a deity demanding human sacrifice.”

Mother Teresa was often criticised by people like the late Christopher Hitchens for not addressing the systemic injustice that is often the cause of the kind of poverty she encountered in the slums of Calcutta. Why did she not denounce greedy bankers, capitalists, exploitative landlords and so on? Her answer was that her task was to reflect the love of Jesus. For her the question was not a political one, whether to be a socialist or a conservative or whether to get involved with a particular pressure group; it was to persuade people by the example of her life and her Missionaries of Charity that “only holiness will be able to overcome all the sufferings and miseries of people and of our lives.” She also pointed out that in her locutions in 1946 Jesus had said nothing to her about social conditions or injustice – “only about saving souls.”

Interestingly, at the same time as reading this book I was sent a book by a 91-year-old, Harry Leslie Smith, entitled Harry’s Last Stand and subtitled “How the world my generation built is falling down and what we can do to save it”. Harry had a miserable childhood during the Great Depression; he watched how poverty broke and embittered his parents and then fought in the Second World War. Writing of the general election of 1945, he says, “I, like most everyone else of my generation, voted for the first time that day. We voted for the future. We voted for justice; we voted for democracy; we voted for the creation of the welfare state.”

Harry’s book is a long grievance against the on-going unfairness of society; how government has failed this generation and how the sacrifices made by his own generation seem to be in vain; how the rich have got richer and how economic inequality has become more entrenched. “It pains me to say it” he writes, “but in this day and age it doesn’t seem to matter whether our leaders are from the right or the left, because most of them live in a bubble of privilege that protects them from our mundane problems.”

It hardly needs to be said that Harry and Mother Teresa are looking at the world from different perspectives. Harry would have thought Mother Teresa was merely plugging a dyke with her finger to keep out the flood. Mother Teresa would have told him that behind systemic inequality lies personal sin: greed, avarice, the selfishness that ignores one’s neighbour – and of course, that you have to “love one person at a time” as she did so heroically in the slums of Calcutta. She might also have counselled him, “Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.”

What can we learn from her example? To live more simply and less wastefully than we do; to recognise that holiness is not just for canonised saints – it’s for everyone; to know that love has to start in our individual circumstances and within our own families; and to accept that whatever political sympathies we may have we should all be involved in the struggle to protect the weak, especially unborn children.


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