A couple of weeks ago Catholics around the world celebrated the Canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. What was surprising to many people, including me, were the criticisms of Mother Teresa that showed up in various publications. I was always under the impression that the Holiness of Mother Teresa was a given, so I was surprised to see so many men and women my age with some serious criticisms.
I took some time to read some of these criticisms of Mother Teresa, and they followed a bit of pattern. Her critics say she was a bad politician – they didn’t like her politics and they were uncomfortable with what she said when she had media attention, especially when her words criticized western attitudes towards sexuality. They also say she was a bad businesswoman. With the money she had been given she could have built a state of the art medical facility, but she didn’t.
Critics say she was a bad social worker. They say she could have helped hundreds of more people if she had used her resources to their fullest. Finally, critics of mother Teresa say she was a bad doctor. They say that her standards of medical care were too low and that she failed to diagnose certain illnesses that could have been treatable.
Ironically, I think that Mother Teresa would agree with these criticisms. Of course, Mother Teresa never sought to serve any of these roles she’s criticized for doing poorly. Mother Teresa did not seek political includence. She was given it by many people, but if she was never “discovered” by the media she never would have gained any fame.
Mother Teresa never tried to be a business woman. As far as I know, she never asked for significant amounts of money although she accepted the gifts when offered. Mother Teresa was not a social worker. She did not ever claim to be a doctor, nor did she ever try to function as a doctor. Those who understand mother Teresa know that she never had dreams of doing anything big.
So through a worldly lens Mother Teresa might be a failure, but as always we need to look at the world through the lens of the Gospel. In this weekend’s reading from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:10), Jesus draws our attention to small matters. It is in these small details that Mother Teresa attended to and that is why her life is worthy of imitation. We would do well to learn from this example.
Sometimes, we think of others in terms of their problems. I make this mistake in my own life. I’ll talk to a person and immediately start trying to help them solve their problems. I say, “Go here, call this number, start doing this, stop doing this,” and offer other kinds of advice. But I have to remember that not everyone needs these big things from me. Very often, they are looking for small signs that they are loved and cared for. By focusing on these things that seem “big” to me, I fail to attend to the “little.”
This might be a failure to experience a little of their suffering through empathy. Sometimes it’s a failure to actually take time to hear about the events that brought about their circumstances. Sometimes it’s a failure to let them know that I enjoyed meeting them and enjoyed speaking with them.
It’s the same thing with our family and friends. If we get too focused on some of the things that seem big to us, we miss out on opportunities to do these small things. And you know what? People can actually endure an awful lot of suffering if they know they are loved by God and other people, because the need to be loved is a deeper need than the need to be free of suffering.
Mother Teresa understood that the people she served had this deep need to be loved. She didn’t solve all the world’s problems, but she did those little things to help the poorest of the poor know they were loved. And if that sounds easy, I assure you it isn’t. It is easier to hand out simple advice or money to a person. It’s difficult to love. In order to truly love and truly meet the deep needs of the suffering around us, we absolutely need God himself at work in us.
That is why Mother Teresa caught the attention of so many. God was at work in her. Never forget this: The saints were not saints because they had a talent for religion or a talent for doing good. They are celebrated because they opened themselves up so deeply to the work of God that God himself worked through them. Mother Teresa opened herself up to God so deeply that God was able to do these great things in her life.
The same God that worked in her can work in us, but it requires that we make serving God our top priority. This is what we’ve been reflecting on for the last few months. In this last weekend’s Gospel, Jesus says you cannot serve two masters (Luke 16:13). This isn’t easy. It requires courage, and strength. But when we ope ourselves up so deeply to God, the same God who worked so profoundly in the life of Mother Teresa is the same God who works through us, and helps us serve our own community.