There's more heroism in Mother Teresa than an advancing army

There’s more heroism in Mother Teresa than an advancing army

There’s more heroism in Mother Teresa than an advancing army

A tapestry picturing Mother Teresa hangs from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. On Sunday Pope Francis will canonize Mother Teresa in the highlight of his Holy Year of Mercy, a yearlong emphasis on the merciful side of the Catholic Church. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

When people feel loved, respected, and have a sense of belonging and a deeper identity, they emerge as real human persons, and Mother Teresa, set to be declared a saint on Sunday, helped hundreds of thousands of people discover their real selves.

Commentary

Mother Teresa used to say, “I will give saints to the Church.” These words came to my mind when I heard that four of her sisters were killed in Yemen. They were not the only ones who had suffered for their faith among her sisters. She never spoke of forming heroines for efficient social work, but witnesses to intense faith.

There is greater heroism, Ignatius of Loyola discovered, in dedicated spiritual service than at the battlefront of a glorious advancing army.

The faith dimension of her work haunted Mother Teresa all the time. She brought a sense of the sacred into every area of her life and work, including the most secularized zones. It accompanied her into the offices of Presidents and Prime Ministers, atheist political leaders and agnostic social thinkers. She stirred that sense in everyone she met, and all felt drawn to her in some mysterious manner. She belonged to all.

Her conversations were soaked in religious vocabulary whether she was speaking with princess Diana, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, or a porter in Kolkata railway station. I remember a group of Belgian journalists in Kolkata going into despair unable to draw her into giving a sociological explanation for the success of her work. She herself was in despair unable to explain; she could only exclaim, “Is not Jesus so good!!” For her, that explained everything.

Mother Teresa gave me seven convents in the dioceses of Dibrugarh and Guwahati where I was bishop. She always spoke of the joy of having seven more tabernacles than of opening seven more houses for her sisters. The rest was accidental in her own way of thinking.

All persons of depth perceive an undefinable power in the universe, in social processes and human thinking.  The Greeks spoke of the daimon, the Romans of the genius, moderns of an unexplainable energy.

People are willing to admit of an ‘invisible hand’ in the economy (Adam Smith), elan vital in historical processes (Bergson), an inner voice before political decisions (Sonia Gandhi). What is taboo is to speak of a divine presence’ in the human person. It was to that reality that Mother Teresa was witnessing all the time. And even absolute skeptics stood spellbound.

They were not silenced, but felt helpless before a perceived sense of the sacred. I have a feeling that she often touched the ‘subconscious’ of persons so that even the most eloquent found no answers in denial.

Teilhard de Chardin, addressing a session of the UNESCO in 1947, spoke of the ‘incommunicable singularity of being which each of us possesses.’ Mother Teresa was continuously affirming the same sacredness linked with the dignity and worth of the human person, even of an individual lost in street corners amidst filth and rags.

Teresa believed in miracles. To our great delight, she accepted to come for the blessing of our first church in Borduria in interior Arunachal Pradesh. She had another invitation meantime from Pope John Paul II for the World Youth Day at Detroit. But she opted for the ‘periphery.’ She had never been to Arunachal Pradesh, and didn’t want to miss the chance.

For her, the growth of the Church in that state was a miracle. The 4-5 hours journey with her from Dibrugarh airport to Wanglat Lowangcha’s house in Borduria was an exciting conversation for me all through. She was interested in everything, but she sought most of all to convince me about the power of prayer, insisting that miracles do take place.

For her, prayer is not the dull listing of our petty needs, but the re-ordering of human affairs: hearts and minds changed, social trends influenced, history given a new direction. President Clinton is quoted as having said, “No one in our times has stung the conscience of the world as Mother Teresa has done.” If the inner world is set right, the rest follows. Prayer is a dialogue with God: a co-creating process, a re-ordering of world affairs.

I remember her describing to me once in her office how she threw a ‘miraculous medal’ over the Berlin wall. You would consider me superstitious if I were to suggest that that was the spiritual force that brought the great wall down. But for Mother Teresa the matter would be evident. She had been dreaming of giving 15 convents to the Eastern Bloc, to which she referred as completing 15 decades of the Rosary. And she realized her dream as well.

Arnold Toynbee suggested that the stature of a civilization should be gauged by the quality of its ‘spiritual search,’  not by the progress of its technical achievements. If we take this measurement seriously, we may ask ourselves whether we are on a downward path today.

We speak of unlimited human potential, the superman and the supermind; but we are so unwilling to admit that the human person is made to God’s imagevisible today in the face of this individual, whether he is the President of the nation, a world-famous author, a slum child, a dying destitute, or an impatient leper. Mother Teresa needed no special vision to see that, her intuitive affection just reached out. She is challenging our civilization to improve the quality of our ‘spiritual search.’

But when we do not recognize the real, we grope for truth in the virtual world, in the unreality of Disneylands and empty imaginations. It is said that the self-image that the public gives the ‘stars’ is an illusion, and it ends up in tragic falls. What human beings cannot do without is not glamour, but love.

When they feel loved, respected, and have a sense of belonging and a deeper identity, they emerge as real human persons. Mother Teresa helped hundreds of thousands of people discover their real selves.

She brought the sense of the sacred to religious life with her invitation to radical living. While many reformers were suggesting the softening of evangelical challenges to adapt to changing times, she opted in the other direction, and she proved by her very success that there is generosity in young hearts. Vocations to her own style of austere living grew, and they continue to grow.

It was not her mission to evaluate the economic policies of the Marxist Party in Bengal or the political strategies of the World Powers. Her task was to invite every human being on earth to recognize his/her own identity as a child of God and help him/her to recognize his/her noble vocation to come to the help of the weakest. In the ready acceptance of this challenge lies the future of humanity.

Thomas Menamparampil  was the Archbishop of Guwahati for 20 years before his retirement in January 2012. He is  currently the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Jowai.

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