Politics & Policy

Mother Teresa and Us

A model of contemporary holiness

‘Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta was probably the most familiar Christian face of our generation,” Los Angeles archbishop José Gomez writes in his foreword to The Love That Made Mother Teresa: How Her Secret Visions and Dark Nights Can Help You Conquer the Slums of Your Heart by David Scott. “Her works of love, done for the abandoned and forsaken in a remote city in India, made hers a household name the world over,” Archbishop Gomez continues.

Scott, who has had a distinguished career in Catholic journalism and is the author of many books on religion, now works with Archbishop Gomez in Los Angeles. He talks about Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, saintliness, and more in an interview with Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: You write that “unlike any saint before her, Mother Teresa was sent by God, not to her isolated nation or region, but to the whole world.” How so? And how can anyone ever be certain anyone has been sent by God? Is there a tracking receipt or website the world is not aware of?

David Scott: Well, when you put it that way, it does sound presumptuous, doesn’t it! You’re right, of course. Who am I to say who’s been “sent” by God and who hasn’t?

What I’m trying to do in this book is kind of a spiritual interpretation of history. I don’t claim to know what God’s thinking but I’m working with a few clues we know from the Bible and Catholic tradition.

We know that God sends prophets into the world. Jeremiah, Isaiah — they were both told the same basic message: “Before I formed you in the womb . . . I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then we have those beautiful words from the beginning of Ephesians, where St. Paul is talking to ordinary Christians, and says that before the foundation of the world, God destined us in love to be his children.

So my assumption — maybe my presumption — is that if God has a plan for every soul, and if he sends some people to carry a specific message at specific times and places in history, then it’s reasonable to ask what “message” God is trying to send in the life of Mother Teresa and other saints.

When we think about Mother Teresa’s life in these terms, it raises some interesting questions. Here is this little nun, working in some far-off corner of the world. What she’s doing — caring for the sick and dying, praying and going to Mass — is not much different than what thousands of nuns, priests, and lay people are doing every day in different parts of the world.

Yet, for some reason, out of all these missionaries and Church workers, Mother Teresa becomes a household name, and her face becomes universally recognizable. Why? That’s one of the questions I’m asking in the book.

LOPEZ: In the eyes of much of the world, is she just another celebrity? And one that perhaps makes us feel fine about ourselves because at least someone’s doing charitable works out there? Is there the same danger with Pope Francis?

SCOTT: I started my book with a similar attitude — that Mother Teresa was just a celebrity “do-gooder,” a kind of trophy old nun in her habit doing social service, the kind of things we expect old nuns to be doing. Of course, I totally underestimated her.

I think there’s a lot of that going on with Pope Francis, too. People are underestimating him. Also, I think with Francis, people are doing a lot of projecting of their own hopes on him. He’s an ecclesiastical inkblot test for a lot of people — they see in him what they want to see in the Church. But I think it’s a mistake to reduce Pope Francis or Mother Teresa to “style.” They are much more interesting characters, much more challenging — if we’re willing to let ourselves be challenged.


LOPEZ: I recall Peggy Noonan sitting next to someone indifferently putting together a shopping list while Mother Teresa spoke during the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. This was when Mother Teresa “stared down” President Clinton on abortion, as you put it in your book. Are we also looking the other way when Pope Francis talks about things like the Devil and abortion? Topics that aren’t “cool” to be against?

SCOTT: I guess the way I see it is this: Lots of our elite opinion-makers in the media and the wider culture are ready for the Church to be “done with” positions they find inconvenient or impossible. The Church’s teachings on abortion, homosexuality, marriage, contraception — these teachings are either a goad on their conscience or they think they’re bad for human freedom or whatever. But they’d like the Church to just stop talking about these questions. So they’re projecting their wishes on Francis. How many times have we heard in the mainstream media: “Finally, we have a pope who isn’t rigid or obsessed with these social issues.”

It’s true he’s not obsessed with them, but neither were the other popes. As you know, what the pope is actually teaching can’t be distinguished from what Pope Benedict XVI said before him and what St. John Paul II said before Benedict.

In fact, I think Francis might even be more radical than his predecessors on some of these issues. As you point out, I don’t think there’s a pope in the past 100 years who has talked more about the Devil than Francis — he sees the Devil at work in the world and in the temptations of individuals. This kind of “reactionary, medieval” viewpoint is totally out of character for the “modern, progressive” pope that we see being portrayed in the media. So they don’t mention it. But the fact is: This pope believes in the Devil in a big way and he thinks we ignore the Devil at our own peril.

Then there is Francis’s image of our modern “throw-away culture.” People seem to think it’s a clever, not terribly original metaphor he’s latched on to, maybe a throw-away line. But it’s an important, powerful image. He’s connecting abortion and euthanasia to a broader indifference and callousness that we see in modern life — our indifference to the homeless, the elderly, the lonely, the sick; the plight of refugees and the undocumented; our failure to care enough to really wade into issues like why half of our kids don’t have jobs, or why our inner cities are like zombie lands and war zones, or the Christian genocide in the Middle East; our disregard for the environment. Pope Benedict talked about the “human ecology.” I think Francis is saying the same thing with “throw-away culture” and calling us to reach out to the “peripheries” — to all the people we’ve forgotten or thrown away.


LOPEZ: What is the “little revolution of love” Mother Teresa taught?

SCOTT: Mother Teresa believed very simply that the world will be saved by love. And she wasn’t talking about grand gestures or big ideas or ideologies. She meant simple love — one person touching another with kindness, with mercy.

“Do little things with great love.” That was her mantra. And she meant it. She would say that when we love — even in the smallest ways — we increase the sum total of love in the world. Of course, she believed the opposite’s true, too. The world dies a little, gets a little meaner, a little lonelier, every time we fail to love, every time we fail to take responsibility for our brothers and sisters. But she believed that love in the little things — a smile, a kindness, a small act of compassion or forgiveness — these little things could change the world. This was the revolution she talked about.


LOPEZ: Mother Teresa stressed the universal call to holiness and said things like: “Sanctity is a simple duty for you and me. I have to be a saint in my way and you in yours.” Now how does that help anyone practically speaking? Could that be interpreted to mean holiness is anything you want it to be?

SCOTT: It could be read that way, you’re right. But nobody would accuse Mother Teresa of being a closet relativist or preaching a spirituality of “You go your way and I’ll go mine.”

I think she would say: God defines holiness, not us. And He defines it as trying to live like Jesus lived and taught us to live — to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors with all our strength. So saints are people who do this. Holiness is a factor of love. Remember, before Christians were called “Christians,” those who followed Christ were called “saints.” St. Paul used to address his letters — “To those called to be saints.”

Mother Teresa was reminding us that that’s still the goal of every Christian, to be a saint. To be a person who loves like Jesus taught us to love. And we do that wherever God puts us in life. We could be on Wall Street or working in the Capitol or in the Church bureaucracy or changing diapers or writing a blog or changing out a garbage disposal. Whoever we are and whatever we’re doing, we’re called to that same standard of serving our neighbor and doing things for the glory of God.

I think that’s what she’s saying.


LOPEZ: You’ve also written about Dorothy Day. What did Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa have in common and what is very different about the two women?

SCOTT: That’s a really good question. If I could identify two saints of our times, it would be them, and I think these two great women belong together in the pantheon of modern saints. If Mother Teresa is the saint who taught us how to live in the global village, I think Dorothy Day is the saint who taught us how to live the American century and the American experience. It’s amazing to think about the trajectory of Dorothy Day’s life — she grew up with no religion; was a propagandist for Margaret Sanger and the original Sandinistas; had an abortion, and then a child out of wedlock; was jailed with the suffragists; marched with the Communists; interviewed Trotsky and could quote Lenin and Proudhon; was a journalist for the nation’s largest socialist newspaper; and was thick with all the figures of the pre-war left-literary and arts scene of New York. (She was a drinking buddy and confidant of Eugene O’Neill, for example.) She personally experienced all the ideologies and “-isms” of our times, and the whole of the cultural experience of the America that was being born in the last century. And that journey led her back to Jesus, back to the Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa had none of that drama in her life, although as a little girl she did experience the hatreds of pre–World War I Europe and later the beginnings of sectarian intolerance and religious violence in India. But she was far less interested in politics or creating “a new society within the shell of the old,” as Dorothy was. Dorothy was an important intellectual and social theorist, in my opinion. She wanted a “revolution of love” and she knew it starts in the heart — but she also wanted to see it worked out in real ways in a new communitarian, agrarian society, rooted in a culture of work and prayer.

What Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day shared was a mysticism and a hunger for God and to a desire to love with no limit. They found inspiration and strength in the ancient spiritual practices and disciplines of the Catholic Church through saying the Rosary every day, going to Mass, regular Confession, and lots of time in prayer and spiritual reading. At the heart of everything, for both of them, was the Eucharist and a mystical experience of Christ who, for them, was truly and really present not only in the bread and wine but also in the poor, the broken, and the vulnerable.


LOPEZ: Why is Mother Teresa’s “long, dark night” so important to understand?

SCOTT: First, I think, because nobody ever knew she had a “dark night of the soul.” She smiled a lot, and she talked a lot about joy. We never knew that in private — in her prayer life, her interior life — she was in agony.

So basically, in the mid 1940s, she had a series of spiritual experiences — visions — that made her quit her job and start living in the streets serving the poor. Then for the next 50 years, nothing. No communication from God. In fact, she had no religious feeling at all. She felt abandoned by God. She wondered if God existed. Or if God “hated” her and was trying to “break” her.

All this comes out in her letters — letters, by the way, that she had asked her confessors and spiritual directors to destroy.

Now, why is it important? I said about Dorothy Day that in my opinion, God made her experience in her own skin all the false paths and false freedoms and dead-ends of modern culture. It’s just my interpretation, but I think with Mother Teresa, God was asking her to share in the “dark night” of the 20th century, a century of the Holocaust and the gulag, of death marches, of all the genocides and slaughters of the innocent. She was “sent” to show how to live with faith, hope, and love in a time when it seemed like God had withdrawn himself, the whole idea of why a good God could allow such evil. Like I said, it’s just my interpretation.


LOPEZ: You quote Mother Teresa saying: “It is easy to love people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.” If she were here to turn that into a BringBackOurGirls-like hashtag for Twitter, what might it be?

SCOTT: In the book, I tell the story of “Mo” Siegel. He’s the man who founded Celestial Seasonings, the herbal-tea company. He makes millions but he’s still a hippie at heart, and wants to use his money to change the world, to change consciousness. He gives away millions to all sorts of causes, some them pretty flaky, but he’s got a good heart. Still, he feels empty and restless inside. (He’s the classic “seeker.”) So he goes off to India to volunteer for Mother Teresa. But when he gets there, she tells him to turn around and go home. Pokes him in the chest and tells him: “Grow where you’re planted!” So that would be the hashtag: #GrowWhereYou’rePlanted!


LOPEZ: What did she mean by: “The streets of Calcutta lead to every man’s door, and the very pain, the very ruin of our Calcutta of the heart witnesses to the glory that once was and ought to be”? Is that where she went from super practical to mystical?

SCOTT: What a dark, beautiful, mysterious line, isn’t it? I think I’m still trying to understand what it might mean. But it really could be the title of the book, “Our Calcutta of the Heart.”

I guess for me, it becomes an image of the depths of spiritual poverty. We make our hearts a heap of ruins and broken things because of our sins, our selfishness, our addictions, our practiced indifference.

In a sense, I think she’s saying that what we see in the streets of Calcutta, in the streets of New York or Los Angeles where I live — the twisted-up lives; people living like shades wandering around at intersections, living under bridges; all the bleary eyes and crazy extremes of indignity and illness and brokenness — all of this is kind of a mirror of the things going on in our own hearts.

And we have to let our experience of the streets of Calcutta, the streets of our cities, change our hearts. There’s a longing in the heart, even when we’re half-dead under the ruins, under the debris and mess we’ve made of our lives — there’s still a spark of what “once was,” of what God wants for us. And that’s where resurrection begins, where conversion begins. That’s where we can hear God and start to rise up out of these ruins, this Calcutta of the heart, and come out of ourselves and begin to love.

That might be what she means.

LOPEZ: Do we know much about Mother Teresa’s life as a schoolteacher and principal?

SCOTT: No. But what we do know suggests something profound about her conversion. We know she was really comfortable. She was teaching rich kids in an all-girls school in Calcutta with ivy walls — a kind of oasis in the desert of poverty and misery in the streets outside the walls. She was so complacent, it would seem, that her mother at one point wrote to her and reminded her that she became a nun to serve the poor, not to serve the rich. People who worked with her were shocked when she announced she was leaving her job to go live in the streets. There was no prior warning. She’d never shown any interest or concern before that. So whatever happened to her leading up to her conversion, it was radical, life-changing.

LOPEZ: You write movingly about Mother Teresa’s long dark night and how in it “we can hear all the anguish of her century — the desolation of the poor, the cries of the unwanted children, of the atheist, of all those who can’t murmur a prayer or feel to love anymore. It was as if in some way she was bearing their sufferings. And in this she seemed in some way to be sharing too in the sufferings of Christ.” What do you mean? How can anyone share in the sufferings of Christ?

SCOTT: I think she was teaching us what the “communion of saints” and the “Mystical Body of Christ” means and how to live it in our times. Didn’t St. Paul say he was trying to make up in his body what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ? It’s not that there’s anything “lacking” in what Christ did for us on the Cross. But Jesus said we had to deny ourselves, take up our own cross, and follow him. We have to lose our life to find it. So being a Christian means in some way sharing in that sacrifice of Jesus, in his sufferings. It means giving our lives for others in a way that is life-giving. St. Paul again, right? If one person suffers, we all suffer together. If one person is honored, we all rejoice. I think Mother Teresa was reminding us of the same thing — the same thing Pope Francis keeps beating away at — we are meant to be our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. The love we’re looking for is the love others are waiting for us to give.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Onlineand founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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