Culture

A Mother for a People in Need of Virtue

Getting practical about Mother Teresa

I don’t know about you, but with the news over the past week — and reactions to it — I need a good dose of peace, humility, and virtue. A month ago, Pope Francis celebrated a household name, whose message should be heard by a nation that wants something better from its politics and its people. That’s going to start with elevating and celebrating people of virtue who insist on virtue in citizenship and politics. That doesn’t mean you have to be as perfect as a saint, but you need to see the value for your own soul and the soul of the nation in having saints around.

“The saints help us to love more beautifully and live more purposefully,” Susan Conroy writes in her new book Praying with Mother Teresa: Prayers, Insights, and Wisdom of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Conroy, who went to India in the summer of 1986 as a 21-year-old to work with the Missionaries of Charity, developed an eleven-year friendship with Mother Teresa. She shares some of the saint’s prayerful wisdom, along with the tools she picked up from Mother Teresa’s saintly life.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Now that the frenzy around her canonization has passed, what about Mother Teresa can become a practical part of our lives?

SUSAN CONROY: Two radiantly beautiful qualities that I loved most in Mother Teresa were her humility and her loving kindness to all people. Those are two virtues that we can strive to practice in our everyday lives. Mother Teresa taught us by word and deed to put our love “into living action” in countless ways each day – even in the way we look at others, speak to others, and listen to others. She said that “love proves itself a thousand times a day,” as we strive to do “small things with great love,” to do ordinary things of everyday life with extraordinary love. It’s always about the love. God looks into our hearts to see the value of our deeds. Mother Teresa encouraged us to “be kind and merciful. Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.”

This takes practice. She wanted us to “be the sunshine of God’s love” to all we meet, beginning in our own homes and in our own families. Sometimes we give our grumpiest and worst behavior to those we love most — those with whom we live — and even Mother Teresa understood the reality that it is sometimes easier to give a cup of rice to someone who is hungry in India than it is to be kind, loving, and gentle to someone in our own family who is testing our patience and kindness. And yet she constantly reminded us that “love begins at home.” “Family first,” she would say. Practice patience, kindness, goodness, and humility with your own loved ones at home, and be sensitive to the needs of those around you. Do you know of anyone who is depressed? Do you know of anyone who is lonely? Do you know of anyone with cancer? Mother Teresa would say: “Find them. Love them. Put your love for them into living action — and become a channel of God’s peace right where you are.”

LOPEZ: How was Mother Teresa like “a living prayer”?

CONROY: Mother Teresa didn’t just say her prayers. She didn’t just pay lip service to God. She lived her prayers, embodied them, put them into living action. A beautiful example of this is a prayer that she prayed every single morning after receiving Our Lord Jesus in Holy Communion. It is called the Prayer of Saint Francis, or the Prayer for Peace. Every day, Mother Teresa prayed, “Lord, make me a channel of Your peace, that where there is hatred, I may bring love; where there is despair, I may bring hope; where there is sadness, I may bring joy.” And then Mother Teresa stepped outside the chapel and lived this prayer. Where there was misery and pain, she brought comfort and peace. Where there was darkness, she brought light — the light of compassion and kindness and practical assistance. It was wonderful to witness this firsthand.

“Love to pray,’ Mother Teresa would say. ‘Feel often during the day the need for prayer and take the trouble to pray.’

Throughout the world, she was famous as “a living saint,” but I could see each day how she was truly “a living prayer” to the destitute, the dying, the lonely, and to all of us. And the two go hand in hand. Saints pray, and saints put their love and prayers into loving deeds! Mother Teresa’s name has become synonymous with mercy, compassion, goodness, and love. That is the whole purpose of prayer: to become so close to God as to be one with Him. We are to commune with God each day in prayer, so intimately, faithfully, humbly, and lovingly as to become filled with the fullness of God Himself and to let His light shine through us each day. That is what it means to be a “living prayer.”

LOPEZ: How is one “habitually with God”?

CONROY: When you are “in love” with someone — in this case, with Someone — you can’t stop thinking of Him. You can’t get Him off your mind or out of your heart. You want to be with Him at every moment. You want to please Him in every way and be with Him forever. In my eyes, Mother Teresa was a woman in love with Our Lord. She was like a young bride habitually contemplating her beloved Groom. She appeared to me as someone who was head over heels in love. Our Lord Jesus, her Spouse, was always on her mind, on her lips, and in her heart. He came up in every conversation. One of the sisters told me that at Mother’s last breath, her last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

LOPEZ: How is joy a source of power, as Mother Teresa said?

CONROY: People sometimes ask me if I got sick while serving in the home for the dying in Calcutta, tending people who were suffering from tuberculosis, hepatitis, meningitis, and diseases that I cannot even pronounce. Miraculously, I remained healthy. One of the three things I attribute this to is joy. If I had allowed myself to become depressed by the suffering and human misery all around me, I would have been more susceptible to all the germs and diseases that surrounded me. “Joy is strength,” as Mother Teresa said. When our hearts are joyful, our bodies are stronger. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are interrelated. When we open our hearts to God through prayer, love comes in. We let God in! We welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts. And the fruit of the Spirit, as Saint Paul tells us, includes joy. The Spirit of God, welcomed into our souls through prayer, helps us to become more strong and pure. Oh, how we should be praying unceasingly!

LOPEZ: What did Mother Teresa teach you about humility?

CONROY: Mother Teresa taught us to never drift away from the humble works — the work that nobody else wants to do. She said that there will always be people who want to do the big and great and important things, but we must stay close to the lowly works, like washing our floors and mending our clothes. Most beautiful of all was how Mother Teresa lived what she taught. She practiced what she preached. We would sometimes drift into places where we volunteers, in normal circumstances, were not supposed to be. For example, a friend of mine forgot his camera upstairs on the second floor of the Motherhouse (the convent where Mother Teresa and the Sisters lived), and when he went upstairs to retrieve his camera at a time when volunteers were not supposed to be upstairs, he found Mother Teresa on her hands and knees washing the floor.

When you get to be the CEO or president of a corporation, you no longer need to clean the toilets or do the lowliest tasks. Mother Teresa was the superior general and foundress of this worldwide Order of the Missionaries of Charity, with over 4,000 sisters, and yet there she was on her hands and knees washing the floor! I remember the day I went to her house to spend some time alone in the chapel with Our Lord Jesus in prayer. I thought I was going to be alone with Our Lord, but to my surprise and delight, I discovered Mother Teresa kneeling alone on the floor in deep communion with Christ. She had such a beautiful and intense spiritual life, such a beautiful life of prayer. I was so touched and inspired by the sight of her with her head lowered in prayer and radiant love as she was communing with her Lord and Spouse that I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and whispering, “Could you give Him my love while you have Him on the line?” She seemed to have a direct line to heaven. She later told me to “make time for God in your daily life,” and she was speaking from experience.

“Love to pray,” she would say. “Feel often during the day the need for prayer and take the trouble to pray.” The remainder of what she said is also very beautiful: “Prayer enlarges the heart and makes it capable of containing God’s gift of Himself. Ask and seek, and your heart will grow big enough to receive Him and keep Him as your own.”

God comes to humble hearts; he makes His dwelling in humble souls. Without humility, there is no holiness, because in the words of Mother Teresa, even God Almighty “cannot fill what is already full.” We cannot be full of ourselves if we hope to be filled with God’s love and goodness and grace. We must be humble of heart.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.

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