by Linda Ryan
Last weekend marked an occasion that we don’t see all that often these days: Pope Francis made Mother Teresa a bona fide saint. During her lifetime many people had called her “the Living Saint”, but her actual assumption of the title only occurred 19 years after her death. It’s been interesting to see the reactions both positive and negative, and for some it’s been a joyful and holy event, while for others it is an immensely hurtful and deeply disturbing. Isn’t it funny how one could perceive Saints as hurtful?
Mother Teresa was famous for her work in Kolkata (Calcutta) neighborhoods where poverty was everywhere and abundance was nowhere. She set up houses where people could come to die, or to try to be healed, with limited food, water, and medications. Mother Teresa and her nuns were not doctors or nurses, but they cared for the “poorest of the poor,” as Mother Teresa called them. So what’s wrong with that? How would that be troublesome for people who opposed her sainthood?
Like Fr. Junipero Serra, Mother Teresa raises some controversy. Fr. Serra was credited with establishing an entire chain of Roman Catholic churches and communities along the California coast. The pain and trouble that he caused was that he treated the Native Americans very badly and as slaves, and it still rankles despite the passage of the years. With Mother Teresa, it was a matter of practicing her religion and enforcing her religious beliefs on those who came to her for help. She followed the Catholic teaching in a land where overpopulation, poor maternal health care, and demands poverty existed. Is it wrong to follow one’s beliefs? No, it isn’t, unless, in my very humble opinion, it stops on the religious beliefs of others especially the needy others. It demands an asceticism where poverty and its results are already flourishing.
It’s easy to forget that these people, Fr. Serra and Mother Teresa, were both human beings. They weren’t plaster saints that were placed on pedestals and who never set foot on the ground again. According to a book of her diary writings, compiled and published by a close associate of Mother Teresa, for many years of her life she felt estranged from God but plugged on acting in faith as if she believed that God was there and taking interest. As St. John of the Cross called it, it was hard “dark night of the soul”, the time when she was at her lowest point in her faith life, but chose to proceed in strength and, as our twelve-step brothers and sisters call it, “act as if”.
I know that we are taught in church that by baptism we all become saints. With All Saints Day coming up in another two months, we celebrate that sainthood of believers. We don’t undergo canonization, although we did undergo baptism. Baptism may have washed away our sins, but that didn’t keep us from going out and plowing the field for a whole new crop of sins that the we might or might not harvest. The same is true of Fr. Serra and Mother Teresa. They had their flaws, they had their faults, they had their foibles, foibles that to us would seem unimportant or maybe even unrealistic.
I don’t know of Mother Teresa ever really planned on becoming a saint. I kind of doubt it. Does anybody really set out with the intention of becoming a recognized Saint throughout the church? For one thing, it’s a pretty hard job; it requires really working at being a saint. The candidate must live a saintly life. That doesn’t necessarily mean they walk around with a Bible or prayer beads in their hand, their mouths moving constantly as if they were praying, preaching endlessly on street corners, or walking barefoot through the desert full of cactus spines while denying oneself the major comforts of life which we, as ordinary human beings, seem to recognize as our right. Being a saint involves doing things, quiet things. Mother Teresa had to do a lot of work under the scrutiny of cameras and adoring admirers. It’s hard to be quietly saint-like with all that media exposure.
I saw a picture the other day of her feet which were gnarled and misshapen because, as one of her nuns reported, when they got a donation of shoes, she would pick the most uncomfortable pair and wear them herself. Now that’s pretty saintly thing to do, in my very humble opinion. But she never said anything about it; saints usually don’t. They offer their little struggles and their good deeds to God, not caring if anybody noticed them or not. That’s the secret of being a saint:. doing good without bragging about it. It’s something we have a hard time doing.
So where can I begin my journey to sainthood? Oh, I know canonization would be out of the question; there’s absolutely no shred of doubt in my mind about that. But what I’m thinking about is seeing the little deeds that I could do quietly. Again, in the twelve-step tradition, there is one saying that ” Just for today I will do somebody a good turn and not get found out. If anyone knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least one thing I don’t want to do, and I will perform some small act of love for my neighbor.”*
It takes tiny seeds to grow big trees. It takes small good deeds to start changing the world, just as Jesus said we needed to do.
So, where to start becoming the saint. or saintly person? Start small and work upward.
* from EA Meeting Opening Readings, accessed 9/6/16.