Lessons from the Christian Life of Mother Teresa

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt
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August 26th marks the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the widely acclaimed saint of our time who worked among the desperately poor of India for so many years and founded the Missionaries of Charity to carry on her work.

The centennial is an opportunity to reflect upon her life and to imitate the virtues and values that guided her discipleship of the Lord Jesus and her remarkable service to the world.

The basic outline of Mother Teresa’s life is well-known. Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxihu in Albania on August 26, 2010. Her childhood was relatively comfortable, but after her father died, life became more challenging. In her teens Agnes became a member of the youth group in her local parish and from there became interested in the missionary work of the Church.

When she was eighteen she joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish missionary order and in 1929 was sent to India to begin her work. When she professed her vows in 1931 she chose the religious name Teresa, after St. Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower. After years of teaching in Catholic schools, Sister Teresa received another call, in 1946 – to “give up all and follow Jesus into the slums, to serve Him in the poorest of the poor.” Finally in 1948 she began her work with the poor and soon thereafter established the Missionaries of Charity. From that point, her mission grew rapidly and soon became well-known throughout India and then around the world.

If we just stop there, however, with the basic recounting of Mother Teresa’s biography, we miss the opportunity to learn the important lesson she gives us – namely the example of a well-balanced, robust and fully-integrated Christian life. The two pillars of her life were her love of Christ, an intimate friendship nourished by fervent and frequent prayer, and her passion for serving the poor, which she saw as an essential expression of her discipleship.

Perhaps this integrated life is best summarized by one of the most famous of Mother Teresa’s sayings: “Silence begets prayer, prayer begets faith, faith begets love, and love begets service on behalf of the poor.”

It all begins, then, in silence and prayer, and Mother Teresa spent many hours in spiritual communion with the Lord and insisted that her sisters did the same. She realized that without a strong spiritual foundation, her difficult labors would soon falter and that even the most heroic of her charitable deeds would lack motive and meaning. Asked about the secret of her success, she said, “My secret is a very simple one: I pray. To pray to Christ is to love Him.”

Included in her profound spiritual life was her devotion to the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Towards the end of her life, when she was desperately ill, suffering great pain and unable to speak, she took pen to paper and wrote just three words, “I want Jesus,” at which point the priest offered Holy Mass and gave her a drop of the Precious Blood of Christ.

Sometimes, it seems to me, people today fear that a rich, full, life of prayer and asceticism distracts us from the cares of the world and the works of charity and justice. Mother Teresa’s example, and that of her sisters, proves that nothing could be further from the truth.

On the other hand, Mother Teresa also demonstrated that the concern for peace and justice, that the love of the poor and the response to their needs, is an inescapable part of the Christian life. Her charitable work was a natural expression of her Christian faith and love of God. She wrote, “When we touch the sick and needy, we touch the suffering body of Christ.” And again, “Whoever the poorest of the poor are, they are Christ for us – Christ under the guise of human suffering.” That vision moved her to embrace orphans, lepers, the hungry, the naked, the alcoholic, the drug addict, the prostitute and the lonely, dying person with great reverence and love, always respecting their dignity as children of God.

Nor should it be forgotten that one of the primary expressions of Mother Teresa’s commitment to charity and justice was her concern for unborn children. She wrote with great passion, “Do not kill the children. We will take care of them.” And she recognized the toll that abortion would take on civilized nations: “If abortion becomes legalized in rich countries, those countries truly are the poorest in the world.”

Mother Teresa’s example of the complete Christian life is a perfect antidote to our current tendency to categorize people. We sometimes think, “If you’re spiritual you pray; if you’re a social activist, you take care of the poor; if you’re a social conservative, you’re pro-life and anti-abortion.” Mother Teresa was all of the above, and more. In Scriptural terms she was both Martha and Mary. She was always busy, tireless in serving other people, but she also made time to sit at the feet of Jesus in prayer and adoration, listening to Him and learning from His words.

So, dear reader, as you reflect upon your Christian life, ask yourself if all the essential parts are there? Do you believe? Do you pray? Do you love? Do you serve? May the celebration of Mother Teresa’s 100th birthday inspire us to reflect upon her virtues and imitate her example of the balanced, integrated, well-lived Christian life.