She spent her life caring for the sick and dying, yet in December, 1996, she could not hide her impatience with the doctors whose efforts only postponed her own death. She was a virgin, yet millions called her Mother. She disdained the limelight, yet people all over the world knew her by a single name.
A Gentle but Relentless Crusade
Like all heroes of the Christian faith, Mother Teresa lived a life marked by contradictions, both superficial and profound. The depth of her religious commitment made it impossible for her to fulfill the expectations of a secular society.
Until the moment of her death in Calcutta, India on Friday, Mother Teresa was engaged in a gentle but relentless crusade. Hers was a powerful personality, bent on overcoming any obstacle that impeded her work. One could only sympathize with the squirming Lebanese bureaucrat who failed to dissuade her from visiting a dangerous section of Beirut several years ago, or even with the Indian doctors who persuaded her to undergo just one more surgical procedure late last year. While children were always delighted to be around Mother Teresa (and she was equally content to mug and play with them), many world leaders — including heads of state and not a few Catholic bishops — quailed at her approach. They knew that she would not flatter them and that she might ask embarrassing questions. Her requests for their help with her charitable projects were invariably polite and respectful, but they were demanding. Give until it hurts, she would cheerfully suggest.
That businesslike approach to charitable work filtered down through the ranks of the religious orders she founded. I recall a visit to an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity in Haiti. As I walked through the door, a friendly nun told me it was mealtime; without ceremony, she pointed me toward a baby, a bottle and a chair. I could discern no interest in who I was, what I might write or how I would feel about this experience. There was work to be done, and in Mother Teresa's domain there was no room for sentimental spectators.
The Secret of Her Influence
Mother Teresa's influence reached far beyond the relatively few people who actually met her, even beyond the hundreds of clinics she founded and the thousands of young women who have joined the Missionaries of Charity. The Nobel Peace Prize she won, and the headlines her death now commands, attest to the extraordinary power of her words as well as her works.
The words she spoke were not particularly original; they were astonishing only in their simplicity. Coming from another speaker, the same words might have sounded trite, even saccharine. It was really the messenger, at least as much as the message, touching our hearts. Who else would have had the courage to lecture an audience of Harvard students, on the eve of their graduation, on the virtue of chastity? Who else could have earned a thunderous standing ovation for that address?
What was the secret of this powerful little woman? It was her purity — the purity of heart and of purpose that enabled her to focus every ounce of her energy on her simple and unswerving purpose in life: to do, to make, to be something beautiful for God.
Where is Your Treasure?
How can we answer the challenge posed by Mother Teresa's life? By moving to Calcutta and working alongside her sisters in the slums? Not likely. By volunteer work at her order's shelters in this country? Perhaps. But a more appropriate response might be a resolution to imitate her purity of spirit.
This newspaper devotes special attention to the creation of material wealth — a worthy pursuit, but not as an end in itself. We all know that money can buy ease and comfort, but we also understand why Mother Teresa disdained such earthly pleasures. We have all heard the caution from the Gospel of St. Matthew: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume.” Yet productive enterprise has other, nobler goals, which are paradoxically quite compatible with the Gospel understanding of poverty: to provide for one's family, to serve others, to influence community affairs, ultimately to make the world better.
When she died, Mother Teresa owned nothing but her rosary beads and her distinctive white-and-blue sari. Yet has anyone done as much to provide for such a large extended family, to serve so many others or to exert such influence on the world community? She took a vow of poverty, and became fabulously wealthy in the ways that really matter: she abandoned the world, and died surrounded by the world's accolades. Her life is a confirmation of the Gospel promise: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”
Copyright © 2001 Wall Street Journal
Phil Lawler is editor of the monthly magazine Catholic World Report and the online service Catholic World News. This article originally appeared as “A Life of Purity,” Wall Street Journal, September 8, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the author.