Saints are always getting started by either discovering Christ in some mysterious poor person who crosses their path or deciding they must imitate Christ by selling off their worldly possessions and becoming poor themselves.
As Phyllis McGinley, the venerable Catholic poet and saint watcher, once wrote, “Just as regularly as folk tales begin, ‘Once upon a time,’ so half the biographies of saints start with, ‘He first sold his estates and goods for the benefit of the poor.’ ”
Take the early instance of the Roman imperial soldier Martin. In A.D. 334, he gave half his cloak to a shivering, naked beggar he passed on the side of the road. Later, in a dream, he saw Christ wearing his half cloak and boasting to the angels of how Martin had given it to him. That’s all it took to set him on the path to becoming St. Martin of Tours, one of the most venerated of all saints during the Middle Ages.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be remembered centuries from now as an ordinary nun personally touched by Jesus, called to abandon herself, to imitate his life in the slums, and to bring the good news of God’s love to the poorest of the poor. “My little one, come, come, carry me into the holes of the poor . . . their dark, unhappy homes,” he told her. “Come, be their victim. In your immolation, in your love for me, they will see me, know me, want me.”
Jesus gave her a mission of charity: by their love she and her sisters would make his love known. By becoming poor, they would make the poor rich with the promises of divine life. Mother Teresa always told her sisters that in this mission, their own absolute poverty was as crucial as any work of mercy they performed for the poor.
Since the beginning, her Missionaries of Charity have owned only a sari, a pair of sandals, some undergarments, a crucifix they pinned on their habit, a rosary, a prayer book, an umbrella for monsoon season, a silver bucket for washing, and a thin bed. Despite the heat of the Indian summers, they didn’t even allow themselves to own a fan. They drew no salaries, did no fund-raising, refused to accept government or Church monies for their programs. They lived day to day and hand to mouth, begging alms and food, just like the poor they served.
Beware of money and the desire for ease and comfort, for it will turn your heart from God, Mother Teresa taught them. “One loses touch with God when one takes hold of money. God preserve us. It is better to die,” she would repeat. “Once the longing for money comes, the longing also comes for what money can give — superfluous things, nice rooms, luxuries at the table, more clothes and fans and so on. Our needs will increase, for one thing leads to another, and the result will be endless dissatisfaction.”
Popes and archbishops, and other well-meaning folk were always trying to give her fine medical buildings, even old mansions in which to house her nuns and headquarter their work. Mother Teresa always said thanks but no thanks. “God save us from such convents where the poor would be afraid to enter lest their misery be a cause of shame to them,” she would add.
Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York once offered to subsidize the work of her nuns in that city’s slums. She smiled in reply. “Do you think, your eminence, that God is going to go bankrupt in New York?” Mother Teresa wanted to be a radical witness to the providence of God, to the reality that, as she put it, “God always provides.”
And God always did provide. She never went bankrupt in New York or in any of the 123 countries where her mission spread. Until the end she was financed, not by Church or government agencies, but by individual contributions.
In lifestyle matters, the saints tend to read the Gospels literally. Mother Teresa was no exception. The saints read Jesus preaching, “You can’t serve God and mammon [money]” and “Blessed are the poor,” and they put themselves on the downward mobility track, becoming conspicuous for their lack of consumption of the things of this world. They read that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head, and they try to live as he did.
Like saints before her, Mother Teresa seemed sent to help us hear these strains of the Gospel, strains that grow harder to tune in to amid the noisy spoils and trappings of our daily lives. It’s as if God knows that the more comfortable we become, the more we’re tempted to smooth the edges off the hard sayings of Jesus, to pretend he was talking about somebody else, not us, and to treat the plain words of the Gospel as if he was just polishing a metaphor.
The saintly Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and a friend of Mother Teresa, once wrote, “In all bad times of luxury and corruption in the Church, there was always a St. Francis, a St. Anthony, a St. Benedict, a Vincent de Paul, a Teresa and a Thérèse on the scene to enliven history.”
Mother Teresa’s times, at least on the surface, didn’t seem all that corrupt or luxurious. It was, however, a very comfortable time in Church history, when millions of believers, especially in the West, were content to enjoy the fruits of their easy peace with mammon.
While many were supping at tables of relative plenty, Mother Teresa was kneeling outside our gates, showing us the great gulf fixed between us and the legions of Lazaruses begging for our scraps. While many of us were playing the part of the guy in the parable who passes by on the other side of the road, Mother Teresa was the Good Samaritan, binding the wounds of those our world beats up and leaves for dead.
She is most often compared to St. Francis, the rich boy who made himself poor and kissed the leper. But really she was more like St. Lawrence. He was roasted alive for impertinence in A.D. 258 because, when ordered by the emperor’s men to turn over the Church’s wealth, he showed up with a retinue of the destitute and smiled. “These are the treasure of the Church,” he said.
Mother Teresa, too, wanted us to see in the poor the richness of Christ. “These are our treasures,” she would tell visitors to her mission in Calcutta. “They are Jesus. Each one is Jesus in his distressing disguise.” She taught us to meet our Maker in the poorest of the poor, to find our salvation there.
Christ in his distressing disguise. It had a strange, oracular ring to it — frightening, but compelling, too. Her patron, Thérèse of Lisieux, developed a deep devotion to the Holy Face — the image of the battered and bruised Lord crowned with thorns. For Mother Teresa, too, the face of the crucified Jesus could be seen in the poor. There was nothing symbolic or evocative about it. In the poor, she believed, we meet Jesus — not a reminder of Jesus, not a symbol of Jesus, but Jesus himself, face-to-face, hungering for our love, thirsting for our kindness, waiting to be clothed by our compassion.
In doing unto the poor as if they were Jesus himself, she was again only reading the Bible to us, repeating ancient Catholic wisdom. Everything she said repeated what Jesus said more bluntly at the end of the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Mother Teresa took his words on faith — that he would remain with us truly until the end of time, that he would come to us in the bread and wine we offer on the altar, and that when we look into the eyes of the hungry, the homeless, and the unwanted, we’ll find his eyes looking back.
Catholicism has always been a religion of the God who hides his face in the faces of our neighbors, the God who discloses himself in humble things — a wafer of bread, a cup of wine, the poor. Catholics believe that by joining his divinity to our humanity and by becoming “true God and true man,” Jesus has identified himself in some way with every human being born or yet to be born. In practical terms, this means that everyone you meet in some way bears to you the presence of Jesus, and vice versa.
Yet in the poor and in the Eucharist, we have a special presence of Jesus. In the Eucharist he gives his life to us, shows us his love. In the poor, he waits for us to give our lives to him, to show our love for him. As Mother Teresa explained it:
Christ understood that we have a terrible hunger for God . . . that we have been created to be loved, and so he made himself a Bread of Life and he said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot live, you cannot love, you cannot serve” . . .
He also wants to give us the chance to put our love for him in living action. He makes himself the hungry one, not only for bread, but for love. He makes himself the naked one, not only for a piece of cloth but for that understanding love, that dignity, human dignity. He makes himself the homeless one, not only for the piece of a small room, but for that deep sincere love for the other. And this is the Eucharist. This is Jesus, the Living Bread that he has come to break with you and me.
Throughout the centuries, saints have been sent to remind us of the miracle of the Eucharist and of the mystery of Jesus’ presence in the poor. Rarely has the same saint been sent to remind us of both. But Mother Teresa seemed to sense that in our materialistic, consumer culture these truths had been disconnected, demoted to the stuff of symbol and poetry.
Calcutta, for Mother Teresa, wasn’t only a city in India. Its teeming millions of poor and homeless, living in gutters and garbage dumps, became for her a symbol of the desolate slum of the modern heart. In an intriguing unfinished fragment, she wrote, “The streets of Calcutta lead to every man’s door, and the very pain, the very ruin of our Calcutta of the heart witness to the glory that once was and ought to be.”
In the ruins of our Calcutta of the heart, we could no longer see the glory that had been given to us like a divine gift — the gift of a God who comes to us in the poor and in bread and wine. “People don’t know they have lost their faith,” she said of us.
For her, our failure to see Christ in the beggar was a sign that we had lost our ability to find him in the Eucharist. We might think we believe these things, but we’re wrong. We were playing out the mystery recorded in the Gospel — of Jesus coming into the world and not being recognized as God. “Today, as before, when Jesus comes amongst his own, his own don’t know him,” she said. “He comes in the rotting bodies of the poor . . . Jesus comes to you and me. And often, very often, we pass him by.”
When Mother Teresa looked at the West, she didn’t see power, progress, and prosperity. She saw a spreading poverty of the heart and spirit. We are smothered by our possessions, by our love of money and the things money can buy, she told us. We have too much, and yet we can’t be satisfied. “There is hunger for more things,” she said. “People need more cars, more machines.”
In the mirror she held up to our age, we are so many camels straining through the eyes of a needle, serving mammon but not knowing it. We no longer have time to care for each other, for smiling, for touching, for serving God. She called us the poorest of the poor. “These people are not hungry in the physical sense but they are in another way,” she said. “They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing really is a living relationship with God.”
This was her mission: to show us a living relationship with God. Although we didn’t recognize it at the time, she was bringing us back, restoring the ancient understanding of Jesus — that our salvation is bound up in the mystery of his presence at the altar and in the poor.
In the beginning, the Eucharist was believed to create communion between God and each believer. At the same time it was supposed to create a culture of sharing between rich and poor. But in the Bible, we find evidence that faith in the Lord’s presence in the poor was already sliding — that’s one of the reasons we hear St. Paul and St. James denouncing the rich for profaning the Eucharist by their humiliation of the poor.
Early on, the saints railed against heretics who denied both the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in the poor. Like Mother Teresa, they could see that to lose faith in the one is to lose faith in the other.
St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was fed to the emperor’s lions around A.D. 107, said, “Those who hold strange doctrine . . . have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan or the oppressed . . . because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior.”
St. John Chrysostom, a few centuries later, put it this way: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same one who said . . . ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’ ”
We find these same words on the lips of Mother Teresa in the late twentieth century. She wanted to teach us to “live the Mass” — to see the Eucharist as a sacrament of love and a sharing of lives, to find Jesus there in the radiant bread and wine and again in the streets of sorrow and suffering.
“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist,” she said. “In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.’ ”
She showed us a way to live our days in unbroken contact with the Lord — in the living bread of the Mass and in the hunger of the poor. It wasn’t that she expected us all to live as she lived. But she did insist, in a way that no saint before her had, that our salvation is bound up in some mysterious way with our love of the poor.
“The poor are the hope of mankind,” she said. “They are also the hope of the people of America, for in them we see the hungry Christ looking up at us. Will we refuse him?”
We now know that her plaintive “Will we refuse him?” was the refrain that Jesus spoke to her during those fateful days of inspiration in 1946. She made his appeal her own. And through her, Jesus issued his call to our age.
At times it sounded as if she was giving us one last shot at salvation. The life we would be saving in serving the poor would be our own. In alleviating their material poverty we would find the cure for our spiritual poverty. In feeding their hunger, we would satisfy our own. In clothing their nakedness, binding their wounds, and listening to their stories, we would touch Christ and find the God for whom we are all looking.