Christianity - Heartspeak Mother Teresa: The Power of the Positive
by Valson Thampu
Mother Teresa was the saint of the gutters. From now on, she will be a saint of the Church. There is something strange about this. The Mother was least conscious of her saintliness. I am a businesswoman for Christ, she said to me in a matter-of-fact tone in the course of a conversation in 1994. “I express the compassion of Jesus in all that I do.” That brought to my mind an earlier instance in which a journalist complimented the Mother as the greatest ever social worker. She disagreed with him politely. “I am a servant of Jesus Christ, first and foremost,” she said. “Serving the destitute and dying is my way of serving Jesus. Jesus suffers with our suffering sisters and brothers.”
I am unimpressed with the bureaucratic ritual of beatification. People like Mother Teresa are charismatic persons. Thanks to its tryst with the Roman culture, the Church gradually drifted from the charismatic to the bureaucratic. The bureaucratic has it merits. It is bureaucracy that runs the world. But the genre of bureaucracy is different from the genius of individual charisma, the like of which blossomed in the person of Mother Teresa.
It is not the business of the bureaucratic to pioneer spiritual initiatives. But it is the prerogative of the bureaucratic to annex and manage the fruits thereof. Caring sacrificially for the destitute and the dying is the least welcome prospect for the bureaucratic. That prospect can dawn only in the horizon of a charismatic soul. Once the charismatic blazes its path, the bureaucratic begins to wake up and put its trademark on its harvest of glory. The Church has little to do with the birth of saints; but it has the sole authority to accredit saints from a distance.
Nobody is doing the Mother a favour by elevating her to sainthood. That is beyond all debate. What needs to be debated, though, is if this amounts to a blessing to the rest of the world. In terms of what I know of the Mother and her mission, I wish to insist that she was not driven by a desire to occupy a hagiological niche after death. She was marked by a genuine keenness to live her faith in terms of its practical implications. Rather than desiring to be set apart and lionised, she endeavoured to do the simple things of life and practise her faith in partnership with ordinary human beings.
She did not seek celebrities; they came in search of her if only because, unknown to most of us, the celebrity status implies a famine of the human. She mesmerised the materialistic world, driven by inordinate covetousness, by her spiritual generosity that craved to give until it hurt. She was not an extraordinary woman, and never sought to project herself as one. She was an ordinary person with a mission that seemed so very extraordinary to the world at large only because of its human and spiritual bankruptcy. The Mother was not doing something that only she could or should have done. She was doing what, in her opinion, every human being should be doing. Caring for one’s fellow human beings in states of crass need and deprivation should be an instinctive human agenda. The fact that this strikes us as something out of this world, is a sad reflection on what human nature has come to be.
That is why we should think twice before we set up the Mother on a pedestal. The more spiritually and humanly bankrupt a society is, the more eager it is to discover, even invent, saints and moral giants. These holy men and women are then sung to celebrity status and romanticised as rare specimens of humanity. This looks very nice and natural until we realise that those who are thus elevated to exalted pedestals are also rejected on the horizontal plane of life.
The world is not run by saints but, barring glorious exceptions, respected if not respectable-scoundrels who are only too eager and happy to pay lip service to saints. In a practical sense, thus, elevation to sainthood amounts to a consignment to irrelevance. Saints belong to the past. We live in the present. To us, saints have, at best, ornamental value. The Papal pantheon will be richer for Saint Teresa. But beatification of this kind is quaintly irrelevant to the destitution in which this sainthood gestated over the decades.
I wonder if those who are making much of the Mother understand the quintessence of her mission. What was the Mother trying to do? Why did she disclaim the distinction of being a social worker, which is a fashionable thing? Dabbling in social service for a while happens to help season one’s image as a celebrity, as in the case of social glitterati like Princess Diana.
For the Mother, the work she did, moving and monumental though it be, was not an end in itself. Her work was the medium for expressing her spirit. What moved the hearts of millions around the world was not only the scale or size of her work, but also the genius of her spirit. Hers was the charisma of the positive; and it was in full blossom. This is the light in which sainthood needs to be understood.
A saint is not a religious but spiritual entity. The mission of a saint is to yield spiritual fruits in a world teeming with religious nuts. The world is governed by a spirit of negativity, which is the most widespread and lethal pandemic we know. Instances of human destitution and degradation activate our innate negativity and we shrink back instinctively from them. Spirituality is nothing but the spirit of positivity. It has an incidental connection with religion, but the spiritual is not confined to the sphere of religions. When the spiritual core of religions decays, as happens in an age of materialism, religion becomes a den of negativity. It breeds hate, intolerance, and alienation as well as erodes our capacity to care and to share. Compassion is essentially a positive response to the world in need. It is empowered by the spirit of love, which is the seed of positivity.
I am a servant of Jesus Christ, first and foremost. Serving the destitute and dying is my way of serving him.
We live in an imperfect world, characterised by destitution and avoidable human suffering. Our innate negativity disables us from responding constructively to the needs and wounds of our fellow human beings. It infects us with cynicism and despair. To those who are led by the spirit of positivity, the signs of this world’s imperfection are an invitation to engage these needs proactively and compassionately.
The hallmark of spirituality is the keenness to respond perfectly to an imperfect world, rather than turn imperfections into an excuse for inaction. This is the secret of saintliness. Saintliness of this kind is not, or should not be, the preserve of some rare specimens of humanity but of every human being who has eyes to see and ears to hear.
The mission of a saint is not to blaze the orbit of the extraordinary. It is, instead, to unveil and empower the extraordinary in ordinary human beings. The capacity to love, to care and to share is innate in human nature. But it remains crippled by negativity. The mission of the saint is to liberate the world from the prison of negativity.
Saints transcend religious categories. They belong to our shared humanity with its roots running deep in the divine. The message of every saint is always the same: every human being is a potential saint, if only the paralysis of negativity can be overcome. Sainthood is born in the mud of the human predicament. It has nothing to do with distant glitter and pontifical pronouncements. Sainthood implies a positive engagement with the broken and bruised human existence.
That was what the Mother did. She should not be measured by the norms of the Church. Instead, the Church must be measured by her norms. Rather than showcase the Mother, we must emulate her example and venture to open our eyes to the agony of God in a world of human degeneration and destitution.
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