This Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize one of the greatest witnesses to the love of Jesus who ever lived - Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Because of this historic moment and because she exemplified so well the radical lifestyle Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel, let us take this time to reflect on her life and draw inspiration from the mighty work God performed through her.
Mother Teresa’s baptismal name was Agnes Bojaxhiu. She was born on September 27, 1910 in Skopje in modern day Albania. At the age of 18, she decided to enter religious life and joined the Sisters of Loreto, a missionary order of religious women.
Her introduction to Calcutta came in 1931 when the order sent her to teach at a high school for girls. For 15 years, she served the students with energy and passion. However, while on a train to the city of Darjeeling where she was headed to make her annual retreat, she received what she described as “a call within a call” to serve the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta.
This call to serve the poorest of the poor makes sense when we understand Mother Teresa’s spirituality. All her life, she meditated on Jesus’ words on the cross, “I thirst”. She understood this as not only a physical thirst from the exhaustion of His tortures, but a thirst for souls and a thirst to ease the sufferings of the poor. Mother Teresa saw her mission as looking for Christ in the sufferings of the poor where He promised He would be and as quenching His thirst for souls by bringing comfort to the sick and dying.
In this simple phrase of Jesus, “I thirst”, we can understand something of the mystery of suffering and His words in today’s gospel, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” By dying on the cross, Jesus forever identified Himself with the poor and suffering. Taking on the punishment of a criminal, He drew near to the outcast and those who are treated unjustly. To take up our cross daily means that we too must identify ourselves with the poor and marginalized. If we want to be like Jesus, then we cannot be afraid to suffer as he did and to be rejected by the world. Mother Teresa understood this which is why she left everything to seek Jesus in the face of the poor in the slums of Calcutta.
Mother Teresa teaches us that the Christian life requires us to quench the thirst of Jesus by bringing comfort to those who suffer. In this Year of Mercy, we do well to reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that all of us can perform whether we live in slums or in exclusive neighborhoods. All of us can feed the hungry, pray for the living and the dead, counsel the doubtful or visit the sick. Even if we do not run into economically poor people, we certainly do know people who are lonely, confused or anguished. When we take the time to pray for them, comfort them or simply sit down to listen to them, we are quenching the thirst of Jesus.
There is one more dimension of the cross which Mother Teresa teaches us. After she died, the letters she wrote to her spiritual director became public. In it, we read that she spent much of her life struggling with prayer. God seemed so distant to her that she often sensed that He had abandoned her. Though she longed to draw near to Jesus, He seemed to grow more out of reach. She described this experience as a “terrible darkness” as if “everything were dead”. Indeed, it nearly brought her to the brink of depression and despair.
She found some comfort, however, from the words of a holy priest who told her that the terrible longing she felt was a share in the thirst of Jesus on the cross. Those words helped her to see her pain as a participation in the suffering of her Lord. She realized that if she wanted to be close to Him, she would have to experience some of His pain just as any one of us would willingly share the sufferings of those we love.
We so often see the cross as a means by which God disciplines us. It is certainly that. But much more it is an invitation for us to experience what Jesus experienced, to understand what He felt and to be like Him. As we mature in the spiritual life, we come to understand that our cross is not a nuisance to be tolerated but a gift to be embraced with gratitude because it is the instrument through which God makes us more like Jesus and the means through which we can draw closer and closer to our Lord.
Since this can be a very difficult concept to grasp and an even more difficult one to live, let us give Mother Teresa - now Saint Teresa of Calcutta - the last word. Since she so perfectly lived the challenge of Jesus’ call to pick up our cross daily, who better than her to instruct us in why we should take joy in it.
Suffering has to come because if you look at the cross, he has got his head bending down - he wants to kiss you - and he has both hands open wide - he wants to embrace you. He has his heart opened wide to receive you. Then when you feel miserable inside, look at the cross and you will know what is happening. Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you.
A Life for God: Mother Teresa Treasury, ed. Lavonne Neff (NY: Harpercollins, 1996), p. 139.