On September 4, the Catholic Church canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta to—one assumes—the shock of very few. Mother Teresa’s radical selflessness has been a source of inspiration to so many that the question regarding her canonization was never ‘if,’ only ‘when.’ Among the many things about her which deserve praise, one of the most fascinating aspects of Mother Teresa’s life was how much she gave with so little reward. That is, not merely in the material plane. Coupled with her lack of material means and possessions was the spiritual darkness in which she dwelt for most of her life. She suffered not only in body, but also in spirit. It is this double suffering that might lead one to exclaim, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). Through this all-encompassing suffering and in answer to it, she came up with a simple motto: “love until it hurts.”
A similar teaching can be found in the pages of The Brothers Karamazov, despite Fyodor Dostoyevsky being a significantly different person from Mother Teresa. In it, Fr. Zosima gives almost the same advice to a lady who has lost her faith. Not some scholarly argument or an esoteric piece of “mystic” wisdom, but the utterly unoriginal “love your neighbor.” The lady in question did not find the advice particularly enlightening and to us, it sounds almost too cliché, which indicates how little we understand it. In trying to bring back some of its original bite—and in doing so bring us back to reality—G. K. Chesterton reminds us that the New Testament is very clear about the important commandments, thus it reminds us of this one twice, both in saying “love your neighbor” and in saying “love your enemy.” Another one of Fr. Zosima’s visitors—a doctor—unpacks exactly why this is:
I love mankind, but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams, I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience.
This attitude is precisely why Mother Teresa’s message is so crucial to our times.
Our generation is a peculiar one. We have waiting lists for volunteering positions! In itself, that is by no means a bad thing. May God bless us with greater zeal to serve the poor! It is concerning, however, that some find it easy to serve faces which they may likely never see again, but hard to love the poor, broken souls all around us. Could it be, perhaps, that the blur of faces at some soup kitchen require only our courtesy, whereas our neighbors require of us full-blown messy, bloody love? I do not wish the reader here to assume that I am speaking from some lofty moral ground. These words of critique I speak to myself first and then to all those to whom it may be useful for contemplation.
We must love until it hurts, for when we feel that pain, we know that we love in earnest. The pain is merely the last traces of our sinful nature being excised. The ethereal sort of ‘love’ directed at those who we do not know is easy and superficial, but to love someone we know—especially someone whose flaws we are well aware of—requires openness to pain and that is truly difficult.
From the other extreme of Christian history, St. Ignatius of Antioch offers an image of rare beauty to the faithful of Ephesus. He describes them as stones “prepared for the building of God the Father, and drawn up on high by the instrument of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, making use of the Holy Spirit as a rope, while your faith was the means by which you ascended, and your love the way which led up to God” (Eph. 9). In the beauty of this image, we must not be so carless as to miss that we are drawn up by—and through—the Cross and its salutary pain. But the Christian story does not merely end at the pain of the Cross. If it did, it would be meaningless (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14). Our Lord rose victorious over death. Through His death, death was conquered! In quoting Psalm 22 at the moment of His agony, He proclaimed not only His suffering, but also His triumph, for that same Psalm concludes in joyful exaltation of God’s deliverance. And so it is with us. We must love until it hurts so that—at long last cured of our deadness—we may exult in the pure delight that is the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 145).