Even though I have no memories from when Mother Teresa was alive, she has always seemed more alive to me than any other figure in recent history. Perhaps it is because her name was so often invoked as an example of a truly holy person in the modern world or because it was big news each time she took a step closer towards canonization.
Unlike the mythic saints from centuries past whose lives we know little about and whose images only exist in artistic representations, Mother Teresa lived, though only for a short period, in my lifetime. I have seen her on film and in photographs. She is documented proof that saints still exist. A part of me always believed that sainthood was a thing of the past, at least in my world: there are cures for diseases, there is morphine for pain, and there are charity organizations and government institutions that take care of those in need. There is little room for heroism for the average person. If we live in a post-Christian society, would a saint even be recognized as such if they existed? Doctors and politicians have extraordinary abilities to improve lives, and celebrities fund charitable efforts, but does that make them saints? Many lack holiness to say the least. Even if someone died in a holy state, couldn’t their pristine image be shattered by a sinful moment caught on camera or a thoughtless post on social media? Sometimes I think we are too carefully documented to ever appear to be like truly holy individuals, saints. Mother Teresa is living proof that sainthood is still attainable. Films about her life reveal her tender compassion for the most vulnerable. Photos of her externally ugly face reveal a beautiful soul. Even the darkest parts of her personal writings about how she lacked a feeling of Christ’s presence in her life reveal a woman of deep faith who continued her work even when she didn’t always understand why.
I also thought that modern-day sainthood would inevitably be tainted by politics. Both the Right and the Left have their “saints,” but could there ever be someone whose image was not marred by political entanglements in a world where everything is political? Mother Teresa endured criticisms gracefully, reminding us that, “if you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway…In the end it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” She was heroic in denying modern society’s solution to the problem of poverty, namely birth control and abortion. In her speech at Harvard she boldly said that abortion was the “greatest evil,” and reminded many that the developed world is not without its own problems: “Maybe not the hunger for a piece of bread, but there is a terrible hunger for love. There is a terrible hunger for the word of God.” She lamented the loss of human dignity, purity, and beauty, not only in the world in which she lived with the sick and dying, but in my world, too.
Mother Teresa was both heroic and holy, braving dangerous situations to save lives. She traveled through a war zone between the Israeli and Palestinian armies to save 37 children and responded quickly to victims at Chernobyl. Without strong faith it is unlikely that she could have accomplished half as much. Her work required the kind of wisdom that I hope to gain one day: the wisdom to see not only people’s physical needs but also their fundamental need to be treated with dignity and love. She touched the “untouchables,” those of India’s lowest caste who are often outcasts, and she understood that “homelessness is not a lack of a home made of bricks, but the feeling of being rejected, being unwanted, having no one to call your own.”
Thank you Mother Teresa, for showing the world what a saint is today.