Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Great Things

Mother Teresa is a fascinating figure--someone who everyone seems to know about, but also one whose life befuddles many. I always thought of her as a timid, shy, self-sacrificing woman who quietyly served the poor for her entire life.

I was wrong.

Okay, I was partly wrong. She did indeed serve the poor for her whole life. And she was a self-sacrificing woman who put her faith before her own needs. But timid? She wouldn't have had the word "timid" in her wardrobe of how to live.

Reading her private journals and letters, contained in the recently published volume, Come, Be My Light, I was shocked to find how relentlessly she pursued what she felt to be her mission. Once she felt Christ calling her to start the Missionaries of Charity, the order she created, she refused to take no for an answer from any bishop, cardinal, or even the Pope himself.

Come, Be My Light contains hundreds of letters she scribed and sent to bishops, cardinals, and others in the hierarchy of church, requesting blessing, permission, and funds to start her order. Repeatedly, these ordained men told her to wait, to be patient, to allow them time to think it over.

And repeatedly, in a word, Mother Teresa wrote back, no.

No, I will not wait.

No, I will not allow you time to think or pray.

No--this is my mission, and I must act.

We have been told that faith wihtout works is dead, and yet, all too often, in religious communities of today, a complacent, easy-does-it faith has been substituted for real action that serves the poor, feeds the hungry, helps the homeless, and frees the oppressed.

It seems that many of us are content to allow the status-quo to hobble on by, and discuss the minor complexities of religion, or faith, or spirituality's connection to social life. Bob Dylan sings that we "read books with the big quotations" but "the conclusion's on the wall."

Indeed, the conclusion is on the wall. It's on many walls, staring us in the face so forcefully that we look away, or cover the wall with our flat-screen televisions.
If the norm is ever going to change, it's going to take enough people realizing that something is awry with the norm. Jim Wallis writes, perceptively, in his book The Call to Conversion that often people will get excited and inspired to work for social justice and to free the oppressed, but sooner or later their passion is toned down by a consumer society that relentlessly markets capitalism and fear and easy-does-it methodolgy until that seems like the only possible way to live, think, and act.

But then there's Mother Teresa. How are we to make sense of her? Yes, we can say, Hey, we're not all Mother Teresa, nor can we be, right?

Yes, we can say that she had some supernatural ability that we don't.

But the truth is a lot harder to hear.

She was a normal, small, woman who refused to take no for an answer when it came to following what she knew she had to do. She relentlessly fought to make the vision in her heart one of reality in the world.

I would argue that we all have visions of what this world could be--ways it could be better. If we let go of some of what commercials, advertisements, and media constantly sell us, we can start to see those visions. We can also start to see how the talents we each possess can work togther to craft a new way of living.

Mother Teresa once said, "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Now is the time to do small things with great love. And to act relentlessly towards this end.