Sunday, September 4, 2016

From Disciples to Saints: Following Mother Teresa

If you were to ask a person in the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s to name a living saint, chances are good that person would have named Mother Teresa. If you’ve paid attention lately to the news, no doubt you’ve seen the stories and opinion pieces written about this little nun, all in anticipation of her canonization this morning in Rome. Today, Pope Francis declared definitively what many of us knew intuitively years ago – that that small, spunky, smiling sister – so famous for serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta and spreading that work around the world through her Missionaries of Charity – was also a saint, a true disciple of Christ for the 20th century.

In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about the costs of discipleship, and he puts those costs in plain language. The Gospel says “great crowds” were following him, and perhaps he felt as if many were not getting the message. To be his disciple, he says, we must “renounce all of our possessions”, we must “hate” our loved ones and even our own life, we must take up our cross and follow him. If this sounds daunting, it is – as Jesus warns, we must not take this discipleship lightly. Just as a builder considers his resources before beginning to build a tower, just as a king considers his coffers before considering raising an army, Jesus beseeches us to consider our own inner resolve to ensure that we will not fall short of our goal.

Today’s canonization of Mother Teresa should be a sign of hope for you and me – that discipleship is possible, that the lofty bar which Jesus sets is possible with his grace, that you and I too can reach sainthood. However, I think there’s a possibility that this particular saint – one with whom so many of us were familiar during her life – may feel too far beyond us. This was a woman who exemplified a life of poverty and service to the utmost degree, feeding the poor, nursing the diseased, embracing the orphan and addict and outcast. Even more, she changed the world around us, by founding houses of her sisters throughout the globe, by speaking truth to power by addressing world leaders, being an advocate for peace, justice, and respect for all peoples. All of this might make her become, in our own estimation, a saint outside of our own reach. In other words, how could you and I aspire to being like someone so holy?

That way of thinking, however, gets discipleship all wrong. Jesus calls us all of us to holiness, but he tailors each of our paths according to our own individual person. The Lord did amazing things through Mother Teresa, but her way to sainthood is not our way. Instead, each of us are called to finding the radical call to discipleship that is ours alone. How do we do that? Well, I think we can take a cue from the life of Mother Teresa, just as we could from any of the saints – while the individual path varies for each of us, the tools we use to walk that path are the same.

First, we must continually open ourselves to honest, prayerful dialogue with Jesus. We can’t hear him inviting us to the path toward sainthood if we’re letting his voice be drowned out by external noise, be it our own desires and ambitions, societal pressures, or even the expectations of family and friends. Jesus asks us to prefer him to all of those – even to “hate” them in comparison, so that we might love him completely. We do that first by hearing his voice, carving out a space each day for silence, for prayer, when we can be in his presence.

Second, we have to be ready to sacrifice what is easy. The road to sainthood is never a convenient one. While Jesus may not be calling us to serve the poor of Calcutta, he surely is going to ask us to embrace a cross – perhaps bearing a difficult relationship with dignity and humility, perhaps humbling ourselves by working without the recognition we desire, perhaps suffering internally in ways that only we know. No suffering is too small, no act of love is too minor to be a part of taking up our cross each day. But we must be intentional in offering it to God.

Third, we must be faithful. After her death, the diaries of Mother Teresa revealed that despite her immense labors of love, she had experienced a profound spiritual dryness for decades. Despite conveying God’s presence to others, she did not feel that presence in her own heart; instead she felt God’s silence. Sometimes, the heaviest cross we bear is the cross of perseverance, struggling onward to do what we know is right even when we are discouraged or feel distant from God. Even in those cases, though, we believe that God is not far away – indeed, that it is his grace that sustains us and keeps us going, through our prayer, in the sacraments, by virtue of the people that we encounter. Though we may not always feel it, Jesus never asks us to embrace a cross that he does not himself help us to shoulder.

Friends, the universal Church today celebrates Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a faithful disciple, a woman who loved Christ above all else, a woman whom many of us knew was a saint even in her lifetime. But even as we give thanks to God for her, we must not set on her too lofty a pedestal, as if her holiness is somehow beyond what we too can attain, as if sainthood is outside of our grasp. Her sanctity consists ultimately not in things beyond us, i.e. some extraordinary work, but in things that we too can reach in our own lives: namely, extraordinary love and extraordinary faith. Jesus calls each of us to be his true disciple, indeed to be his saint, but each according to our own path, each endowed with the particular grace that he gives us according to our own life. To be sure, the path he calls us to is always costly – it will involve suffering, it will involve renunciation, it will be an embrace of the Cross – and we must continually seek it through prayer, through humility, and through fidelity. But it is a path always paved by the Lord, and it is he who walks on it with us, ahead of us and behind us and beside us. May Mother Teresa, saint of God in heaven, pray for us, and may the words which she spoke on this earth years ago echo again from her to us today, this time from heaven: “My prayer for you is that you answer Jesus’s calling with the simple word: Yes.”