Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn., and author of Stalking the Holy: The Pursuit of Saint Making.
In pious parlance it is called being “raised to the altars” but it is more formally known as canonization – adding to the canon or the list. The list of the holy ones, the saints. On Sept. 4, in a majestic liturgy in Rome, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will move from being Blessed Teresa to Saint Teresa, the process of becoming a saint now completed.
But what does it mean to be a saint in a time when religion is often viewed with trepidation, when the number of those who identify as “nones” in polls identifying religious affiliation is growing at a considerable pace and when religious authorities are viewed with suspicion?
One could easily conclude that saints are an anachronism, a residual holdout in a postmodern age, celestial celebrities with a limited shelf life.
But such a conclusion is unwarranted. Saints are arrestingly resilient, constantly remade for new times, exemplars of heroicity summoning us to move beyond the lacklustre and banal religiosity that too frequently defines us. And in this, Mother Teresa is both effective and controversial.
Born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, capital of the then Albanian republic of Macedonia, she became a Sister of Loreto, served for many years as a teacher, then founded her own community, the Missionaries of Charity, with a special focus on the poorest of the poor, those dying in the slums of India’s urban centres.
Her ministry was relentless, her approach fearless, her will unbending. Uninterested in theology, devout in her religious life, easily submissive to clerical oversight and unbending in her moral stance, Mother Teresa is not readily seen as a model for most contemporary young women. She was anti-feminist, a dismissive judge of sexual behaviour that departed from her ultraconservative view of natural law and none too nuanced in her courting of financial support from political leaders of compromised probity.
But saints aren’t perfect; they aren’t untainted exemplars of the ideal; they are not an abnormal species. They are, as Leonard Cohen says, “the balancing monsters of love.”
Mother Teresa’s holiness is not be found in her orthodoxy; it is to be found in the ferocity of her love, a love that is willed to the “other,” that is given unstintingly to the broken and abandoned, that brooks no opposition. Such a love makes enemies, commands a ruthless adherence that can seem inhuman in its demands, frightens the lukewarm.
Mother Teresa’s commitment to the hungry denizens of the slums – and her ministry expanded outside India to all the continents – was grounded not in creedal formulas or theological suppositions but in the person of Jesus. The essence of Christianity for her was embodied in the radical simplicity of self-giving, an utter emptying of self. For her, this was not a metaphor; it was a spiritual imperative.
George Mackay Brown, the Orkney novelist and poet, once observed that “to lose one’s own will in the will of God should be the true occasion of every [person’s] time on Earth. Only a few of us – the saints – are capable of that simplicity.”
Mother Teresa exemplified that simplicity. In her own words, she was merely God’s pencil. She was indifferent to power – its machinations, its mystique, its perks – and if she was often seen as a spokesperson for the religious establishment, a closer reading of her witness would unearth a spiritual subversive who actually lived the gospel message of service that displaced power in favour of the powerless.
The Dominican scholar Mary Catherine Hilkert calls her an “authority of compassionate courage,” including her on a different list of female saints from the more conventional – Maya Angelou, Etty Hillesum, Dorothy Day and Jane Goodall. Such authority provides a template for civic harmony in a time of disordered religious zeal and intolerant secularism.
That’s what happens to saints. Diverse people claim them as models for their own lives because they discover in the intensity of their ministry a summoning to a deeper humanity.
When St. Teresa of Calcutta joins a select company of the venerated, it won’t be because it’s time to pass the halo but because this “pencil” has written an impressive narrative of love.Report Typo/Error
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