August 26 will mark 92 years since the birth of Mother Teresa. Her saintly life was wholly devoted to love of God and love of neighbour. Even in life, she was acclaimed a saint.
But what made the world take notice of this diminutive lover of the poor? Perhaps it was the founding of her religious order, the Sisters of Charity, which now boasts over 5,000 members in over 100 countries. Or perhaps it was the care she gave to the hundreds of thousands of the poorest of the poor. But what really distinguishes Mother Teresa is her attitude: “We will not be judged according to the number of good deeds we have done … We will be judged according to the love we have put into our work.” More impressive than the work done by her Sisters of Charity is their vow to “care for the poor with a smile.” More remarkable than the number of poor she helped is the dignity and respect she afforded them.
Originally from Albania, Mother Teresa eventually came to India and founded an order to care for orphans, lepers, the dying, and beggars of the streets. While the West saw a country teeming with the destitute and the derelict, Mother Teresa saw only Christ in his distressing disguise. Although the affluent nations and foundations of the West have spent billions of dollars trying to depopulate India, Mother Teresa spent much of her life caring for its precious souls. Hers was a mission of love.
It is this mission which separates her from advocates, lobbyists, and philanthropists: her only motive was love. While no one affliction was afforded any greater consideration than another, Mother Teresa did identify abortion as the most distressing. “The greatest destroyer of peace today,” she noted, “is the crime against the innocent unborn child.” From the untouchable on the streets of Calcutta to the forgotten child in the womb, she was a voice for the voiceless and a comforter of the afflicted. She asked, “If we accept that a mother can kill her own children, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?” Her attitude towards abortion was sober and simple: “If you don’t want the child, I want the child. Give it to me.”
To a culture defined more by selfishness than by ignorance, her radical compassion is both fearsome and foreign. To us, Mother Teresa is a sign of contradiction.
Physically small, she was of such moral stature that she could admonish the leader of the most powerful nation on earth (president Bill Clinton) for his commitment to abortion. Materially poor, she was able to rejoice in it and lament the spiritual poverty of the West. Inspiring, she set an example almost impossible to follow.
As Christ said to the rich man, “Go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” (Mk 10:21) so Mother Teresa challenges us “to give until it hurts” and to “love until it hurts.” Like the rich man, we are afraid to aspire to any good higher than comfortable self-preservation. This is what makes Mother Teresa such an enduring and troubling figure: her challenge is commensurate to our ability to give, but we can neither accept it, nor dismiss it.
The irony is, of course, our loss. In her own words: “The less we have, the more we give. Seems absurd, but that is the logic of love.” The question is not, “Can we afford to give?” but “Can we afford not to?”
In the almost five years since the death of Mother Teresa, the process of her canonization has been underway. She used to say, “Holiness is not something extraordinary. It is a simple duty,” and she lived by these words. Love unified all of her actions and everything she did, she did with a smile. We would do well to remember her words: “Peace begins with a smile.”
Stephen Tardiff will begin studying literature and philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto this fall.