Mother Teresa’s Little Way
Karl Stern, the Catholic psychoanalyst, credited St. Thérèse of Lisieux with discovering what he called the Law of the Conservation of Charity.
This law, he explained in his great essay on the saint, states that “nothing which is directed either toward or away from God can ever be lost.” Further, he said, “in the economy of the universe,” there is an “inestimable preciousness . . . [in] every hidden movement of every soul.”
In laymen’s terms: God has so made the world that everything we do or don’t do has cosmic significance. With each new moment, we are presented with a fundamental option — to direct our acts and intentions either toward God or away from him. To love or not to love. And our little decisions in these matters have spiritual consequences we can scarcely imagine. When we are mean, we increase the sum total of meanness in the world. When we are indifferent, the world’s indifference to love spreads. But when we love, even in the littlest things, we fill the world that much more with the radiant fragrance of God.
This was the law of the universe that Mother Teresa was sent to explain. But hers was no new doctrine. It was as old as the Bible, which, along with the prayers of the Mass, seemed to be her sole font of inspiration and wisdom. She was only saying what St. Paul said: that we should pray without ceasing, that whatever we do, even if we’re just eating or drinking, we should do it for the glory of God. Mother Teresa said only what Jesus had said: that unless we love like little children, we won’t see the kingdom of God.
Mother Teresa wasn’t a theologian or a Bible scholar. As is so often the case with the saints, however, she shined a new light on the Gospel, helping us see passages we had overlooked and connections we couldn’t see before. Reading Scripture in her little light, we see how God always works through the lowly and the least likely — making his covenant with Abraham, a seventy-five-year-old herdsman; founding his kingdom on the shoulders of a shepherd boy named David; redeeming the world through a quiet virgin from Nazareth; building his Church on a team of ex–tax collectors and fishermen.
“God is truly humble,” Mother Teresa marveled. “He comes down and uses instruments as weak and imperfect as we are. He deigns to work through us . . . to use you and me for his great work.” She taught us to see what she called “the humility of God” — how he stoops down to our level, speaks to us in words we can understand, even goes so far as to become an infant in the womb, all to show us his love and to share his life with us.
She helped us to see the patterns of humility and littleness in the life of Christ, who, until his last three years, lived the same workaday life most of us live. “How strange that he should spend thirty years just doing nothing, wasting his time . . . he, a carpenter’s son, doing just the humble work in a carpenter’s shop for thirty years!”
Mother Teresa saw in the Eucharist a daily reminder and continuation of the Bible’s story of God’s humility, a living memorial of his example of love and self-sacrifice.
When Jesus came into the world, he loved it so much that he gave his life for it. He wanted to satisfy our hunger for God. And what did he do? He made himself the Bread of Life. He became small, fragile, and defenseless for us. A bit of bread can be so small that even a baby can chew it, even a dying person can eat it.
This was the good news she brought to a world hungry for God and hungry for love. We have to walk the path that Jesus walked, a path that begins in giving ourselves away. She told us that love begins where the self leaves off.
“You must first forget yourself, so that you can dedicate yourself to God and your neighbor.” That’s what she told Subshasini Das, who came to her in 1949 during the first days of Mother Teresa’s ministry on the streets of Calcutta. A privileged Bengali girl, she presented herself to Mother Teresa decked out in jewels and a fine dress and saying she wanted to give her life to the poor.
Sent away with those cutting words, she returned after weeks of soul-searching shorn of her fineries and clad in a plain white robe. Subshasini went on to become the first nun in Mother Teresa’s new religious order, the Missionaries of Charity.
You must first forget yourself. That was Mother Teresa’s message for a narcissistic generation, to people self-occupied yet still strangers to themselves.
She watched patiently as wave after wave of young women and men shucked off their parents’ Christianity and turned their hearts East, following some star they thought was rising, some new wisdom they thought would save them from the phoniness and soullessness of their consumer-material world. “People come to India,” she would say, “because they believe that in India we have a lot of spirituality, and this they want to find . . . Many of them are completely lost.”
Her idea of selflessness was the opposite of that preached by others in what Orwell called our “yogi-ridden age.” The gurus and sages of the East preached liberation through negation, through a progressive detachment from all desires and passions until the person arrives at a spiritual state of egolessness, free from and indifferent to the cares of the world.
For Mother Teresa, detachment and self-denial were not the end goals of our striving. She said that we deny ourselves, struggle against our selfishness and fancies, in order to purify our vision, to give ourselves totally to God, and be joined to him in the most intimate embrace of love. We do not empty ourselves in order to be nothing, free of desire and need, but in order to be filled with divine life, to see and live with Jesus.
“Once we take our eyes away from ourselves — from our interests, from our own rights, privileges, ambitions — then we will become clear to see Jesus around us,” she promised. One of those lost seekers who crossed her path was Morris “Mo” Siegel. In 1969, the summer of Woodstock, he launched an herbal tea company, Celestial Seasonings, Inc., that caught the first wave of the all-natural, organic health craze and rode it all the way to the bank. By 1985, he had sold his company for $40 million and was desperately seeking meaning, his midlife crisis manifesting itself in outfits with names such as Earth Wise and the Jesusonian Foundation.
He wound up, as so many of his generation did, in Calcutta, trying to find himself as a volunteer at Mother Teresa’s home for the destitute dying. She poked him in the chest and sent him home with these words: “Grow where you’re planted.”
Mother Teresa knew it was easy to be selfless for strangers, to love people we don’t know. So easy that it was no love at all. When it comes to love, she knew we are all big-picture people. We like love in the abstract — the poor, the sick, the handicapped — but we’re afraid of close-ups, the flesh-and-blood poor people and sick people, the family members and friends whom God plants in our midst.
“It is easy to love the people far away,” she would say. “It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”
She sent us all home to learn how to love again. Long before anybody else had begun warning about the disintegration of the traditional family, Mother Teresa was telling us that our families were dying:
The world today is upside down, and is suffering so much, because there is so very little love in the homes and in family life. We have not time for our children, we have not time for each other; there is not time to enjoy each other.
That was her diagnosis — God’s diagnosis, if we believe she was a special rider carrying a message to our day and age. Mother Teresa judged the health of our civilization by our ability to smile or hold our tongues; by whether parents had time for their children, husbands for their wives, the young to listen to the stories of the old; by whether we knew how to laugh and play, to be tender, to be still, and to know that God lives in every person.
“Love starts at home and lasts at home . . . the home is each one’s first field of loving, devotion, and service,” she said. And from the bosom of the world’s poorest families, she brought us tender stories of heroic love. She told us of the sacrifices made by leper parents, who must give up their newborns immediately upon birth or risk infecting them for life with the disease. She told us the story of one couple saying good-bye to their three-day-old baby:
Each one looked at the little one, their hands going close to the child and then withdrawing, trying, wanting to kiss the child, and again falling back. I cannot forget the deep love of that father and mother for their little child. I took the child, and I could see the father and mother as I was walking. I held the child toward them, and they kept on looking until I disappeared from their eyes. The agony and pain it caused! . . . But because they loved the child more than they loved themselves, they gave it up.
She told us of the little girl she met in one of her schools in Calcutta. The girl had been hiding the free bread that the nuns gave students each day, and Mother Teresa wanted to know why. The girl told her that her mother was sick and there was nothing to eat in the house, so she was bringing the bread home to her. “That is real love,” Mother Teresa said.
Real love is what she came to show us. The love of the little. A love that cracks the shell of all our self-delusion and flings open the doors of our hearts to Jesus. A love that takes as marching orders the words of John the Baptist: “I must decrease so that Jesus might increase.”
Mother Teresa told us that we could be — in every moment of our lives — God’s answer to somebody’s prayers. We could be Jesus. If only we would let ourselves.
This is why we know so little about her, why she seems to have come to us with no childhood, no past — and why her biography seems to begin and end when she gives her life to Jesus. She wasn’t trying to throw us off the trail or cover anything up. She was giving good directions to the lost.
We wanted her to talk about herself. But she was just trying to be a reflection. That’s why whenever we asked about her, she pointed us to Jesus.
She knew that she wasn’t the one we were looking for.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from a chapter in Mr. Scott’s The Love That Made Mother Teresa and is available from Sophia Institute Press.