Mother Teresa of Kolkata/Calcutta gets canonized today. Here’s how she described herself:
“By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”
(“Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997),” vatican.va)
She established the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 and died in 1997, but the Missionaries of Charity are still around: giving “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
One of these days I’ll probably ramble on about Saints, miracles, and canonization. But today I’ll say that a Saint is someone recognized by the Church as someone who practiced heroic virtue and is currently dead, and leave it at that. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828, and see 61, 946, 1477, 2030)
“…Jesus invites his disciples to the total giving of their lives, … The saints welcome this demanding invitation … Their perfection, in the logic of a faith that is humanly incomprehensible at times, consists in no longer placing themselves at the center, but choosing to go against the flow and live according to the Gospel….”
(From an October 11, 2009, homily by Pope Benedict XVI; via Press Office of the Holy See; used w/o permission.)
I was going to write about Mother Teresa, but the my mind wandered — nothing unusual there — and this is what happened:
“Teresa” is my language’s version of a name that probably comes from the Greek verb θερίζω, “to harvest.” Depending on where you live, it’d be Rocel, Tèrag, தெரசா, ٹریسا, 特麗莎, or any of dozens of other variations.
She was, among other things, a Carmelite nun who thought restoring rules from the early 1200s would be good for her order.
The Carmelites had gone through proper channels, getting official approval when they eased up on the rules. Pope Eugene IV, for example, okayed rule changes about eating meat and being silent. (“The Carmelites,” resource for a workshop held at Saint Andrew’s Abbey, Valyermo, California; St. John’s Seminary (1990))
By the mid-1500s, about a century later, ‘observance lite’ wasn’t doing much to protect and strengthen the spirit and practice of prayer. That was Teresa’s view, anyway.
She asked Juan to put off joining the Carthusians, and join her reform. In 1568, Friar Juan and Friar Antonio de Jesús de Heredia set up the first monastery for men following the nun’s principles.
Fast-forward to December, 1577. Some of Juan’s superiors in the Carmelite Order told him to stop following the reformed rules. Juan said he had approval from the Spanish nuncio, who outranked them: which went over about as well as you might expect.
That’s when Carmelites who didn’t like the stricter rules kidnapped — or arrested, from their viewpoint — and imprisoned him.
Eventually he wound up in what we’d call solitary confinement: punctuated by public lashings. Around this time, one of the friars had given him paper — and presumably something to write with. I’ll get back to that.
Today, Juan is known as Saint John of the Cross in my language.
St. John of the Cross wrote a poem while he was imprisoned, in the late 1570s: “La noche oscura del alma.” In my language it’s called “Dark Night of the Soul.”
A few years later, in 1584 and 1585, he wrote a treatise explaining the poem, one stanza at a time.
Not everyone, and not all Saints, experience spiritual dryness, a stretch of life that’s singularly devoid of the emotional perks folks associate with ‘being spiritual.’
That’s probably just as well, since giving up on faith as a bad idea can look really good during those times.
Happily, faith is a matter of the will and reason, not how I’m feeling at the moment.
Let’s back up a bit. I think that humanity is made in the image of God. Each of us is someone, not something; a person — able to reason, and decide how we act — and in these ways like God. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 357, 1700–1706)
Emotions are part of being human. They’re “…the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind….” (Catechism, 1764)
But there’s more to us than our feelings. Living with undiagnosed depression and something on the autism spectrum for decades taught me that my emotions are unreliable guides.
The Church says that faith is “both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God….” More of the definition is near the end of this post.1
Faith, like anything else, is easier when my emotions are in sync with my reason and will. But I think what we’re told about conscience applies here, too. “Conscience is a judgment of reason … a law of the mind….” (Catechism, 1762–1775, 1776, 1778)
We’ve got brains, and are expected to think.
That attitude may explain why some folks were shocked when Mother Teresa’s letters became public knowledge, a few years back now:
“Often I wonder what does really God get from me in this state — no faith, no love — not even in feelings. The other day I can’t tell you how bad I felt. — There was a moment when I nearly refused to accept. — Deliberately I took the Rosary and very slowly and without even meditating or thinking – I said it slowly and calmly. The moment passed — but the darkness is so dark, and the pain is so painful. – But I accept whatever He gives and I give whatever He takes. People say they are drawn closer to God — seeing my strong faith. — is this not deceiving people? Every time I have wanted to tell the truth — ‘that I have no faith’ — the words just do not come — my mouth remains closed. — And yet I still keep on smiling at God and all.”
(Letter to Bishop Lawrence Trevor Picachy (September 1962), as quoted in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (2009) by Brian Kolodiejchuk, 2009, p. 238; via Wikiquote)
For me, a key part of that excerpt is “…Deliberately I took the Rosary and very slowly and without even meditating or thinking — I said it slowly and calmly. The moment passed….”
Deciding that the moment may pass, and that what matters is doing whatever task is at hand: that, I can appreciate.
One more excerpt from a letter, and I’m done for today.
“What do I labour for? If there be no God—there can be no soul.—If there is no soul then Jesus—You also are not true… Jesus don’t let my soul be deceived—nor let me deceive anyone. In the call You said that I would have to suffer much.—Ten years—my Jesus, You have done to me according to Your will—and Jesus hear my prayer—if this pleases You—if my pain and suffering—my darkness and separation gives You a drop of consolation—my own Jesus, do with me as You wish—as long as You wish, without a single glance at my feelings and pain… I beg of You only one thing—please do not take the trouble to return soon.—I am ready to wait for You for all eternity.”
(Letter addressed to Jesus, as quoted in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (2007) edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, p. 192; via Wikiquote)
FAITH: Both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed. It is this revelation of God which the Church proposes for our belief, and which we profess in the Creed, celebrate in the sacraments, live by right conduct that fulfills the twofold commandment of charity (as specified in the ten commandments), and respond to in our prayer of faith. Faith is both a theological virtue given by God as grace, and an obligation which flows from the first commandment of God (26, 142, 150, 1814, 2087).
(Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church)