Sunday, September 4, 2016

In His poor disguise

So, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the order Missionaries of Charity, can now be officially known and venerated as, Saint Teresa of Kolkata. Here we have someone who almost everyone has heard of, many of us have studied during her lifetime, some of us have actually met, and a very, very few got close enough to know her personally. Although, the last is debatable. It may just be that all those whom she personally ministered to as they were dying got to know her as personally as anyone will ever know her. There was so little of her left to know. She was nearly gone. Like Paul, she could have said, it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

I’m a Greek Orthodox Christian, but I’ve always respected (I wanted to say ‘loved’ but I don’t know what that would mean) Mother Teresa, and I’ve tried my best to read her sayings, and to watch her in action through the medium of videos. Her theology, very simple, ‘when I am touching the poorest of the poor, I am touching the body of Christ,’ has a very definite Roman Catholic feeling to it, a brand of mysticism that is not usually found in Orthodoxy. When she says ‘the body of Christ’ she means ‘the physical body of Jesus,’ not what we usually mean when we say ‘the Body of Christ’—either Holy Communion, or the Church itself—how confusing!

But this is not unbiblical, no matter how radical it may sound to our ears. The gospel reading of the Sunday of the Last Judgment is the source, in Orthodoxy, of this strange, embarrassing idea that Christ is somehow present in those who are suffering. That presence teeters always on the brink between literal truth and symbolic. Because Christ can do anything, can manifest Himself in any way He desires, there’s no telling how real (whatever ‘real’ means) His identification with the suffering is. In the end it cannot matter. Jesus says to us without mincing words, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, that you do unto Me.’ God help us! There’s no escape!

Mother Teresa is now a saint. Well, she always was, of course, except in the opinions of her critics. I am sure people asked for her help and intercession while she was alive, but only those in touch with her. Now, the lines are open for anyone of us to ask for her help. Heaven’s long distance calls may be infinite, but their cost is little, only faith. But yes, she had and has critics. I have studied these too, along with studying her. People have a way of coming round to criticize whenever someone is actually doing something, whether good or bad. There were former Sisters of Charity who came forth to testify to Mother Teresa’s inhumanity. Yes, that’s right!

They accused her of being harsh with them, and caring little for the recovery of those at death’s door. Instead of trying her best to mobilize local medical agencies to help those who might be able to recover, she just attended to their immediate needs, relieved them of some (but not all) of their pain (because that would require drugs she didn’t have), and prepared them to die. Others, not so religious, or of other faiths, accused her of using the extremity of death as a device to convince non-Christians to accept Jesus and let themselves be baptized. In Roman Catholicism (and in Christianity generally), this would ensure their salvation, their ‘going to heaven.’

What else did they, and do they still, accuse her of? Misuse and wasting of funds, covering up for malpractice, bullying people, and just being hard to be around. The last accusation is one that can be leveled against most of humanity at some point or points in their lives. Orthodox saints of both sexes are known to have been regularly grouchy, dismissive, even sometimes coarse and violent—it was their way of keeping people off their backs, making people not like them, not worship them, because they knew themselves to be unworthy. Women admirers of male solitaries would cook them sumptuous meals, only to be told, ‘Take it away! It stinks!’

There’s one other type of detractor of Mother Teresa. These are some of the ‘born again’ Christians, the ones who set up their own churches because the Church isn’t good enough for them. Well, I’m not surprised, then, if Mother Teresa isn’t good enough for them either. They say she wasn’t a real Christian because she didn’t have a regenerate heart, and so all her good works were for nothing, were in vain, because before regeneration (being born again), no one’s works are acceptable to God. A planer pail of hogwash than this has never been found, that people can set themselves up as appraisers of the faith of others, and tell us whether someone is ‘born again’ or not.

I am happy that Mother Teresa is thus glorified, even though Orthodoxy will not recognize her officially. And if she were the greatest sinner who has ever lived, and if she were totally Godless, and if she had no faith at all (a preposterous idea in view of her life and work), and even if she doubted God, or didn’t do all the things other people have said she should’ve done, one thing is clear, to me at least. Like Christ she brought a fire to earth, the fire of love, which gave her and her followers the strength and courage to literally ‘go where no man has gone before,’ to the slums of Calcutta, to rescue the poor Christ from a shameful death, and to welcome Him, in His poor disguise, into Paradise.

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