There has been a fair amount of infighting among church-goers Catholic and Protestant over the years, resulting from differing views on scripture and authority. But it never ceases to amaze that doctrinal differences dissipate when Christ’s teachings are applied in the form of a sacrificial life. Case in point, I have met many Christians with critical feelings toward the Catholic church, but I’ve never heard any of them say a bad word about Mother Teresa. Her life of complete sacrificial service has transcended dogma because in her life we were all able to witness the person of Jesus.

Last month, I was fortunate to be able to stop by an exhibit at the Knights of Columbus museum in New Haven honoring the life of Mother Teresa. I accidentally worked through the exhibition in reverse and ended my journey discovering the origin of Mother Teresa, born Gonxha Agnes Bojadijevic in 1910 in Albania.

Writing of her missionary beginnings, she wrote, “I was only 12 years old then. It was then that I first knew I had a vocation to the poor.” In 1928, at the age of 18, Gonxha committed to becoming a nun and wrote in her application letter to the convent, “I don’t have any special conditions, I only want to be in the missions, and for everything else I surrender myself completely to the good, God’s disposal.” The story I read of Mother Teresa’s departure from her hometown of Skopje at the age of 18 reported that the entire town gathered to see her off at the train station. There was no information provided as to whether this occurred due to a common custom of the Albanian people or if in just 18 years, Gonxha had somehow managed to touch the entire village. I like to imagine both being true.

Gonxha was renamed after St. Therese of Lisieux and would go on to touch many more as her love became world renowned. In September of 1946, at the age of 36, Mother Teresa felt God calling her to deeper commitment to serve the poor, specifically to leave her convent with the Loreto order and to live among and serve the poor. This resulted in her founding the Missionaries of Charity, which existed to care for, in her own words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” Mother Teresa described the poor as “not only hungry for bread, but immensely hungry for love.”

I was honored to have a chance to read some of Mother Teresa’s writings displayed in the museum and found myself in awe of her genuine voice and selflessness that was reflected in her attitude toward suffering and displayed in her commitment to living a life of poverty. Once such excerpt that caught my attention read, “I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help (the poor) – to take upon me something of their suffering… for only by being one with them, we can redeem them, that is bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.”

This reminded me of Jesus’ comments to Peter in Matthew 16:18 when He said, “Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” The way the term “gates” is used here seems to indicate that these “gates of Hades” are keeping something or someone trapped inside and that Jesus expects that the church will be attacking (with love) these gates, not the other way around, in a rescue mission to bring good news/gospel to the afflicted/poor, bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom to prisoners/oppressed (Isaiah 61:1/Luke 4:18). I would argue this seems to be Mother Teresa’s understanding, that the Light will not only not be overcome by the Dark, but that it is expected that the Light will meet the Dark in its own house and that this is the essence of the Jesus Way. Perhaps this is illustrated best by her own writings, such as her statement that “I have come to love the darkness – for I believe now that it is a part, a very, very, small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

Much was made after Mother Teresa’s death of her own claims that she did not often feel the presence of God in her later years, but I found this excerpt of a letter she wrote to Jesus fascinating:
“- My pain of my separation from You brings others to You and in their love and company – You find joy and pleasure. Why Jesus, I am willing with all my heart to suffer – not only now – but for all eternity – if this was possible. Your happiness is all that I want – for the rest – please do not take the trouble – even if you see me faint with pain – all this is my will – I want to satiate Your thirst with every single drop of my blood that you can find in me – Don’t allow me to do You wrong in anyway. Take from me the power of hurting You. Heart and soul I will work for the sisters – because they are Yours. Each and every one are Yours. 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.”

The letter was signed “Your Little One.”

How many Christians have you met whose prayer is for Jesus to NOT return soon because they are so committed to doing the work of the Lord? Or who would offer to suffer for “all eternity” if it was possible as an offering to God? Christianity was truly an all or nothing proposition for Mother Teresa.

In a letter dated April 1, 1988, she wrote “You are welcome to share and give until it hurts – and this really (is) love in action.” Speaking further to this concept, in a 1992 speech given in New York City, she expounded, “Jesus said very clearly, ‘Be ye holy as my Father in heaven is holy.’ And holiness is not the luxury of a few, it is a simple duty for you and for me.” In case you were wondering where to begin in a pursuit of holiness, Mother Teresa said, “We give our hands to serve, and our hearts to love. And that is the beginning of holiness.” And while she mentioned her hands, that wasn’t all she offered in her service.

In November 2009, I had the opportunity to participate in a New Monasticism “School for Conversion” facilitated by the Simple Way and Camden House communities in Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ. During the weekend, I had the opportunity to listen to and talk with Shane Claiborne. The entire weekend was mind-blowing, and one small part of that experience was hearing Shane speak about the time he spent volunteering with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Shane reported that each morning began in prayer and that it was during one of these prayer services he noticed Mother Teresa’s rather severely deformed feet.

Afraid to ask, Shane didn’t get the full story until one of the sisters asked him if he had noticed Mother Teresa’s feet. The sister explained that donations of shoes periodically arrived in Calcutta for the Missionaries of Charity and that when a shipment of donations would arrive, Mother Teresa would sort through the shoes in search of the pair in the worst condition. Mother Teresa would then claim that pair as her own out of her desire to make sure that no one else would have to suffer by wearing them, and that consistently practicing this had disfigured her feet. Just Mother Teresa again providing a tangible example of what it means for the church to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

What if we were to take Jesus seriously? What if we were to follow Mother Teresa’s example of following in the footsteps of Jesus? I imagine much of the petty arguments and doctrinal differences, whether between individuals, or between Catholics and Protestants, would seem insignificant if we actually committed ourselves to living out the gospel. I want to witness Christ, to have a vocation to the poor, but I hesitate to pray for Him to fully live in me the way He did in Mother Teresa. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

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