When I was in graduate school, an American feminist once shocked our class with the following comment: “There are three women who really irritate me: Mary, the Mother of Jesus; Mother Teresa; and the mother of a priest. What’s happened is that the church has developed such a cult around them that it is unable to ever genuinely deal with actual women. I know so many priests, who can preach an idealistic homily on Mary, or Mother Teresa, or on the mother of a priest, but invariably that same priest cannot deal with the actual women in his parish and that priest is simply a microcosm of the prevailing attitude within the church and society as a whole. We create idealistic cults around a few people… and then mistreat everyone else.”
Sadly, there is more truth in her statement than we generally have the courage to admit. We have made a cult around each of these women, to the detriment of other women and often to our own detriment. I say this not to disparage in any way the tremendous qualities of Mary, Mother Teresa, or the mother of any priest. The fault is not theirs, it is ours, and our over idealization of them in no way diminishes their real virtues.
I say all of this in the wake of Mother Teresa’s death. There can be no doubt about her greatness, her virtue, her sanctity. She deserves our admiration, but she deserves more, our imitation. Soren Kierkegaard once defined a saint as follows: A saint is someone who can will the one thing, God. This Mother Teresa did and did with a single-mindedness and a clarity that made the whole world take notice. God and the poor drove her. Nobody dared stand in her way. Her vision was clear to a fault, as was her boundless energy. She lived the gospel without compromise. This often irritated the rest of us.
We all know the stories of how, sometimes when her convents were being set up in various cities, well-meaning benefactors would equip her convents with some of the creature comforts the rest of us take for granted: automatic washing machines, clothes dryers, and rugs on the floor and how Mother Teresa would demand that these be removed, much to the frustration of their well-intended donors. For her, having these would mean compromising the radicalness of the Gospel. Something of discipleship would be lost. The machines and rugs were always removed. To her mind, this is what is asked for if one wants to live the Gospel without compromise.
Our own problem is considerably different. It is not that we want compromise or that our ideals are not high enough. No. We appreciate and admire Mother Teresa because we too will the same thing, God and the poor. Our problem though, as Henri Nouwen so nicely put it, is that we also will everything else at the same time. We want to be great saints, but we also want to experience every sensation felt by the sinner; we want to make an option for the poor, but we also want all the comforts of the rich; and we want to give our lives away selflessly, but we also want success, a career, and the admiration of the world. We want radical discipleship, but we also want automatic washing machines, clothes dryers, and beautiful rugs on nice hardwood floors. So we admire Mother Teresa, even as we are unable to imitate her.
Kierkegaard, who gave us that very useful definition of sanctity, also gave us another valuable insight. Speaking about Jesus, he once said: “What Jesus wants is not admiration, but imitation.”
Sadly, we often reverse this. We admire Christ, but we do not imitate him. We do the same thing with Mother Teresa. We admire her virtue, praise her dedication, speak glowingly of her radicalness, and basically threatened anyone who would dare criticize her, but we do not do what she did. We find hundreds of reasons to justify why we cannot live like she did, both in terms of her prayer life and in terms of her direct radical presence to the poor: “That’s good for her, and I admire her for it, but I can not, nor am I called to, live like that!”
Mircea Eliade always warned communities not to botch their deaths. We need to heed that warning just now. A great woman, a saint, a great 20th century Christian whom our generation had the privilege of living with, has died, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The world and the church owe it to her, and to themselves, to reflect upon her life and meaning. Hopefully our reflection will not stop at admiration but provoke more imitation, more single-mindedness, more focus on what the gospel is ultimately all about, God and the poor.