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Mother Teresa: A Reflection (Part I)

"YOU WILL NOT PUT YOURSELF ON A PEDESTAL"

(This reflection was written for the weekend liturgy for August 28, 2016. Please refer to the scripture readings for the weekend for a deeper reading of this reflection. The reading may be found at: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/082816.cfm) 

Let me begin with a touching story from Mother Teresa’s childhood. Agnes, as she was called before she took on the name Teresa, was born on August 26, 1910. When she was only 8 years old, her father suddenly fell ill and died. Agnes became extraordinarily close to her mother, Nikola. Agnes learnt charity from her mother. Nikola had given an open invitation to the destitute of the city to dine with her family. Her mother would say to her, ”My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you are sharing it with others.” When Agnes asked who the people eating with them were, her mother would simply say, "Some of them are our relations, but all of them are our people.” In light of this story, let me read the conclusion to today’s gospel reading. “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:14) In these words, Christ taught his disciples about humility.” 

As I read today’s gospel, I could not but think of this extraordinary mother who not only put the gospel into practice at home, but in doing so, raised a saint. I would like to offer three practical implications about humility as seen in the life of Mother Teresa. 

1. Humility: Being Formed by the Gospel. The gospel reading, in reality, is a juxtaposition of two life-styles. The first life-style is actively seeking honor. The second life-style is seeking what Christ sought. To seek what Christ sought is to formed by the gospel. I salute the Agnes’s mother who formed her daughter at the early age in the ways of the gospel. The commendable thing about Agnes’ mother is that she taught by example. She did not teach merely by words. She showed her children how to be charitable. The story amply shows us the significance of the home in forming children in the ways of the gospel. Today’s parents face an immense challenge. Between sports, studies, work, technology and media, the home remains an indispensable place where children are formed in the ways of the gospel. Parents, teachers and pastors, Nikola teaches us that it is not enough to teach our children the gospel, but rather, they must see it lived out in our lives, day in and day out. Humility means that we allow the gospel to form us daily. 

2. Humility: An Identity. Agnes first felt a calling to a religious life when she was twelve. When she turned eighteen, she decided to become a nun and joined the Sisters of Loreto.  At her First Profession, she took the name Sister Mary Teresa. A year later, Sister Mary Teresa traveled on to Darjeeling, India. Her primary ministry was teaching poor children in a school run by the Loreto sisters. However, on September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa experienced a "call within a call" that would forever transform her life. She was riding in a train from Calcutta to the Himalayan foothills for a retreat when she said Christ spoke to her and told her to abandon teaching to work in the slums of Calcutta aiding the city's poorest and sickest people. After getting the necessary permission from her religious authorities, dressed in a blue-and-white sari (an outfit that she would wear in public for the rest of her life), she left the Loreto convent and wandered out into the city. After six months of basic medical training, she entered into Calcutta's slums to aid "the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for.” It was in and through the most abandoned that Mother Teresa found her own identity. 

In today’s gospel reading, when Jesus tells his listeners to invite the poor, the blind and the lame for dinner, he is defining humility as the people we identify with. And really, who are the people we identify with? Who are the people we want to be seen with? Who are the people we want in our lives and in our homes? What does that say about us? 

3. Humility: A Choice. Clearly in today’s gospel reading humility is presented as a choice that the disciples must make. Some people sought places of honor at public events. Jesus asked his disciples to occupy the lowest places. Mother Teresa said, “Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.” Mother Teresa was a very powerful woman. She had a free ticket on most global airlines; she was immensely respected by most governments; she could open a home for the destitute at will in any part of the world; and, she was an unparalleled global celebrity. Yet, when she came home to her mother house, she would be working alongside her other sisters as if she was one of them. She never put herself on a pedestal. 

For us too, Jesus teaches us to make a deliberate choice to be humble. And the best way to do so is not to put ourselves on a pedestal. We can all fall into the same temptation - we can be very proud of our humility. 

- Fr. Satish Joseph