Ripples of Mercy
When Mother Teresa was caring for the very least of God’s children in the slums of Kolkata (Calcutta), India, she used to say, “Perhaps I don’t speak their language, but I can smile.” Pope Francis shared those words September 4 in the homily he preached in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on the occasion of the canonization of Mother Teresa, affectionately known as “the saint of the gutters.” Tens of thousands of pilgrims gathered in Rome to honor her during this Holy Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church.
As I followed the celebration from afar, I couldn’t help but think of my favorite quote of Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” Nineteen years after her death, Mother Teresa is still creating ripples of love across our world because of the purity of her mercy for the poorest of the poor.
When Mother Teresa felt called in 1946 to leave the Loretto Convent in Ireland to minister to the poor in Calcutta, India, the voice of Jesus said to her, “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be my light.” Thus began a year and a half process to seek permission from the archbishop to begin this new ministry. Her plan was to leave the convent, wear only a sari and live like an Indian. The voice of Jesus also said to Mother Teresa, “Your vocation is to love and suffer and save souls.”
For Mother Teresa, the salvation of the poor meant helping them to experience God’s infinite love. She made a deep connection between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of the poor. In 1948 Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, which has established more than one hundred and thirty houses around the world to provide care for the sick and dying. Missionaries of Charity nuns are required to follow the traditional vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience as well as a fourth vow, which is to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
It’s no coincidence that Mother Teresa’s sainthood was fast-tracked in what can be a very long process. In his homily, Pope Francis said, “Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life… She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime – the crimes! – of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the ‘salt’ which gave flavour to her work, it was the ‘light’ which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.”
At the same time, Mother Teresa had her detractors, who made their voice heard during the canonization process. Some criticized the low level of hygiene, cleanliness, and medical care at the Missionaries of Charity clinics. Others claimed that the amount of volunteer training was inadequate, organization was lacking, and there were not enough doctors and nurses. Still others were dissatisfied with her traditional views on abortion, contraception, and divorce.
And then there were the shocking revelations in a 1996 book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, which contained the unpublished writings of Mother Teresa, writings she begged never to release. We admired her smile, were inspired by the ripple effects of her mercy, and respected her determination to offer her very life in service to the poor. Very few people, however, knew that Mother Teresa’s inner, spiritual life was filled with suffering, doubts, and deep pain. For years, in fact, for most of her time working with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa did not feel God’s presence in her life.
The first hint of darkness came in a 1953 letter to the archbishop, “Please pray for me… for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’ Ask our Lord to give me courage.” Except for a period of five weeks ten years into her Calcutta ministry, when the painful silence of God left her, that emptiness lasted her entire life.
Mother Teresa was acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she wrote, is “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” She wondered whether she was being hypocritical.
Mother Teresa remarked to an advisor, “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God – tender, personal love. If you were (there), you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.’”
To her spiritual director, she wrote, “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
Mother Teresa is a saint precisely because of her very humanity and the way God used her as a wounded healer. Mother Teresa’s hesitation to reveal her inner life is understandable. Yet, I suspect that since the publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, many more ripples of mercy have extended to people around the world who live in darkness.
How do we find meaning when we are in the desert: when our heart is empty, God seems absent, we are utterly spent, scripture no longer speaks to us, there is intense loneliness, or we feel lost? Can we be light to others even from the dark side?
I used to think that if something was painful I shouldn’t be doing it. I thought God wanted us to live happy lives and that if we weren’t happy, we obviously weren’t in the right place. If I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in my appointment, I should just ask for another. If the place to which I was called caused too much suffering, I needed to get out of it and try something else.
After many years in ministry, I’m not so sure anymore. I have come to see that participating in the suffering of Christ does not necessarily mean physical deprivation and pain, but it can imply interior suffering, dryness, anxiety for self and others, misunderstanding, and failure. Furthermore, reading Come, Be My Light confirmed my conviction that sometimes God may call us to ministries where we won’t receive affirmation and accolades and where we might experience suffering, pain and misery on a regular basis.
We know that all great saints of the Christian church experienced dark nights of the soul. It’s an integral part of classic Christian mysticism, and the church anticipates spiritually fallow periods. Mother Teresa came to understand that her darkness was the mysterious link that united her to Jesus and was an identification with those she served. By loving God whether or not she felt God’s presence, Mother Teresa’s greatest secret became her greatest gift, ripples of mercy cast across our world.
“May she be your model of holiness,” Pope Francis said. How will you cast your stone across the waters to spread faith and light into the darkest corners of the communities you serve? Even if you or your congregation alone cannot change the world, how can you still be hope that will welcome all into the circle of God’s love? How can you smile and reach out even when you don’t know their language or you are in pain yourself? How will you be a ripple of mercy this week?
*Bishop Laurie Haller serves the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church. You can read more of her blog posts on her website.