Mother Teresa captured the imagination of many people. She was a friend of Popes, presidents and prime ministers but above all of those dying on the streets of Kolkata. Now she has been formally recognised as a saint. I think it’s only the catholic churches that formally canonises people like this (both eastern and western forms) though many religions do honour holy men and women as saints.
She had her critics of course. There are some who think she did very little to change the situation of the poor; that she should have been working for structural change that does away with poverty. It’s the old adage about not giving people fish but teaching them how to fish. It’s the tension between charity and development – allowing people to take responsibility for their own lives and not just providing for them. For many working in the social justice sector trying to get the development message across is difficult. Charitable work and charity organisations are more likely to fire the imagination because people can see the good that is being done by donations that are going directly to alleviating poverty of whatever kind. Sometimes it can almost seem as though the two approaches are in competition. But surely both are necessary.
Mother Teresa was working with the poorest of the poor, those dying of AIDS and other illnesses who had no chance of bettering their lot, who would have been left in the gutter with no hope if she had put her energies into working for structural change. For Mother Teresa the human beings she encountered called out for help and she loved them – a bit like the kind of love a mother lion might have for her cubs – working ferociously and tirelessly to help them and rescue them from the most awful conditions. We all have our gifts and not everyone could do what Mother Teresa did though the thousands of women who joined her felt they could. But we also do not want to simply care for people – like bandaging a wound instead of curing it and working for the transformation of unjust structures is certainly important. But it’s not everyone’s gift. Maybe Mother Teresa was challenged by those working for the transformation of society. Perhaps she just didn’t have the skills to do it. Sometimes it seems as though development work is a middle class venture and it surely needs the skills of articulation and negotiation and while people engaging in it are no doubt inspired by a love of the poor, I suspect some of them would not be too good at working with grass roots deprivation and poverty. I suspect too that other people, like me, are challenged by someone like Mother Teresa and in my heart I feel a bit guilty that I couldn’t do that work and that I live a life of ease compared to them. Perhaps that’s what saints do. Their whole-hearted devotion is a challenge and I feel it every time I pass a beggar in the street.
Mother Teresa was known by the rich and famous – she took money from people who were dictators – another criticism levelled against her. Her response was “when a man dies on the street for want of food, how can I ignore him? When I find a starving or naked man in the street I cannot walk past him” She did know that others would and should take up the challenge of unjust structures but for her the way was clear – people were to be loved and helped no matter what their colour, race or religion. In all the publicity around the canonisation there have been a number of articles by people who found themselves very critical of Mother Teresa’s approach, of the state of the homes for the dying that she set up, of her steely determination but who in the end were impressed because they realised here was a dire and extreme situation of multiple deprivations that no-one else was heeding.
All this shows that saints are not perfect. That they will fail and even slip up on what some consider to be high standards. In the catholic church they are considered to be people of heroic virtue but maybe not heroic in every virtue. They are mahatmas, great souls, who are single-minded in their commitment. Gandhi, who was given the title mahatma, was single minded in his non-violent search for truth, Mother Teresa was single-minded in her love of the poor and her total commitment to them. We often see people who are single minded – great athletes, gymnasts and musicians whose virtuosity takes the human person beyond what we think possible. I remember the 4 minute mile which, in its day, was considered a great feat but now seems quite slow. It’s as though some human beings break through a barrier which allows others to follow. What we have in mahatmas or saints are great souls. Their wholehearted dedication to something much greater than themselves in the area of virtue and truth, service and commitment is not just an example to us but actually breaks through barriers that allow all of us to somehow follow in their shadow. Someone once told me he thought it had been a privilege to live at the same time as Nelson Mandela, another Mahatma. This made real sense to me and I thought of the founders of religions throughout the ages who have changed humanity by their lives and their message. But today it’s Mother Teresa that we honour as a Mahatma and surely she too has shown us what humanity at its best can be.