Although more than 25 years have passed, the joy I felt at Christmas in Calcutta remains more vivid than any other memory of this season. I was ending what Jesuits call the long experiment of tertianship, that third year of novitiate tacked on to the end of our training. My days had been spent offering the Eucharist in the early morning at the Missionaries of Charity motherhouse and then working at the House of the Dying.
I use the word working loosely. After I nearly passed out the first time I was asked to change someone’s bandages and found only bone under the gauze, the good brothers and sisters seemed to give me easier jobs like bathing and feeding or cleaning the floors. The Christmas joy, then, came as a surprise, since I had felt pretty much of a failure over the previous weeks.
After a midnight liturgy, at which rich and poor alike were all decked out in white saris and pressed shirts and some young Missionaries of Charity pronounced their final vows, I got up early to say Mass at the House of the Dying. Somehow, in the course of that hour, it seemed that every fear—physical, mental or spiritual—that ever threatened me was disarmed. But that was only the beginning of the day.
For some reason I’ll never know, Mother Teresa invited me to go with her on her Christmas visitation to her communities and their apostolates. As we went by car from orphan home to mental hospital to homeless shelter to leper hospice, it seemed as if the entire wound of the world could be healed. Thrilled by the illusory high of the moment, I could not escape the thought that I should stay in Calcutta. Maybe every day could be Christmas.
You should go back. That’s what she said, though I am not sure I even posed the question to her. There is a much greater poverty where you live—a poverty of love.
I took her to mean the United States, and perhaps she did. Our economically poor, hard as their lives may be, probably have more things than most people in the rest of the world. But all of us, no matter what our financial abundance or need, feel at times the cold climate of isolation, arrogance, indifference and distraction. Our talk and news shows bristle with hostility. Nonfiction best-sellers, even in their titles, often run on rage. (How much money has been made by hate-books about Presidents Clinton or Bush?) Our populations of the poor and the imprisoned have grown. Abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war-making are hallmarks of our culture.
Of course, things are not all that bad. But I think it undeniable that we Americans have a problem with love.
And who does not? Another interpretation of facing the poverty of love where you live, is this: wherever any of us live, it is there that we have the choice to love or not. We may dream of far-off places and more opportune times to wage the great wars against hate and poverty. We may think that if we could only change the church or start a new political party or rewrite the laws or reform the nation, then we would be doing something significant. Short of that, in the here and now, our imagination runs out.
But the here and now, the place where we always are, is the only opportunity we have to face poverty and change the world. I think that was Mother Teresa’s secret. She may have done big things, but she started with the smallest and simplest: her neighborhood, her community, the person in front of her. In the here and now, however, she encountered the eternal. She would see the Word made flesh and try to respond in love, not only to the sick and dying, but also to anyone, no matter how poor, no matter how rich and powerful.
It is her acceptance of the rich and powerful, however, that has given rise to her harshest critics. In an article for Slate magazine, titled Mommie Dearest, Christopher Hitchens complained that the pope beatified Mother Teresa, a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud. That she would befriend the worst of the rich, whether Haiti’s Duvalier family or Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings and Loan is, to Hitchens, an abomination. He is also outraged by her views on sexual morality. But what seems most troubling to him is the fact that her life is meaningless without a belief in the transcendent God. In Salon, he wrote, It is paradoxical that a woman of almost medieval opinions should have been so revered by the world of secular modernism.
Hitchens might be dismissed by some as little more than a global village atheist, but I think he is onto something profound here, even if he is wrong in his conclusion. Mother Teresa’s life and labor truly did not make any sense if God has not entered our lives. Her devotion to the Eucharist, her advocacy for the least of our brothers and sisters and her tenderness to the dying were incomprehensible without a belief in a transcendent God who somehow is found in history.
God is the problem for Hitchens. In an issue of Secular Humanism he said, I’m an atheist. I’m not neutral about religion, I’m hostile to it...to religious belief itself.
No wonder his distaste for Mother Teresa. An atheist’s revulsion itself is testimony to the ways she mediated the presence of God on the earth, the transcendent in the ordinary, the Most High found in the least of us.
As a believer, however, and not an atheist, I think the touch of transcendence is why I felt such joy that day so many years ago. I saw that the Word indeed becomes flesh and dwells among us.
The best news is that it does not happen only at Christmas.