The Three Teresas and The Secret of Sanctity

Mutter Teresa von Kalkutta

Today’s canonisation of Mother Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) has provoked controversy, especially among those with little understanding of religious thought or language. I think Mother Teresa demonstrates something people tend to forget when they talk about saints. A saint does not have to be one’s personal cup of tea to have something important to teach us; nor does she have to be ‘perfect’ according to our own notions of what a saint should be in order to be holy. In fact, it is often the way saints challenge us to examine our certainties — above all, our ‘certainties’ about God — that makes us realise that holiness is much more multi-faceted than we thought. There are many ways to God, and all of us need to be humble and attentive if we are not to stumble on our journey.

I am not exactly a Mother Teresa fan myself. That is to say, I don’t find what I know of her character congenial, and on the few occasions I’ve spent time with any of her Sisters, I’ve been preoccupied with the holes in my socks and the very un-Benedictine arrangement of their chapels. She is, therefore, exactly the kind of saint I need. She challenges all my ideas of what is important. She did what I, and so many others, cannot, in her service of the poor and destitute; and I am humbled, and often made uncomfortable, to think that her way of following Christ was both much simpler and more arduous than my own.

Of course Mother Teresa had flaws. But the flaws of saints are like the wounds of the Risen Christ, channelling the love of God to others through their very brokenness. Mother Teresa did not glory in her shortcomings; she struggled with them and over the years allowed them to scoop her out to be ever more open to God and others. But those who expect others to be perfect rarely see that. It is easy to criticize the homes for the dying,  especially in retrospect, but at the time, with the need so great and resources so few, what alternative was there? I daresay someone with better knowledge of hygiene/medicine, more imaginative ideas about work, a less determined and autocratic style, might fit our (my) notions of the right way of doing things better than Mother Teresa did. But the fact is, there wasn’t anyone else. Those who decry her work among the poor, for example, are not always themselves conspicuous for their work among the poor. Like St Teresa of Avila before her, Mother Teresa knew she had to be the hands and feet of Christ if he were to serve the poor and dying she encountered all around. And that sense of being but the servant of Christ is something we all need to have. Per Christum ad Christum. We are sometimes so keen to see Christ in the person of those we serve that we forget it is he who serves in us. Mother Teresa never forgot; and I think in that we come very close to what I call the secret of sanctity.

We now have three great Teresas among the company of saints: the Doctor of Avila, shrewd and humorous, who defied conventional ideas about what a contemplative nun should be to reform the Carmelite Order and at the same time gave us teaching on prayer and community of singular limpidity and directness; the Doctor of Lisieux, ardent and intense, who failed to conform to her contemporaries’ ideas of holiness and in so doing gave us her ‘Little Way’ that is, paradoxically, a Great Way; and Mother Teresa, the hard-headed doctor of love and compassion, who brought Christ to the streets of Kolkata and the slums of the human heart in countless other places, too. Three Teresas: three quite different expressions of holiness; three examples to encourage and help us.

What I think they all share, to a unique degree, is an intense focus upon Christ that burns away everything secondary: with St Paul they declare, ‘No longer I, but Christ lives in me.’ That does not mean that any of them ceased to be what she had been before. They were always recognizably themselves. Indeed, I think one might say they were true icons of Christ, paradoxically both alike and yet as individual and unique as he. They were all women, too, without any hierarchical status or importance, which is in itself a useful reminder that God shapes the Church as he wills and for his own purposes.

Today let us ask the prayers of St Teresa of Kolkata, that we may radiate Christ in a world that has never yet accepted him, that crucifies him anew in the war zones of Syria and defaces him in every human being treated without love or respect. And perhaps those of us who would describe ourselves as bookish, inclined to let others deal with the messiness of human poverty and need, perhaps we could ask ourselves whether that isn’t sometimes an evasion, a reluctance to allow Christ to be all in all and make saints, yes saints, of us, too.

Note on Canonisation
A long and complex series of investigations and processes must be gone through before a person is proclaimed a saint. There is a straightforward explanation of some of the main steps here: Once someone is proclaimed a saint, we believe that he or she is part of the Church Triumphant, able through their prayers to help those of us struggling in the Church Militant here on earth, or as part of the Church Suffering being prepared for the vision of God in purgatory.

The photograph is by Manfredo Ferrari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons