“Beloved: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” 1 John: 3: 1-3.
This week we celebrate “all saints” and “all souls.” Those women and men whose lives inspire us still and whose holy memory make up the “invisible kingdom of the heart.” God uses his good people to do great things: holy ones who have advanced the mission of justice, healing, love of neighbor, and even spiritual awakening. Please note these are good people, not perfect people – a notion to keep in mind as we look back on past lives with confusing behaviors that mark us as human, after all.
Today’s gospel from Saint Matthew, the central teaching of Jesus about the moral lives of people, tells about holiness and how Jesus’s followers might become a “light for the world.” These ethical teachings of Jesus are found in all four gospels.
Years ago, I came across the work of Felix Adler, a Columbia University philosophy professor, who expressed the idea that deeds, not creeds, make saints. He writes: “Heroes are those who kindle a great light in the world, who set up blazing torches to see by. Saints are those who walk through the dark path of the world and are themselves the light.”
In the early 1970s, I first learned about Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s extraordinary work with the publication of a book by British writer Malcolm Muggeridge entitled “Something Beautiful for God.” Muggeridge was an essayist, BBC commentator, and a convert to Catholicism. His promotion of Mother Teresa brought her work to the attention of a worldwide audience.
Muggeridge writes: “For me, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embodies Christian love in action. Her face shines with the love of Christ on which her whole life is centered, and her words carry that message to a world which never needed it so much.” Even in the worldly realm of modern media, her deeds, not creed, gave ample evidence of her saintly works of charity to the poorest of the poor.
In October of 1979, and on the very day of the announcement of Mother Teresa being award the Nobel Peace Prize, I was completing a series of interviews with those nuns of her religious order, the Missionary Sisters of Charity. They had just opened convents in Newark, N.J. and Brooklyn, N.Y. At the time, I produced a cable television program, New Jersey Catholic, and provided my editorial expertise on the news of religion to CBS News.
Naturally, my reporting about Mother Teresa to an audience via the media had the potential to help multiple humanitarian efforts in neighborhoods closer to home. At least that was my thinking at the time. Who could resist such a remarkable figure like Mother Teresa? Doesn’t she have the power to change lives?
Recall the words from Saint John, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” When I hear criticism or even disdain for genuinely holy people, I reflect on this scripture.
By the summer of 1980, I was in the last days of writing a doctoral dissertation at New York University. I was in Greenwich Village almost daily, and by chance, a friend from my high school days was visiting New York City. Russ suggested that we meet for dinner, but instead, I accompanied him to an art opening at a gallery on LaGuardia Place, close to NYU’s Bobst Library.
Once we entered the art space/loft, Diana, a filmmaker, and her artist husband invited us to stay and join the reception. We agreed. There was plenty of back and forth chatter among the artist’s patrons.
This fleeting moment so long ago remains with me. I think back to that intense conversation among people I did not know, all seated around an expansive dining table. I’ve wondered how the conversation would have been different if I wore my clerical collar? Except for Russ, no one in the posh loft knew I was a priest. Nor would anyone have guessed that I was, in a small way, promoting Mother Teresa’s work among “the poorest of the poor,” so described as a “living saint.”
What occurred that night was an overexcited exchange about the day’s news, namely Mother Teresa visiting New York City. She made headlines, and her photo was on the front pages of most of the dailies. From what I can recall of the discussion, and mostly the hostile comments about her might be compared to a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatters Tea Party. The loudest participants had the fewest facts, nor did I witness an understanding nor much sympathy for this “living saint.”
What I could piece together from the discussion were the inherent conflicts between religious organizations like Mother Teresa’s Missionary Sisters and the international relief efforts of non-governmental organizations. Years later, writer Christopher Hitchens would take up his cause against Mother Teresa.
This episode became a life lesson for me. It was and remains an opportunity not to judge others but rather to feel more deeply the impact of John’s words, “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”
Mother Teresa and her sisters, and the countless co-workers cared for the dying souls on Calcutta’s streets, and their humanitarian efforts are the inspiration that sparks divine grace. We, too, can carry out the mission of Jesus’s teachings, entrusted with talents that belong to God, and know that we are co-creators of his invisible kingdom of the heart.
Saint Teresa of Calcutta was a good person but not a perfect person. Read this reflection of hers, and you hear a faint echo of Saint John’s sentiment that the “world does not know us.” Widely attributed to her, these verses were posted at her home for children in Calcutta.
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere, people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA