Monday, February 28, 2011

neediness and the Christ Child

There are many famous people from Calcutta and most aren't nearly as annoying as Mother Teresa.  

Yup, that's right you heard me, I just called Mother Teresa annoying. 
People who knew her say that she was one stubborn lady, but that's not what I mean.  Why call attention to the worst of what India has to offer?  Who wants to be reminded of how unnecessarily excessive their lifestyle is?
That's what I mean by annoying.  
Here is a whole group of people, the Missionaries of Charity, who make you question yourself and your values every time you think about them. What am I clinging to that I really ought to sacrifice?  What is hindering my freedom and what will it take for me to decide to consider the needs of others as equal to my own?  Their lifestyle more than plants doubt that what appears at first to constitute privilege and opportunity actually is such.  
Am I really able to love more deply, more selflessly, because I know how to read and I eat three squares a day? 
M.T. did not mean to inspire this degree of angst in others. The ministry to the Poor is a good share of her legacy, but only one part of the work of the Missionaries.  It is not the core of it, and Mother said so herself.  We are not humanitarians nor social workers, she would say, we are contemplatives.  "Many people confuse our work with our vocation," she said.  "Our vocation is the love of Jesus."
Hraungerði. - The reredos.
Yes, that does kind of changes everything, doesn't it. 
Carryll Houselander, the twentieth century English writer and woodcarver, was one of those Christian mystics who believe that since the Annunciation Jesus has been, at all moments, living His Life out in the lives of people on earth.  He is sometimes unseen and hidden (as in His Mother's womb) and we need to make acts of faith in order to recognize that He is present and growing within us.  At other times--or rather, in other lives--He is absent for a season and it is up to us to do the seeking.  At all times, He is Child and Boy and Man, though manifested differently in different persons.  He is always hungry or praying or working or sleeping or teaching.  Most mysteriously, He is always being betrayed and abandoned, suffering and dying.

Contemplating Jesus and seeing His Face in the faces of the Poor as a way to think about poverty and suffering is one that can be done anywhere.  Anytime you see someone suffering and in pain,  try to remember, "That is Jesus, suffering in them."

The only thing is, it's not exactly what Mother Teresa said.  It's not what Carryll said, either. 

A few years ago that book came out that revealed all of M.T's deepest secrets and doubts about faith and God.  She did not live (as even those closest to her believed) in a close and sweet communion with God, flooded with peace and love, and secure in the knowledge that all was well and that God was pleased with her efforts and sacrifice.  Quite the opposite.
She did not talk about it much--in fact, she found it very difficult ever to speak about it at all--but occasionally confided in a few confessor-priests during the more than forty years of "spiritual darkness" she endured.  It turns out that whether she was working or speaking praying or doing anything at all, she always experienced a profound sense of being rejected, unwanted and unloved.

Does not sound fun, does it.

Eventually, one of the priests came up with a theory about why she felt such a feeling of inner sense of loss: she was experiencing a share of Christ's sufferings in His Passion.  She was not being "purified" of unhealthy worldly affections; there was no particular attachment from which she needed to be liberated.  This was no ordinary spiritual "dark night of the soul" of the kind St. John of the Cross wrote about (in which a soul is liberated in order to be free to love God for who He is instead of who they want Him to be for them).  This was something different.  Instead of feeling as if she no longer cared about God, she felt an intense longing and love for him.  So intense that it was painful for her and she could barely even talk or write about it. 
For more than forty years, Blessed Teresa lived the longing of Christ to love and to be loved.  He cried out from the Cross, "I thirst," just as He had asked the Samaritan woman by the well for a drink (John 4).  It is at once a cry of love and for love; a plea for love and not water, it expresses Christ's longing to love and to be loved in return. She did not only bear witness to Christ's presence in others, but she herself became Christ by being His love. 
She became love rejected, ignored and misunderstood.
"Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat," she said.  Remember that she endured it for forty years.  Having suffered homelessness, hunger, disease and fatigue at various points of her life, I guess she would know.  Mother always told people that they had "their own Calcutta" in their own towns or even families--people who were thirsty for love, hungry not to be forgotten or neglected and it is in our encounter with them that we encounter the One who loves and longs for us and begs for our love in return. 
That's the vocation.  The love of Christ.  
It's a weird one for me, what with the whole Protestant Reformed upbringing and all.  The kind of religious education I received as a child taught that the Redemption was complete, finished and in the past.  In no way was Christ's suffering or agony an ongoing thing.  It was over.  The only thing that was "needed" was a substitutionary atonement for sins, to satisfy a Law that was both rigid and demanding, a reflection of a God who required blood and sacrifice as payment.  "I Thirst" as a cry of longing for love...well, that seems to imply that Jesus was needy and doesn't that seem just a little pathetic? 
"We need the poor more than they need us.  Because the poor show us our need for God, our need for love."
This pathetic Jesus is one that I was not introduced to as a child.  I have not known him as a beggar, as unwanted and unloved.  It is a new thing to become acquainted with a Jesus who is lacking something.  

Could it be true?  Because it almost sounds like we're talking about a real person.   It almost sounds like we're talking about a child...or a baby. 

'Mother and Child'


  1. I DO love it! Thank you. I'm so excited to have discovered your blog. And this is wonderful re: Mother Teresa. We should let her (Christ in her) live under our skin like an annoying itch, not like a fuzzy good feeling.

  2. Great post. I think that we all got our panties in a twist when we realized Mother Teresa didn't wake up every morning and think, "sigh, God is AWESOME! Hi ho hi ho hi ho, off to work I go." I think we want to find comfort in the fact that if other people can do it, so can we. But sometimes its a relief to know that even holy people like her wake up and think, "oh crap. Another day, another donut."