by Katharine Armbrester
Love, in order to be true, has to cost.
Continuing Agape’s ongoing series about modern prophets, it does not seem a stretch to include the late St. Teresa of Calcutta among them, for throughout her life she repeatedly warned materialistic Christians against selfishness and greed while offering the remedy: love for one’s neighbor and feeding the poor, in more ways than one.
A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve is a compilation of Mother Teresa’s writings, including excerpts from speeches and letters, edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk. The collection was published in 2016 when Mother Teresa was posthumously canonized by Pope Francis, and includes first-hand accounts of her actions, prayers that she loved, and a reflection at the end of each themed chapter with practical suggestions for how the reader might bring good to the less fortunate around them.
The pain of hunger is terrible, and that is where you and I must come and give until it hurts. I want you to give until it hurts. And this giving is love of God in action. Hunger is not only for bread, hunger is for love.
Born in 1908 in rural Macedonia, a place the book describes as marked by “blood feuds,” Mother Teresa would leave her hometown and traverse the world, doing her utmost to relieve human suffering all over the globe, from Ireland to Ethiopia to Honduras to New York (where she founded the very first hospice for AIDS patients.) She is most famous, however, for founding the Order of the Missionaries of Charity and for ministering to India’s poorest citizens, particularly in Calcutta. The testimonies in A Call to Mercy are but a few examples; it is impossible to know how many lives she touched.
More than ever, people want to see love in action through our humble works—how necessary it is for us to be in love with Jesus—to be able to feed Him to the hungry and the lonely. How pure our eyes and hearts must be to see Him in the poor. How clean our hands must be to touch Him in the poor with love and compassion. How clean our words must be to be able to proclaim the Good News to the poor.
A recurring theme throughout is Mother Teresa’s insistence that love and mercy are actions that any Christian can accomplish, and these actions have the power to change lives in an instant. Allowing Christ to work on your heart is the “inner” action, which can begin with something as small as smiling at everyone you meet throughout the day. When one’s heart is changed (which is an ongoing, daily choice) love then manifests itself outwardly in doing good works for the poor and the less fortunate. This is the “love in living action” as Mother Teresa termed it, and which she embodied.
You see, we have a wrong idea that only hunger for bread is hunger. There is much greater hunger and much more painful hunger: hunger for love, for the feeling of being wanted, to be somebody to somebody. A feeling of being unwanted, unloved, rejected. I think that’s a very great hunger and very great poverty.
Mother Teresa’s repeated enjoinders to feed the hungry and love the poor can come across as repetitive, even dry, so it is recommended that one reads this book slowly, perhaps paired with a devotional. Mother Teresa comes across as brutally honest, which is refreshing, but sometimes also brusque in dealing with her own sisters when they are less unselfish than she is. Yet it is refreshing to realize that such a saintly woman was imperfect and human, after all. The book briefly mentions her excruciating chronic migraines (which she referred to as her “crown of thorns”) and her period of “interior darkness,” which was a time of spiritual isolation or perhaps depression that she struggled with for over a decade. However, these trials served only to strengthen her faith and enabled her to reach out to the unsaved with even more tenderness.
The fourteen chapters of A Call to Mercy cover a myriad of topics, and if one were to try to implement one of the suggestions at the end of the chapter every week—one could try their best to do good to others in new and simple ways for nearly an entire year. There is much food for thought and fodder for action, and Mother Teresa was most effective when she appealed to the good in humanity, even though she was well familiar with the horrors that human beings can infliction on each other.
In the chapter called “Clothe the Naked,” she emphasizes the importance of prayer: “Prayer will give us a clean heart, and with a clean heart we can see God. And if we see God, we will love one another as God loves each one of us.” And in the chapter called “Counsel the Doubtful” she emphasizes the need of each person for God:
Deep down in every human heart, there is a knowledge of God. And deep down in every human heart, there is the desire to communicate with Him… I think everybody… knows deep down in their hearts that there is God, and that we have been created to love and to be loved; that we have not been created to be just a number in the world. But we have been created for some purpose, and that purpose is to be love, to be compassion, to be goodness, to be joy, to serve.
In “Admonish Sinners” she writes with great sympathy about dealing with temptation, her thoughts about abortion and the sanctity of human life, and her belief that even the lowest of the low and the poorest of the poor have goodness and value within them. As one of the testimonies attests in this chapter, when she spoke to a person who was sinning she did not say “You are a sinner” but instead, “Jesus wants you to be a saint,” which is an astonishing way to be humble, approachable, and non-judgmental that every Christian can learn from and emulate in our witness to others.
Two of the most heartbreaking chapters detail her work with those suffering from leprosy, tuberculosis, and AIDS (and be forewarned, there is much gruesome mention of worms.) In “Shelter the Homeless” she writes: “These poor people are Jesus suffering today. We must find ways and means of helping them in a better way; don’t add to their sufferings. Poor people are Jesus’s Calvary today.” And the chapter “Comfort the Afflicted” contains one of Mother Teresa’s most simple and most powerful pieces of prophetic writing, which is a powerful reminder of the cost that it is to be a Christian, but the greatest price has already been paid by our own Savior:
Just keep the joy of Jesus as your strength. Be happy and at peace. Accept whatever He gives, and give whatever he takes, with a big smile. You belong to Him. Tell Him, “I am Yours and if You cut me to pieces, every single piece will be only all Yours.”
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one. Katharine has been recently published in the Lucky Jefferson literary journal, the Birmingham Arts Journal, and the supernatural Twilight Zone-inspired anthology, Step Into the Fifth Dimension.