The long-awaited canonization of Mother Teresa has sparked a renewed interest in her astounding life. Her name has become synonymous with selfless love and service to the poor, sick, disabled and dying. “I’m no Mother Teresa” was once a frequent refrain as we backed off from tasks that seemed too demanding or humiliating, and her fast-tracked road to sainthood seemed a no-brainer. Since Friday would have been her 106th birthday, this is as good a moment as any to re-introduce Mother Teresa, the diminutive nun who changed the world.
In preparation for the tours I am leading over her canonization weekend, I have been reading extensively about Mother Teresa. My study was motivated by my own discomfort: How could I—who spent my entire life studying beauty in warm, well-fed, wonderful Rome—speak about the saint of suffering?
Many Aleteia readers will know Mother Teresa’s writings well, or even have met the great saint personally, and this piece is probably not for you. Nor is this an exhaustive list of literature on the saint. I am writing for those who, like me, had little real knowledge of Mother Teresa, and although daunted, would like to take this opportunity to foray into her life, words and work. A word of warning, she is dangerously compelling—her “little path” is so persuasive that you will find yourself applying her words to your own life, whether you like it or not.
My entry into reading about Mother Teresa was a brief book by David Scott, The Love That Made Mother Teresa. It provides a smooth introduction, telling some of the most famous stories, reminding us why there is so little biographical information (she really didn’t like publicity) and outlining her work. Scott also points readers to more researched books once one is hooked.
His clear explanations of the criticisms leveled against her were very enlightening. First, Teresa, like many great saints, made people uncomfortable because they were comfortable, and secondly, she was utterly opposed to abortion, just at the moment that Roe v Wade was being touted as a victory for both the poor and for women.
As an art historian, I was captivated by Scott’s insight that by placing her home for the dying next to a temple to the goddess Kali (in antiquity, a cult of human sacrifice), Mother Teresa “found a central metaphor for the suicidal corruption of civilization in her day,” as western society demands abortion and assisted suicide as its tribute.
Scott’s book also features a quotation that now comes to my mind daily, “Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at. Do it for peace.” It’s that simple, and yet surprisingly difficult.
The Simple Path, compiled by Lucinda Vardey, describes the six components of Mother Teresa’s success: prayer, faith, love, service and peace. It showcases prayer beautifully: how to pray, why pray, who should pray (everybody!). The addition of abundant commentary, however, can occasionally leave the reader feeling distanced from the saint. On the other hand, moving testimonies of how Teresa changed people’s lives are a welcome complement to the saint’s own words.
Ready for Mother Teresa’s undiluted voice, I next turned to A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations of Mother Teresa. Very short and broken into chapters that reflect her greatest concerns, it opens with “Love begins at Home”—Teresa’s constant refrain that there is no point in worrying about suffering in faraway lands if we are unable to love those around us. She often sent volunteers back home from her hospices and leper colonies, telling then that now that they had learned to love through the poor, they must go practice that love in their own families. Succinct, as was her wont, this book underscores her practicality, her simplicity, her deep faith and her firm belief in the power of love.