Recently with World Relief in Philadelphia, mention was made in a room of about a hundred people that I had met (very briefly) Mother Teresa some years ago. A few minutes later, a man found me across the crowded room, because he wanted to share his own experience. Years ago he was flying to Calcutta on business, and asked his host if he could simply visit the famous Home for the Dying of the Missionaries of Charity. Instead, to his shock and chagrin and excitement, his hosts set up a one on one meeting with Mother Teresa! They met together for only about 15 minutes, and this man told me, “That 15 minutes absolutely changed my life!”
Some people, rare gifts in the world, seem to have a transforming effect on others simply by their very presence. Mother Teresa was one such gift. I have yet to meet someone who spent any time with her, no matter how brief, who was not profoundly effected and set on some path towards change. She exuded the presence of something, or more accurately, Someone, that changed the lives of those in her presence. She incarnated the insight from St. Paul that “we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” (2 Cor. 2.15) Mother Teresa gave off the aroma of Christ because Christ’s presence dwelt so fully in her.
Many would look at Mother Teresa’s long life lived in service of the poorest of the poor and consider her an activist. But she would not. Rather, Mother Teresa understood her vocation and that of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, to first be contemplative. This is the ground. By her own account, she oriented her entire life around ‘being with Jesus’, in prayer, in the poor, and in the Eucharist. The first time my life was set on the path towards transformation by a brief encounter with her was hearing speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. There, repeating her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech of 15 years earlier, she said, “We are not social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of some people, but we must be contemplatives in the heart of the world.”
In this, and other ways, she exhibits how I’ve come to understand Christian spirituality: Being filled with the Spirit of God, so that we become more like Christ and increasingly become the presence of Christ in the world. In other words, the goal of Christian spirituality is to live into more fully who a Christian is in fact and who he or she is called to be—the body of Christ, empowered by his Spirit, to be his creative and redeeming presence in the world. This is the goal. As St. Teresa of Avila famously puts it,
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours….
You are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
St. Teresa echoes St. Paul: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor. 12.27)
This theme of being Christ’s presence in the world is a constant refrain throughout the life of Mother Teresa. “It is how empty we are, so that we can receive fully in our life and let Him live His life in us… You and I must let Him live in us and through us to the world.” “Today God loves the world so much that He gives you, He gives me, to love the world, to be His love, His compassion.” And so she asks a very pointed question, “Do we see Him using our eyes, mind, and heart as His own? Are we so given to him, that we find His eyes looking through ours, His tongue speaking, His hands working, His feet walking? His heart loving?”
Not only did she teach this, and challenge us to as well, even more-so she simply lived it, a gift to us all whether we had the chance to meet her or not.
(Quotations are taken from Come Be My Light by Mother Teresa)