Mother Angelica, in characteristic humor, once wrote of a time when God humbled her:
I’m always amused by the way the Lord works on our pride by taking us down a few pegs. I remember attending a benefit dinner in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. All the attendees were beautifully dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns, and I knew very few people there. All of a sudden a crowd of people gathered around me, all smiling, shaking my hand, and asking to have their picture taken with me. I was pleased and flattered by the attention until one gentleman clued me in on the real reason behind their warmth. ‘So Mother Teresa,’ he said, ‘how are things in India?” (Mother Angelica’s Answers, Not Promises 185)
Growing in Wisdom, Living in Hope
Spiritual insight comes from “having been taken down a few pegs”. Saint Teresa of Calcutta was canonized on September 4, 2016. She endured an interior life deprived of spiritual consolation. Yet, her humility never deprived her of the courage or generosity to speak the truth to the world, to “love Jesus through Mary.” The saints’ lives are an expression of the fullness of their humanity—the love and hope that called them into being, the sharing of the divine life of their Creator.
Why do Catholics seek the wisdom of the saints?
“The saints embody … the human person most fully alive, living the life that Jesus came to give, a divine life in human skin,” David Scott writes in The Love that Made Mother Teresa. He adds, “If dogmas and doctrines are the theorems, the saints are the proofs of Catholicism.”
What might these “proofs of Catholicism” tell us about the qualities of a holy life? It is a life which seeks God, in humility, generosity of spirit, and courageous witness.
Recognizing True Humility
Humility is a good desire of the heart. There are two kinds of humility, however. The meekness that we should strive to emulate, with the lives of the saints as a guide, reveals the difference between false and true humility—the difference between “good behavior” and merely “keeping the rules”, and authentic sanctity of life.
Mother Angelica cautioned the faithful:
Clearly, this business of holiness is not as easy as it seems. Holiness asks us to go beyond rules and regulations and everything we ever thought was ‘good behavior.’ It asks us to face ourselves squarely, to pursue the kind of self-knowledge that will transform our existence from the merely mundane to the decidedly divine. (195)
The challenge is to know what is pleasing to God and how God wants to accomplish His work in us—prayer, meditation, and actual and sacramental grace nourish the hearts of those who long to be holy, who “walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
Walking Humbly with God:St. Teresa of Calcutta
True sanctity, as St. Teresa of Calcutta showed us, is walking daily with the Lord in our circumstance, in our state of life, according to our vocation with a desire to please God in even the “small things”.
St. Francis de Sales wrote about the distinction between false and true humility:
The humility that does not produce generosity is undoubtedly false, for true humility, after it has said, ‘I can do nothing; I am only absolute nothingness,’ suddenly gives place to generosity of spirit, which says, ‘There is nothing and there can be nothing that I am unable to do, so long as I put all my confidence in God, who can do all things.’ And so, buoyed up by this confidence, it courageously undertakes to do all that is commanded. (The Art of Loving God 30)
The Fruit of True Humility is Generosity
St. Teresa of Calcutta possessed a generosity of spirit. Her confidence in God’s mercy was greater than any personal weakness, imperfection, or any insult or criticism. Her life, full of joyful smiles and encouragement for the world, was the fruit of an encounter with interior suffering, and her union with God. We are encouraged by her advice, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.”
In No Greater Love, her wisdom speaks to us. She said,
It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. It is easier to give a cup of rice to relieve hunger than to relieve the loneliness and pain of someone unloved in our own home. Bring love into your home for this is where our love for each other must start.
Living as a “People of God”
We are called to be saints—to live to glorify God, growing in union with God and charity. We are given a choice to cooperate with God’s grace to live as a “People of God” who “wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 213).
The saints engaged a spiritual struggle toward sanctity. We can confuse holy attitudes and behaviors with the tendency to conquer weaknesses or undesirable behaviors, relying upon our own effort, unknowingly giving inordinate thoughts to perfecting our weakness or to the imperfections of our individual predisposition.
Of course, seeking to improve one’s circumstance, thoughts or actions, is a good thing; but, we need to acknowledge the limits of human effort. If we rely on human effort alone, we may pity ourselves excessively, grow discouraged, or foist our faults upon another, when we find we are “unsuccessful”. We can be burdened by false ideas and false worship when we place ourselves at the center of the effort.
Confident Abandonment to God’s Providence
In other words, our spiritual pride could suggest that we were not made to be saints; or, that sainthood is an effort of spiritual superiority and self-directed achievement—in both instances, the lie is rooted in pride, with “self” at the center. The saints were God-centered. They were disinterested in their own efforts but relied upon God and a willing heart to accomplish God’s will. They abandoned their lives to the Lord.
Confident abandonment to God is more fruitful than a fearful preoccupation or obsessive thought of spiritual perfection; which often disrupt one’s peace, perpetuating anxiety and distress or temptation to scrupulosity. In these moments, one’s prudential judgment and understanding may begin with a charitable desire, but may be subverted by unexamined, imprudent motivations.
Avoiding Pride and Perfectionism
In Searching for and Maintaining Peace, Father Jacques Philippe writes,
The behavior that is most perfect is not that which corresponds to the image that we sometimes form for ourselves of perfection, such as a comportment that is impeccable, infallible and spotless. Rather, it is one where there is the most disinterested love of God and the least prideful pursuit of oneself. (79)
Fr. Philippe suggests that a preoccupation for perfection should neither discourage us nor direct our affection toward self—but that it is precisely one’s weaknesses, offered to God, that is the beginning of love. He adds, “Small things done with great love and to please God are extremely beneficial in making us grow; it’s one of the secrets of the holiness of St. Therese of Lisieux” (82).
The Courage to Believe—“Taking God Seriously”
The call to holiness challenges believers to respond to the “Crisis of God” in the modern post-Christian secularized culture. Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI referred to it, as “the absence of God, disguised by empty religiosity.” He said, “We often live according to the slogan: ‘God does not exist, and if he exists, he does not belong’” (Let God’s Light Shine Forth, Robert Moynihan, 88).
Archbishop Fulton Sheen described, in Peace of Soul, the disposition of souls who truly love God:
Divinely wise souls often infuriate the worldly-wise because they always see things from the Divine point of view. The worldly are willing to let anyone believe in God if he pleases, but only on condition that a belief in God will mean no more than belief in anything else. They will allow God, provided that God does not matter. But taking God seriously is precisely what makes the saint. (63)
The way of the cross often leads the faithful to people or circumstances where one’s desire to “belong” and one’s desire to please God, are in conflict. The conflict, however, can be an opportunity to deepen one’s faith and charity—to enter into the encounter of Christ.
Doing the ‘Decidedly Divine’ Work of God
Discipleship requires courage and perseverance precisely because a disciple of Christ takes God seriously. Although the response of the secular culture in the public square is to shrug at sainthood, sanctity, and virtue—it is the Christian view that holds that human persons were created for greatness, to respond to the call “to love one another as Christ loved us” that echoes from the origins of the universe, that beckons us in the first light of morning, in the face of a hungry child, in the sick and in the dying, and in the impoverished.
We are ordinary people called to the ‘decidedly divine’ work to be Christ to one another. We must decide if we belong to the world or to Christ.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.