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Jesus Creed


Mother Teresa 2: Piety

posted by xscot mcknight

We will look this week at the darkness of Mother Teresa. To do this I will be reflecting on her book Come Be My Light, and hope you will join along in reading and reflecting on this influential witness to the power of identifying with the poor.
Today I look at her piety and will reflect on the first three chapters, chapters that reveal her vocational calling, her taking of vows and “the vow,” and the establishment of what I am calling her “piety.” I don’t think you can comprehend her darkness until you understand what drove this little woman of Calcutta.
I’ll mention burn out below, but am interested in what some of you do to prevent burn out? And, what does burn out look like for those dedicated to ministries like those of M. Teresa? Do you see a life totally dedicated as hers was having a tendency toward burnout?
M. Teresa joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) called the Loreto Sisters and expressed over and over that her mission was to “save souls” or to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ.
Already in 1937 (she was 27 years old), and just months before she took her vows, she said this to a Yugoslavian priest, her former confessor: “Do not think that my spiritual life is strewn with roses — that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion ‘darkness.’ And when the night becomes very thick — and it seems to me as if I will end up in hell — then I simply offer myself to Jesus” (20).
Here is what I see involved in M. Teresa’s darkness: her piety somehow must be involved. I would characterize it as radical self-denial, rigorous questioning introspection, perfection, radical discipline and three cardinal themes: service, sacrifice, and suffering.
She made a vow in April of 1942 that I think shaped her life and her darkness: “I made a vow to God, binding under [pain of] of mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything'” (28). This vow to surrender all to God, regardless of what was being asked to be surrendered, led M. Teresa to a life that began the day and shaped the day and did not end until her strength was gone to give everything to God. Everything.
No matter how many other things might be involved, M. Teresa set herself up for a kind of burn-out from the very beginning of her apostolate to the poorest of the poor. I don’t have enough information to say this was the whole. But what I see is a woman’s piety that was driven by self-giving, self-sacrifice, and the need to enter into suffering in order to participate in the “thirst of Jesus”, the thirst Jesus had for the poor and for others to come to him.
M. Teresa lived in constant awareness not to let her “reverend I” become central.
M. Teresa said her sisters were to “be faithful in little practices of love, of little sacrifices” and she combined this with “responding immediately to the demands of the present moment” (34).
M. Teresa had a mystical encounter with Jesus on 10 Sept 1946 that led her from the convent in Calcutta to found the Missionaries of Charity, her apostolate to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. This encounter with Jesus is where she heard “Come Be My Light,” the title of the book. This vision involved the thirst of Jesus for the poor; it involved his questioning of her “Will you refuse me?” and it involved calling her to identify completely with the poor and to go to the “holes of the poor” (44).
She confided much of this vision with her spiritual director, Father Van Exem, and it can be found in this book at pp. 47-52. (Very important pages I think.)



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lammert vrieling

posted September 10, 2007 at 1:12 am


thanks for reflecting on this Book, Scott. Interestingly, yesterday in our gathering we focussed on Mother Teresa and discussed the TIME Magazine article. We were quite impressed with here saying: ‘I am willing to suffer … for all eternity, if this [is] possible.” Reminded us of St. Paul.



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Tom Grosh IV

posted September 10, 2007 at 8:43 am


I’ll mention burn out below, but am interested in what some of you do to prevent burn out? And, what does burn out look like for those dedicated to ministries like those of M. Teresa?
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry doesn’t compare to a ministry like that of M. Teresa, but I will comment on burn out. Shortly after becoming a follower of Christ while a student at Grove City College, I received a life text: “Christ’s love compels us. We are sure than one person died for everyone. And so everyone died (II Corinthians 5:14). Note: II Cor 5:11-6:12 frames my life phrase: “Christ compels.”
No doubt, my early phase in ministry was driven/empowered by my own skills and strengths being offered to the work of God. As such, “Christ compels” was a banner for moving forward and “making a difference.” I overcame many obstacles by human means, but “hitting the wall” was necessary for me to have ministry “aligned with the will of God.” I’ve had several life situations which have tempted me to separate my faith and ministry: the loss of Elise Faith (our first child due to premature birth), cancer (addressed by surgery/radiation treatment), and a brain bleed in Eden (our youngest, 2 years old with a number of developmental delays).
How does one address obstacles that one cannot overcome in the context of faith and ministry? One acknowledges to one’s self and those with whom one is laboring that one cannot overcome. I have not been called to be a superhero or a model campus minister/parent/neighbor etc. I must surrender to God the Father and ask for the empowerment of His Spirit mediated by the sacrifical/incarnational relationship with His Son Christ Jesus. As a member of a particular family, specific local congregation, and the People of God through time/geography, I live one more day with the fulcrum of my life on God the Creator/Word/Spirit and not the fears/dangers/concerns which arise in my mind, emotions, and physical areas as I wade through the present and envision the future.
I am reminded of the daily necessity of placing my hope/vision in God alone not only by the Word but also by those around me with whom I open my life to, e.g., my spouse, children, extended family, small group, various members of the local assembly of which I am part, spiritual director, and various members of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition, as time permits, I read the testimony of those which have gone before and live lives worthy of the calling today.
Walking in the Presence of God in a unbalanced world (both internal and external) is an ardous journey (I’m reminded of Pilgrim’s Progress). I’ve had ups/downs, but I am brought back ‘on-line’ each day by (and during difficult times with a more intense focus upon) the regular practice of hearing/seeing God our Father in Creation, receiving/living/speaking the Word by the Spirit’s empowerment as a member of the Body of Christ (whose testimonies I see/read). Often I wrestle with God, self, others, and creation, but by God’s grace I am reminded that I am a new creation called to speak the truth and serve the Lord with true love.



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Mykl Krause

posted September 10, 2007 at 9:05 am


The burnout factor. Having worked with homeless youth in a Christian agency for a number of years I’ve seen a couple of factors contribute to burnout. Front line staff – those who worked directly with youth – tended to burn out faster (very few lasted more than three years) than those who were able to provide supervision over other staff or over programs. My read on that was that people needed to have greater perspective (big picture) and some sense of control over that in order to overcome the daily hopelessness of youth slowly destroying their lives.
However, there are some staff members who have been there for more than 20 years. A profound sense of call (i.e. this is more than a job), some measure of control over the environment, and being able to maintain a hopeful perspective were key factors that seemed to slow the burnout process.



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T.B. Vick

posted September 10, 2007 at 9:08 am


Scot,
Thank you for this post. I intend to get the book, “Come Be My Light” and am anxious to read it. As a blogger myself, and as a Christian who has seen poverty (maybe not quite as extreme as Mother Teresa), I cannot help but think that there is no human in the history of humanity who could have perform the acts of love and kindness that Mother Teresa did for the length of time she did without the strength of Christ. I am quite upset that other bloggers (like Steve Camp – the Christian musician) have posted articles condemning her and claiming she was merely a humanitarian and not Christian because, 1) she was Catholic and 2) she made a few remarks in her life that were not “theologically sound.” As if that’s never happened to each one of us. If in fact she was only a humanitarian, then her devotion to the poor, and her compassion for the lost makes all other “genuine” Christians looks like heathens. God forgive us all, for we are too quick to judge and too slow to act.



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Diane

posted September 10, 2007 at 9:18 am


I don’t work directly with the poor, but I do often listen to the stories of people who are suffering, and I do work in an intense industry. My pattern has been refuel by taking periods of sabbatical that are shorter than the periods of “work” but quite necessary. I recognize some privilege in being able to do this, but more than that, my ability to do this is based around a Christian perspective that money isn’t everything, work isn’t everything and that the world can function without me (without Moi! Horrors!) for periods of time and be just fine. I am also well aware that gender plays into this and wish it weren’t so. And none of this happens without struggle.



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Bill Meyer

posted September 10, 2007 at 9:23 am


For years my wife and I have read “Streams in the Desert” as part of morning devotions. Today’s reading (September 10) had some interesting things to say in light of the recent headlines regarding Mother Teresa. Allow me to share a few quotes:
“There is a divine mystery in suffering, one that has a strange supernatural power and has never been completely understood by human reason. No one has ever developed a deep level of spirituality or holiness without experiencing a great deal of suffering.”
“It is in this experience of complete suffering that the Holy Spirit works many miraculous things deep within our soul. In this condition, our entire being lies perfectly still under the hand of God; every power and ability of the mind, will and heart are at last submissive; a guietness of eternity settles into the soul; and finally, the mouth becomes quiet, having only a few words to say, and stops crying out the words Christ quoted on the cross; ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?'”
Mother Teresa’s experience seems to be a common experience of holy people every where. It is only our present day confusion of Christianity with America’s civic religion of individualism and successism that blinds believers to the reality that part of the call of the Christian life is to learn to “suffer well”.



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RJS

posted September 10, 2007 at 9:50 am


We heard a sermon yesterday by a man who works with World Vision for HIV/AIDS relief in Africa (Congo, Rwanda) – his home turf. At one point in the sermon he mentioned that he needed a break, was advised to take a break, was on a break, to regroup and refresh – from the overwhelming magnitude and hopelessness of the situation. Burnout is a real problem in many areas. We can all do something, but sometimes it seems that nothing actually makes a difference, and burnout for those most invested is almost inevitable.
Do we protect ourselves by avoiding real engagement – with anything?



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Diane

posted September 10, 2007 at 10:14 am


Bill Meyers,
Your quote about suffering and American civic religion’s individualism and success orientation resonates with what I have been thinking. Suffering does seem to be a component of deep spiritual experience. We shy from that (as, I think, RSJ, is saying). I remember in 1986, in my 20s, teaching an English literature class at an all-black college and discussing with the class (acutally, they were absolutely the soul of kindness to my cluelessness) Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid, which was generating a huge excitement at the time. I’m not very political, so I was fairly oblivious, but their point was that they were witholding judgment on Jesse: They weren’t sure at all he was another Martin, willing to lay down his life for his people. And they wanted nothing less. I wonder if a big problem with contemporary American Christendom is that we haven’t had the kind of leader (that I can think of) willing to lay his or her life down for his faith. We go to foreign countries to find the Teresas and Mandelas … and yes, I would argue, the Ghandis that really model a robust Christianity for us. Should we be worried about this?



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John W Frye

posted September 10, 2007 at 10:33 am


I appreciate Mother Teresa’s honesty about her darkness. I admire and am humbled by her presistent sacrificial ministry. At least she didn’t “rust out” as they say.
Burn out stems from a lack of sacred rhythms and a forgetfulness of “some plant, some water, but God gives the increase.” Not getting burned out is becoming a USAmerican convenient excuse for sheer laziness and non-engagement with what matters in our world to Jesus.



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JACK

posted September 10, 2007 at 10:40 am


I am not as far into the book as Scot is with this post, but I cannot help but wonder if a discussion of “burn out” is a bit off. Maybe you intended to take things in a bit of a tangent, but I worry about people reducing what Mother Teresa experienced to “burn out”. Because, by all indications, she didn’t burn out. There is a world of difference between the experience described by that phrase and the dark night of the soul.



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Scot McKnight

posted September 10, 2007 at 10:48 am


JACK,
I was waiting for you brother. I think I made it clear that burnout was not the whole issue, though I think that is a good topic for discussion when I read this portion of the book.
We’ll get to her darkness Thursday or so, when we can discuss the dark night of the soul. But, by all accounts, her darkness was far more intense than anything like St John of the Cross’s and those who speak of the dark night. It is that extra dimension, that decades-long darkness, from the very beginning of her work with the poorest of the poor, that concerns me. This is not just her contemplative prayer experience but a life-long darkness.
I think we have to factor her piety — the theme of my post — into why her darkness was so lengthy.



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john page

posted September 10, 2007 at 10:48 am


Scot, regarding burnout:
Having a sure sense of call helps avoid burnout. As well, I don’t think that I am supposed to, or can, do it all, in regards to ministry in my context. Jesus didn’t heal, teach, reach everybody, so why would I think I can? It’s a humbling experiential living to grasp one’s limitations, in light of one’s passion to reach, help, and care for people.
Did you read Chris Hitchen’s article in Newsweek about Mother Theresa and the book?…he slanted quite more negative.



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JACK

posted September 10, 2007 at 11:02 am


Scot, I don’t disagree that her piety matters in this. Absolutely. “I thirst”, for example, influenced her clearly and thus the MCs in general. I’m just not sure I see how that is connected with “burnout”. And it also seems like it presents an all too easy basis for most of us to distance ourselves from the experiences of Mother Teresa and not ask what those experiences might mean for our own lives. Burnout, most of us know what this is and have our hands around that experience is some sense. Mother Teresa’s, no. And so there’s a natural temptation for us to find a version of her experience that we can fit into a box.
I’m not saying that’s your intent, Scot. But it seems like the risk with this focus on burnout. If that’s just the “Day 2″ part and more to come later, fine. Still, I think it will be telling to see how much of Mother Teresa’s experience actually factors into a discussion of “burnout” versus just be the historical starting point for the discussion on this thread.



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Mykl Krause

posted September 10, 2007 at 11:03 am


I think what makes for longevity in ministries with those in seemingly hopeless situations is this embracing of the work/ministry as your life. It can’t be an add-on. One can’t just live the consumerist lifestyle and do this kind of ministry as one’s “job.” Then you become resentful and bitter and start comparing yourself (and your income) with business people, entertainers and sports celebrities “who do much less significant work”. Even sacred rhythms can’t help that.
There is a piety that is able to look beyond the world and ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’ M. Theresa did that and it is saintly. And she did it prophetically (revealing the shallowness and sin of greed and selfishness) and graciously (without condemning the person).



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Mike Mercer

posted September 10, 2007 at 3:53 pm


Scot, I just picked up the book today. I’m looking forward to reading it and interacting about its contents.



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Ted Gossard

posted September 11, 2007 at 1:16 pm


A late comment, I know, but I really appreciate this series and a glimpse into the piety of Mother Teresa. Good for us to look at and think about.



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Peggy

posted September 11, 2007 at 5:40 pm


From my perspective, burn out comes from focus on the trees too much with no focus on the forest as well as from too little personal support. Others have spoken to the need for perspective. I relate only very slightly in that my two year mission in Asia was one during which I was trying to impact overwhelming needs with limited resources and little personal support. I was losing my self in their need and my service for God among them.
While I learned many life lessons during those two years, there are significant challenges with that methodology–and it certainly needs to be addressed in the lives of those who serve in extreme circumstances. But our consumer mindset, especially in church ministry/mission, is often very willing to “use up” or “sacrifice” people when it serves the bigger “mission” of the church…without really looking out for the best interest of the person. It’s one thing for God to ask you to lay down your life…it’s another thing when someone else uses you and trys to make it look like God’s will. Small soapbox of mine…
I agree, JACK, that there is a big difference between my experience and M. Theresa’s–and that she was able to persevere and NOT burn out is significant. She chose this path, embracing all of what that meant. I wonder if it is something akin to faithfulness in a marriage that is just difficult–not hurtful or abusive, but a hard life, that just ekes out a living with no hope of an improved lifestyle. There is a different, deep kind of joy that is closer to contentment than happiness–the persevering in the midst of the hard work that is its own reward. But, in the of the hard work of this marriage, sometimes there is a longing for different circumstances…a return to what was once there, but must now be a memory that sustains.
Ultimately, a mystery…



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