Once she was fast-tracked, the end result was no surprise. We knew she should become “St. Teresa”—though, as Pope Francis noted at Sunday’s canonization mass, it will be hard not to keep calling her “Mother.”
No, what struck me was something else Pope Francis said: “May she be your model of holiness.”
My model of holiness?
I had been inspired by her in college when I discovered her 10 “rules for humility” and tried to practice them. Like, “Never defend yourself.” The experiment didn’t last long. I can’t imagine imitating the rest of her life—living so intimately on a daily basis with the dying and the poor; sleeping on a hard flat each night; waking so early to pray (ask the people who live with me—I need my sleep). Can she really be a model for people like me—comfortable, suburban Christians who live so far from the poor she served?
And then there are the detractors who say she shouldn’t be imitated, who argue—perhaps rightly, who am I to say?—that her order lacked transparency and oversight; that the medical care she gave suffered a deficit of good hygiene; that her rhetoric about the poor glamorized poverty. For all the people who worked with her in India and came back praising the holiness of this “saint of the gutters,” many returned crying foul.
So: a life of holiness that seems impossible to imitate or a life that shouldn’t be imitated at all?
As I ponder these things on the day after her canonization, wondering how they relate to my own life, I think: Both of these options are off the mark. One gets wrong what it means to imitate a saint and the other misunderstands what makes a saint to begin with.
Quaker Thomas Kelly has written that each of us is called to allow “God’s burdened heart” to become “particularized” in our own lives. And if nothing else, Mother Teresa was a living, breathing particularization of God’s burdened heart for the “least of these,” of God’s desire to draw them near in love. She did that with every fiber of her being and in a way that expressed her own passionate love of God. Those two—the love of the poor and the love of God—became one flame on the altar of her heart.
And that’s the kind of holiness I long to imitate. But I will not particularize God’s burdened heart in my life the way she did in hers; I’m still learning, achingly slowly, just how I might (I know too well the sorrow novelist Leon Bloy was talking about when he wrote, “There is only one sorrow—not to be a saint.”). I’m still waiting on God and cooperating with God along that journey of discovery. Thomas Merton said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” Mother Teresa had discovered the saint that was her truest self as she served the poor. She had, as my favorite hymn puts it, “one holy passion filling all [her] frame.” In that way she is a model of holiness for all of us.
This understanding of sainthood doesn’t mean there aren’t mistakes in judgment, organizational inadequacies, errors in fact; it doesn’t mean that your life couldn’t be better—healthier, happier, wiser, more organized. Some of her critics might be right—and she can still be a saint. Because that one holy passion filling her slight frame overflowed, making its way into the world as a fierce, stubborn love that went by the name Mother Teresa.
Which gives me hope. If that one sorrow Bloy spoke about is ever healed in me—a big “if,” but “ifs” are God’s specialty—and the saintly, truest me ever gets discovered; if my prayer is answered that I might learn, as that same hymn puts it, “to love Thee as Thine angels love,” and that love gets expressed in a visible love here and now—that doesn’t mean I will need to become perfect, to have it all together. Thank goodness.
After my funeral, a few people might murmur in the parking lot: But . . . but remember how he loved run-on sentences so; how he was a slave to sweets, eating banana splits secretly at night and covering his tracks so his kids wouldn’t know the next day; remember how he ate all the salt and vinegar chips at the picnic, at every picnic; how his temper was short, his patience shorter; how he never mastered balancing a checkbook and his wife had to keep the family finances; how he couldn’t resist a semi-colon if his life depended on it. How can this man be called holy?
Well, I probably won’t be, and certainly won’t be in St. Peter’s Square. And all of the above is true, anyway.
But if one person—a child of mine or a grandchild someday, a former student or parishioner, a stranger whose path crosses mine—happens to say, even if to no one in particular, “There was nonetheless a consuming love for God in him that seems worth learning from”—if that happens, that will be enough.
To that end, St. Teresa, pray for me.
The Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens is associate professor of leadership and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and teaches courses in the MDiv, Doctor of Ministry, and Continuing Education programs. Before coming to PTS he served urban and rural churches for eight years in North Carolina as co-pastor with his wife Ginger. He has written multiple books including The Shape of Participation: A Theology of Church Practices which was called “this decades best work in ecclesiology” by The Christian Century.