Thursday, September 30, 2010

What we are obliged to do

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. That's a mouthful - I am not sure I can pronounce that name!

Do you know her? She was born in Skopje, Macedonia, on August 26, 1910. Her family was of Albanian descent. Nothing extraordinary is known about her young life. We do know that she was the youngest of 3 surviving children of 5. They were relatively well off and her father died when she was just 7.

While she was fascinated by stories of missionary life and their service, she never thought of being a nun.

But at the age of eighteen she left her parental home in Skopje and joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India. After a few months' training in Dublin she was sent to India, where on May 24, 1931, she took her initial vows as a nun.

From 1931 to 1948 she taught at St. Mary's High School in Calcutta. While she enjoyed teaching history and geography to the daughters of the wealthy she could not help but see the suffering and poverty she glimpsed outside the convent walls. In time she felt the call to do more for these poor and worked for two years to obtain permission from her superiors to leave the convent school and devote herself to working among the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Finally in 1948, after 17 years of teaching in relative comfort, she left to help the poor.

Although she had no funds, she depended on Divine Providence, and started an open-air school for slum children. She would scratch the lessons in the dirt because they had nothing else. For years she worked in one of the poorest parts of the world. The streets were filled with people in desperate need of help - the starving, the sick, the dying and the dead. She moved along the poorest of the poor where there was an endless stream of need. Teaching the illiterate to read and proper hygiene. Providing comfort to those who had no reason to hope. Giving solace to the dying so that they could at last feel compassion before they left this world. Everyday she went out to find and serve Him "in the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared for."

Despite the fact that she quietly did her work, stories of what she was doing soon spread. She inspired people and she was joined by voluntary helpers, and financial support too. Slowly she was able to extend the scope of her work - to reach further and help more of the poor.

On October 7, 1950, she received permission from the Holy See to start her own order, "The Missionaries of Charity", whose primary task was to love and care for those persons nobody was prepared to look after. In 1965 the Society became an International Religious Family by a decree of Pope Paul VI.

The Society of Missionaries spread all over the world, including the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. They provide help to the poorest of the poor in a number of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and they undertake relief work in the wake of natural catastrophes such as floods, epidemics, and famine, and for refugees. The order also has houses in North America, Europe and Australia, where they take care of the shut-ins, alcoholics, homeless, and AIDS sufferers.

The Sisters of Charity even operate in Washington DC; in Anacostia that is in sight of the Washington Monument but is a world apart from the power and influence of our nation's capital. Here the sisters run a soup kitchen, a day care, and provide comfort and hope to those who live on the bottom tier of our society. The addicts, the permanently unemployed, the released prisoners, the children of single parents who have no place to go after school, and those homeless that have no home at all.

Have you figured out who I am talking about yet?

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu - the little Albanian girl from Macedonia became Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

And while Mother Teresa never sought fame or recognition. She got lots of it. Mother Teresa's work was recognized and acclaimed throughout the world and she received a number of awards and distinctions, including the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize (1971) and the Nehru Prize for her promotion of international peace and understanding (1972). She also received the Balzan Prize (1979) and the Templeton and Magsaysay awards, and the Nobel Peace prize in 1979. And in 1985, the US awarded her the Medal of Freedom.

Through all this recognition, Mother Teresa always used these occasions to talk about the plight of the poor and our obligation to help and of God's love.

Yet what is more heroic and only revealed after her death was her interior life was marked by an experience of a deep, painful and abiding feeling of being separated from God. She even felt rejected by Him, along with an ever-increasing longing for His love. She called her inner experience, “the darkness.” The “painful night” of her soul, which began around the time she started her work for the poor and continued to the end of her life. Yet instead of "the darkness" tearing away her faith, it led Mother Teresa to an ever more profound union with God. Through the darkness she mystically participated in the thirst of Jesus, in His painful and burning longing for love, and she shared in the interior desolation of the poor.

Finally, on September 5, 1997, after finishing her dinner and prayers, her weakened heart gave her back to the God who was the very center of her life.

She was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 October 2003, placing her one step from sainthood; after beatification she became known as the Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata.

When I read this week's readings - it reminds me of Blessed Mother Teresa.

The desperate calls for help from Habakkuk Chapter 1. The Psalm of not hardening our hearts when God calls. The bearing of hardship with the strength that comes from God in 2 Timothy Chapter 1. And finally the familiar story of the mustard seed from Luke 17.

But this reading also causes people to ask, "Is this true? Is this really what God wants?"

To our modern ear, it sounds like exaggeration. How can a tree move itself if we only had the faith of a mustard seed which is so small? How can anyone who has worked all day in the fields, and then be commanded by their master to serve them dinner before eating themselves be capable of saying, "We are unprofitable servants;we have done what we were obliged to do."?

Who does that? And how can I?

The answer is that this is true. This is what God really wants. And not only did Mother Teresa do exactly that but her order continues to do that everyday, all over the world. These sisters have nothing but their faith and they exhaust themselves with their work and yet are happy to do it. Their faith makes miracles every day. Forget about trees uprooting themselves! Lives are healed, souls are saved, all from faith.

And - yes you can too! When we finally embrace our humility and see ourselves as servants to our Lord and not Masters of our own fate, then we can truly begin to live. To live for Christ and to do His will before our own.

Does that mean we have to move to Calcutta? No. There is plenty to do all around us.

As Blessed Mother Teresa observed, "Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do... but how much love we put in that action...Love begins by taking care of the closest ones - the ones at home."

And then we discover the irony that the world cannot understand - that when we embrace what we are obliged to do, whether that is at home, at work or in our community - then we truly become free. Only when we completely surrender to God's will, will we fill ourselves completely up with the Holy Spirit and be full and happy. When we willingly surrender to God do we truly obtain victory.

That is what we are obliged to do.

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