Twice I had opportunity to meet her and passed it by.
I didn’t dislike her. Of course I was in awe of her work among the suffering and impoverished. I put her goodness on a pedestal, though, wrongly considering her one of those simple souls whose simplicity and piety seem to come so easily as to be off-putting. Her published prayers and poems, which I found saccharine, confirmed my opinion that here was a great lady whom I could admire but not love. Too sweet. (The gushing of some of Mother Teresa’s admirers only added to this impression.)
Her person did not attract me at all until her letters to her spiritual director were published two years ago, revealing her passionate nature and the difficulty of her interior life. Her sweet smile and simple teaching had nothing to do with a passive nature, but were hard-won victories on her journey toward God.
At the time of their publication, these letters scandalized some. “Mother Teresa was a phony,” they said, “She didn’t really believe.” As if doing the good when it is hard and requires a profound act of faith doesn’t make the action more virtuous, not less! Anyone can do what comes easily, right?
Now that I know how hard it was for Mother Teresa to do what she did, her greatness for me is magnified. I absolutely love her!
I like the saints’ weaknesses and struggles. I was happy to read that just-canonized St. Damian of Molokai had a fierce temper. In Raymond Arroyo’s delightful biography of Mother Angelica –a person whom I expect one day will be recognized as a saint-- I was charmed by her occasional “Rita Rizzo” moments – times when the tough girl from the rough neighborhood came to the fore.
I’m not rejoicing in frailty for its own sake –delighted to see the saints taken down a peg. It’s just that more and more I see there probably are no plaster saints for whom goodness comes easily. That makes them at once more accessible as friends, more imitable as role models and more radiant proof that it is God who sanctifies: not us.
The late atheist journalist Oriana Fallaci once told the Wall Street Journal that she felt less alone when she “read the books of Ratzinger.” The saints offer us not only their example and intercession, but this peculiarly human brand of accompaniment as well: the reassurance we aren’t alone.
It’s not wrong not to like a particular saint. For one thing, sanctity isn’t always winsome. We may never harm others, but sometimes we can’t avoid hurting them in order to correct sin or to achieve something God asks of us. Padre Pio was notoriously gruff in the confessional. Mother Teresa and Juan Diego drove their bishops mad with importuning. Catherine of Siena was rude to society dames who came to flatter her and bossy to the Pope!
The saints aren’t always “nice,” and they aren’t without certain eccentricities, either. I still don’t think much of Mother Teresa’s poetry. Thomas Aquinas was fat. Teresa of Avila was wordy. St. Paul once gave a homily so long a boy listening from a window ledge grew groggy and fell to his death. (Paul resurrected him, but still.)
In these amusing –dare I say charming?—frailties are revealed the true nature of Christian perfection. It’s not a matter of becoming literally perfect – never again annoying anyone else in any way, attracting all men unto us with the unmistakable grace of our example. For the rest of our lives we may have to put up with certain thorns in the flesh: things that tempt us, clumsiness of bearing or expression, slowness of body or mind. It is coming to accept these limitations cheerfully, confident that God can and will work in us even while we are weak that allows Him to transform us. In some ways, his greatness is revealed better precisely through our weakness: “Where sin abounded, there grace abounded all the more.”
As we approach the feast of All Saints, it’s good to remember that what we celebrate in them is possible for us. It is God who sanctifies, and he who brought these people with all their failings to the heights of perfection can –will—do the same in us if we but love him and follow him with all our hearts.