mother teresa

One personal connection I have with Mother Teresa is that she was born and raised in Albania before leaving to find her place in the wider world, and I’m married to someone who can say the same. That’s one reason that our wedding program’s only quote-unquote quote was from Teresa.

In case you hadn’t heard, the Vatican this week has completed Teresa’s canonization with somewhat more pomp and circumstance than Brazil devoted to the Olympics. I’m all right with that.

I like the name T(h)eresa, and suggested it to wifey for any hypothetical daughter we would ever have; wifey turned it down. My great-grandmother, born and raised in Ireland, was named Theresa, though she’d left Ireland for the U.S. by the time the future saint arrived on the Emerald Isle to train to become a nun.

The Irish priests couldn’t really figure out her given name, Gonxhe, which is Albanian for “rosebud” (Citizen Kane hadn’t yet come out, nor had it yet figured so prominently in my film classes), and so they baptized her Agnes, on a day that the future saint would name her “real birthday.” Nonetheless our heroine wouldn’t remain satisfied with Agnes, and during her work at St. Teresa’s School in Calcutta she decided to take on the name of the mission: good publicity! Actually she was trying to emulate Therese of Lisieux, but another nun there already had that names, so she went with Teresa, which may have had the effect of accidentally endearing her to most of the Western Hemisphere.

She was pretty good at accidental endearing. I suppose my most personal connection to Saint Teresa is also my least personal, or most widely shared: are we doing enough with our lives? Should we not have tried to be a bit more like Teresa, helping the diseased and poverty-stricken with every breath?

My mother was an ethical person, but she would have told you that her morals came in spite, not because, of being raised Catholic. When I insisted on seeing the Vatican when we traveled there together, when we walked through St. Peter’s Square and I pointed at this and that, she would point out how this and that, if sold at market value, could feed half of Africa in a trice.

My mother agreed with Christopher Hitchens on most points he made about atheism. However, Mom did not appreciate Hitchens’ lambasting of Mother Saint Teresa. I don’t think this was a sign of Mom’s lapsed Catholicism lapsing back. I think Mom admired Teresa as a woman who had come from indigent circumstances and volunteered to live her life in even more indigent ones, in order to help people.

What’s hard for my Mom and Hitchens is that in this saint’s case, it’s hard to separate the Catholicism from the altruism. And it’s no surprise that this particular Pope, who re-named himself after one of the only medieval saints to truly live as he preached, would take this week’s opportunity of Teresa’s sainthood to keep those two forces intertwined, even indivisible.

In a weird way, the Saint Teresa party happening this week in St. Peter’s Square is not utterly unlike Democrat party happenings this month in the USA. Both groups tirelessly plaster images of a 70-plus-year-old woman known to be a tireless champion of other people, to make you remember what you felt in the 1990s, in the Time Before. Hillary Clinton evokes a time before economic stagnation, flatlined salaries, and endless war. Mother Teresa invokes a time before ongoing child rape scandals. What would Teresa have done or said if she’d lived to see Popes ignore thousands of victims’ pleas for justice? That we’ll never know is…a sort of blessing.

Some people don’t realize that “Mother Teresa” is not a euphemism for “selflessly helping” everywhere in the world. Oh, she’s got a backlash! I’m not going to dignify the haters by linking to them, but as far as I can tell they’re saying one, she used facilities where people can see each other defecate, two, she passed on used needles, three, she hurt the image of Calcutta. My response is one, who cares, two, who cares, and three, who cares! No one is claiming that she failed to boil used needles in water before passing them onto the next person, so WTF? Yes, these days, we’re more sanitary, but come on, I’m sure she was making do with what she had.

I’m not sure that people really see or saw Teresa as a “white savior” of Calcutta, now named Kolkata. I’m not sure people see or saw her as unequivocally white; even now, people online seem sometimes unsure if my wife or, say, an Armenian like Kim Kardashian “count” as 100% white. It’s true that Catholics have a horrible, and well-earned, reputation for coming into countries and demanding conversion for bread. This wasn’t Teresa’s way, though. As for Kolkata’s reputation for widespread poverty, is that really Teresa’s fault? Should we not shine lights where they might help our fellow humans?

We have to admire that some people pushed past the critics on their way to helping people. If we can’t admire that, who are we? I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t love Mother Teresa. We need that example, time and again.

The year that Mother Teresa died, I visited Avila, Spain, where one can view the mummified remains of the first Saint Teresa, who was born 501 years ago. I saw that creepy finger. I read about her devotion to the poor, her mystical ecstacies, and the artists, from Bernini to Thomas Hardy to Sonic Youth, who have paid homage to her. Then, around 2000, at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, I saw Joan Osborne perform her song about the Avilan, “St. Teresa,” with a lot of weird stage lighting. Laugh if you want, but those wackadoo light effects mirror my brain as I think about our modern St. Teresa – so inspiring and surprising at the same time.

No known saint has directed her services exclusively to women. I am deeply and genuinely amazed by these women – from Teresa of Avila to Therese of Lisieux to Teresa of Albania to my mother to Joan Osborne to my wife – who are as beatific toward men as they are toward women. Us unruly, ungrateful men don’t deserve it. I guess you don’t always choose what you love. And I like to think that there’s an unchoose-able love at the bottom all of this week’s pomp and circumstance. And I am humbled by and grateful for that love.

Way down in the hollow

Leaving so soon

Whoa, St. Teresa

Higher than the moon