With the excitement of Mother Teresa's canonization coming up on Sunday, like everyone probably, I've been thinking a lot about her life and her message. I don't consider myself a great student of Mother's by any means. At least, not in the ways that it counts. I've read her book, many of her words, and much about her. I feel a little connection with her sharing a birthday and a namesake. I hope she prays for me and I hope I can learn to love as she did. Love was her lesson and I've a long way to go.
What was it that made Mother so attractive, so famously holy, so iconic? Certainly, it was God's Providence deigning to choose her as this international symbol of love. But I think it's safe to say He used her because she chose to give herself so fully to the doctrine of love. We are made to become like God, to be drawn fully into His mystery, a God Who IS love itself. The more we love fully, to let Love take hold of us, the more we will naturally draw others to their deepest longing of union with Love. Put more colloquially, the better we love, the more others will see and feel God in us, and people can't help but want that.
We are simultaneously drawn to Love and yet...yet when ways to become it are presented to us in reality, we cringe. It's so easy as we see or catch a glimpse of the demands of love in our daily vocations to want to run away, to claim exemption in the rules, to hide behind a false model of doctrine.
You got nothin' on me, Lord. See? I'm not breaking any rules!
But we fail to see that clinging to the rules is exactly the lifestyle that Jesus warns against time and again in the Gospels. He didn't want a Church of rule followers. He wanted a Church of lovers.
In the Christian life, the rules are obviously followed. They are an outline of the way of love. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments," He says. We can't claim to be following Christ if we're ignoring the basic tenets of the Faith. A love that encourages self or others to dismiss the rules is no love at all. Many who faun over Mother's acts of charity are ignorant of the ironclad will and rule of life that supported them. But tiptoeing the line is not the goal. Following the rules is not the benchmark of the Christian. Sainthood is. Love is.
Modern thinkers would have us believe that the freedom Christ presents us sets us outside of the rules. But in fact, Christ sets the bar higher than it ever was before! The rich young man was a great rule follower yet he walks away from Christ disappointed and sad because Christ asked for more than not breaking the rules. "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect," He even dares to say. His answer about the greatest commandment simultaneously simplifies the old commandments and expands them beyond anything they ever were before. No, Christ didn't intend for us to cast off the rules. He intended us to so fully love that the rules would take care of themselves.
It all reminds me of the anxious, hormone-fueled question we would ask years ago in youth group chastity discussions.
No, really, how far can we go?
That's not the right question, they would answer.
Love doesn't ask that.
It's how much can you love?
We have a God Who wants more from us than a life spent not sinning. He wants - He offers - a life of beauty, of gift, of heroic love and virtue. He wants us to love as He does, a heart so absorbed with how much more we can do that the question of how much we can get away with is unthinkable, a love where the bare minimum seems ludicrous. That's how Mother lived. How much more can I love? He doesn't want us slipping into heaven by the skin of our teeth, pointing to the list of unbroken rules in our hand. He wants our hearts so like His that we can barely see where earth stops and heaven begins.
Outdo one another in love, the great apostle tells us. It's not outdo one another in piety or rule following or in toeing the doctrinal line. Outdo one another in love, the greatest, most important commandment of all, the one which he says encompasses all the other commandments. And this love? "Love to be real must cost." says Mother. "It must hurt. It must empty us of self." We are called to live a life of real love, to do more, far more, than the bare minimum. It is a life that seeks even in the littlest, most obscure ways to give of self for the sake of the other. In this way Mother Teresa beautifully lived and shared the Little Way of her namesake, teaching us that holiness was to be found in our own homes and in the tiniest of actions. It is a way that says, yes, the little things matter for they can make us holy. It is a way that makes the daily life and choices of each one of us something that matters to Him. It is a way that makes decisions not asking what can I get away with? but rather, how much can I love?
Saint John Paul the Great and Mother Teresa were closely tied spiritually and in human friendship. He, like her, invited the Church time and again to this great love that stretches far beyond rules and doctrine. "Do not be satisfied with mediocrity," he reminded us so many times. We are not to be time-biders, not to be checking off boxes and simply making sure we pass the Catholic Test. Mediocrity is doing just enough to get by without consequence. But we are called and invited to so much more. We are called to be passionately in love with Jesus, living lives of sincere and heroic holiness, dissatisfied with a religion of not breaking the rules. We are called to the doctrine of love, pouring out our own lives that we may become the saints we were created to be. This is what Mother did. That's why she radiated Christ and that's why she changed the world. It's why she is a saint and how each one of us can, with the grace of God, become one, too.