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St. Teresa of Calcutta’s cross

Teresa R. Tunay, OCDS
…and that’s the truth


Teresa R .TunayLast September 4, the Catholic Church proclaimed a new Saint—Teresa of Calcutta, a familiar and well-loved figure among Filipinos. To celebrate the canonization of this great woman who held my hand and spoke to me of Jesus as we walked in the crowd 30 years ago, I spent some time in the House of Joy in Tayuman—founded by Mother Teresa and formerly known as Home for the Sick and Dying Destitute—intending to just be with the old wards, cheer them up, etc. Instead I found the grounds filled with people: nuns in white and blue saris seated among a motley collection of old patients, workers, and ordinary folk, eyes glued on a huge screen, watching CNN’s live coverage of the canonization rites.

Mingling with this crowd, a verse in that Sunday’s gospel echoed in my mind: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” I observed the aged in wheelchairs and thought how strong Mother Teresa must have been to be able to care for thousands of unwanted humans for over six decades. Quite a cross to carry, I thought.

On second thought, I wondered if Mother Teresa considered her work of caring for the sick and the dying a burden at all. She couldn’t have, because she saw Christ in every patient she held, and felt blessed by every difficulty she encountered. What would have been a cross to carry for us, she embraced, so how could her work be her cross?

We usually think of a cross as a burden—back-breaking to carry. We as Christians are enjoined to carry our cross and follow Christ. Our crosses may come in the form of difficult people and relationships, crises of all sorts. Whether someone or something merely annoys us or really angers us doesn’t matter—the point is we take them as a nuisance or a burden, a cross to bear. For our own peace of mind we followers of Christ are advised to “carry our cross”, and when we do with faith, we eventually learn that it benefits us more than anybody else to do so.

Dealing with difficult people with calm teaches us patience; our patience in turn helps calm down difficult people. Problematic situations when faced with acceptance also lead to more win-win solutions. It goes on and on and until we find our crosses getting light, lighter, and lightest.

St. Teresa of Calcutta could rightly be called a master at carrying such crosses. Her work with the poor, regardless of the challenges surrounding it, no longer was a burden for her. Because she saw her Lord Jesus in everyone of the sick and the dying she ever held—believing “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise”—her work became a source of joy for her, in fact. But she had a cross, too, which she bore in silence and in secret—and which was revealed only after her death through her letters which she had wanted burned.

Mother Teresa’s cross was the darkness of feeling abandoned by God, a crisis of faith that haunted her for over 50 years. She cried to God for answers to her questions, but God remained deaf. She found no consolation in prayer or the Eucharist, even as she would exhort her sisters to begin each day with Mass. She would write: In the darkness . . . Lord, my God… I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love — the word — it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” And yet she persevered in her work of caring for the poor and the suffering, inspiring millions with her unconditional love. No one except her superiors knew what she was going through. She continued to bring joy, hope, God’s love to a world in conflict, in spite of persecution from bashers and theological snubs, from critics who saw dark intentions in her moves. And yet, she remained undaunted, just smiling through it all and single-mindedly.

Last September 4, she became Saint Teresa of Calcutta—this is God’s answer to her cries, God’s light to her darkness, for the world to behold. If there is one lesson for all of us to learn from those almost 60 years of darkness and dryness, it is that when we feel we are most alone and abandoned by God, it is when He is closest to us. When we cry over losing everything or everyone we have, it is because God wants to give Himself to us. All of us can resonate with this Saint as all of us at one point or another sometimes feel abandoned by God. Through the shining example St. Teresa of Calcutta, may we all be helped to carry our cross with grace!

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