The Wisdom of Mother Teresa: The Development of Love
It’s hard to put into words why I came to love Kolkata, the City of Joy. Its mayhem of movement and noise were overwhelming to my introvertedness, its poverty and need overwhelming to my sense of compassion and empathy, its emotionally honest and exuberant people overwhelming to my midwestern reserve. I don’t know why I loved it, but I did.
I think it had something to do with the community I found there. In the midst of heartbreaking and hopeless situations, I heard story after story of God’s people moved by compassion into the middle of the hardest places and worst neighborhoods. Their commitment inspired me. I wanted to become more like them. I wanted to have a part in changing the pain of the world into joy.
I found a similar sense of kinship with the most well-known figure to have ever left home and country to serve God there, Mother Teresa. In reading her personal letters in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, I discovered a mentor who spoke powerfully to my heart about where to begin to change the world: with the love of God. Read the first part of the series on that topic here.
But a proper response to the life and letters of Mother Teresa falls short if it ends with my solitary pursuit of Jesus. Mother Teresa’s impact in the world occurred precisely because she didn’t follow her vision alone. If we let Mother Teresa further mentor us towards becoming Jesus-loving, world-changing people, we will hear her urge us not only towards love of Jesus, but towards community. It is out of a community, or a group of believers centered in the love of God, that real change becomes possible.
DISCIPLING OTHERS TO LOVE
After Mother Teresa had her mountaintop vision experience with God in 1947, she took great care to develop a path to faithfully walk it out. She considered the end right from the beginning, working things out in great detail. She knew that the vision God had given her was not something she could pursue as a solitary servant, but something she needed to do with others. Passing on that vision and developing others to serve God with her was absolutely crucial.
It’s likely that if God hadn’t given Mother Teresa a vision that included leadership development, and she had served the poor as best she could on her own, that none of us would have ever heard of her. Mother Teresa maximized her impact because she recognized that God’s call to her included bringing others along and developing the same vision and strength in their hearts that she had discovered.
A crucial element of that development plan was discipleship, specifically helping each new Sister connect with the love of God. In Mother Teresa’s order, the first year was set apart solely for discipleship in the spiritual life and connection to God. Mother Teresa didn’t want to develop missionaries who served with a focus on external results or circumstances, but wanted them to have “a complete knowledge of the spiritual life — so that in the street or in the holes of the poor, or at home in the convent they would live the life of close union with God.” She wrote that “The interior must become the main power of the exterior.”
That year of contemplation, with the single focus of knowing God, would be repeated for the sisters every six years. The main thing — loving God — would stay the main thing. Developing and sustaining a people who were in love with Jesus was something that had to be intentionally purposed. It was something that would take hard work and sacrifice. It was something that would cost this new mission to the poor both time and resources, and would also come with an emotional price-tag.
THE COST OF LOVE
To fully grasp the cost of this year of communion and not service, we must step back into the mayhem on the streets of Kolkata, true in Mother Teresa’s time as well as today. Surrounded by overwhelming poverty and need, and with the burden of God’ love for the poor affecting her every waking moment, it would have been natural to mobilize as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But Mother Teresa chose a super-natural way. Despite the pressure, she set a rule to not launch anyone into service who had not spent a full year simply communing with God. She made the costly choice to delay.
Mother Teresa knew that it would cost far more to mobilize missionaries who didn’t deeply love Jesus. As she wrote in her letters:
“For if they are not in love with God — they will not be able to lead this life.”
Growing up, I received a lot of vision for what a life devoted to God could accomplish. I met missionaries and read biographies that excited me about great exploits for God. But I also internalized a great pressure to not waste time. “Seizing every opportunity” became something that drove me to want to take short-cuts to spiritual maturity. I allowed my burden to effectively reach others and meet the needs of the world to create a pressure cooker where I lost sight of the love of God for me. Despite the pain of disconnection from God’s heart, I refused to stop my activity to just learn the truth of his love again. After all, people were dying every day without knowing Jesus. How could I justify more delays?
The wise voice of my mentor, Mother Teresa, gave me a reason. If you don’t love God, you won’t be able to live this way, no matter how much you want to. She understood that the pressures of need, of frustration, of witnessing pain, and of limited ability to solve the world’s problems will destroy us if we let them lead. The only sustainable path to living a life of sacrificial love is to know the love of God ourselves. Separated from that foundation, ministry easily becomes a recipe for burnout and disaster.
LIVING IN GOD’S LOVE FOR A LIFETIME
Written into Mother Teresa’s developmental plan was a belief that learning to rest in the love of God is not a one-time thing. It is something we have to intentionally return to throughout life. Her commitment to this reality led her to develop a powerful group of women who would be able to thrive in the hardest places of the world. Many visitors have given testimony to the sweet spirit of humility and service with which these Missionaries of Charity have performed some of the most heart-rending work.
Mother Teresa taught others to put love of God first and weave it through every part of life. She formed a community in love with God, able to keep that love in the forefront while serving others. The result has been a movement of compassion that has expanded far beyond Kolkata’s streets and even survived her death.
As I spent my own short season in Kolkata, surrounded by unsung heroes, I heard many stories of discouraging and even tragic circumstances where God’s love and face had often seemed hidden from view. It was only the love these believers had for Jesus, and the way they were able to compassionately show that love to each other in times of great pain, that kept them moving forward with God, and consequently moving forward in service. In the midst of their fellowship, I learned the power of togetherness to bring about lasting change in a hurting world.
In our desire to change the world, we must begin with being developed to know the love of God. And then, we must continue to live it out with others.
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
1. Let yourself be developed - find a mentor. No matter how far along we are in our spiritual walk, we can always benefit from letting another trusted believer speak into our life. That mentor may be someone you have frequent contact or fellowship with, or may be someone who speaks into your life indirectly, like an author. Who do you know that keeps the love of God at the center of their activities? Who do you aspire to be like?
2. Open your life to others. There is power in a life lived with others, both to change the world and to be changed. Who could you connect with who would help you become more like Jesus? Whose vision for God could you join in on with a full heart?
3. Look for opportunities to develop others. As you learn the importance of taking time out to know God’s love for yourself, look for ways to pass on that knowledge to others in your sphere of influence. Do you know someone who may be letting the world’s burdens take over and cloud their view of God’s love for them? Who can you support or encourage to prioritize that foundation of love for God in their life?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Megan Beehler lives in Long Beach, California, where she recently completed an apprenticeship year with :Beta: Communities. When not contemplating the meaning of life, she enjoys cooking Indian food and watching Bollywood films.
For further reading: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk