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Mother Teresa is well on her posthumous way to becoming a Saint – a figure of supernatural powers to whom the faithful can pray and look to as an example. Her life long work as the founder of the Sisters of Charity, which established 519 homes throughout the world to serve the poorest of the poor, is well known. She appears to be a person driven to tend and care for thousands of otherwise forgotten and neglected persons – orphans, lepers, terminally ill street people, AIDS victims and many others. She and her fellow sisters received no pay as they worked long and difficult hours. Understandably, she is seen as a semi-divine figure who represented all of the best qualities of selflessness.
But Mother Teresa, her work and her life have also been subject to critical review. Christopher Hitchens, the well known Atheist, wrote a book about her work entitled, of all things, Missionary Position, in which he questions her motivations and the true nature of her charity. She accepted vast amounts of money from the convicted financier Charles Keating and even wrote a letter to his trial judge pleading for mercy in his behalf. She met often with the wife of the Haitian despot Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and appears to have accepted large donations from Duvalier ill gotten wealth. She often encouraged suffering by the poor, saying they are needed as living symbols of Christ’s suffering. Hitchens claims she believed that her duty to the poor was to soothe their distress and pray for them but not to address the causes of their poverty. In that regard, her homes are said to offer kindness and basic needs but they do not offer substantive medical treatment or pain suppressing drugs. Further, Hitchens says she was motivated only to evangelize and expand the Catholic Church. Charity to the poor was a highly visible way to attract converts. Perhaps even more damning is the claim that Teresa lacked any real faith in God as evidenced by personal letters she wrote questioning divine existence. Hitchens is uncharitable is his depiction of Teresa. She was a fraud, he writes.
What we find with Mother Teresa is that she was, like all of us, a complex person with the same kind of inconsistencies and paradoxes we all tend to have. Reviewing her life work can be a lesson to us, therefore, in how we discern – but not judge – other people. We owe her not blind reverence – or angry condemnation, but the honor of her true self. Her actions should be examined in light of her motivations as well as the good she created. The world’s rush to declare her a saint may be sincere but does it reflect the truth? Did she really help others and was her charity really selfless?
And that same scrutiny should be applied to her flaws. Even if she did accept money from shady characters to fund her work, is that so bad if it helped the poor? Even if she did not set out to cure disease or poverty, is that so bad if she offered tenderness, love, and dignity to the unwashed and unwanted? Even if she had doubts about the existence of God, is that any less human than the doubts of Jesus, the Biblical character Job or any other human?
The truth of Mother Teresa is complicated. It demands that we refuse to either sanctify her or declare her a fraud. Our response to her must be nuanced and balanced. We must offer her the gift of her personal truth – she was who she was – as we also offer the gift of our open minds. Neither saint nor sinner, she was above all a human being – one who could embrace a dirty and infectious street person from the slums of Calcutta, even as she courted ruthless millionaires. But living a life of paradox can describe any person. It can certainly describe me. Who are we to close our minds about who another is? Who are we to judge? Who are we to deny another soul the dignity of their truth?
My introduction this morning, I hope, sets up my theme this month on amazing gifts we can offer others. I’ve initiated this message series because I believe one goal of all forms of spirituality is to promote lives and actions of grace – to encourage people to be ones who give away open minded understanding, compassion and inspiration. Grace, as we all know, is a gift without strings – a thing, act or gesture that is freely and unconditionally offered to another. To be people of grace, therefore, is to continuously be ones who change things for the better – from small, everyday acts of kindness, to large acts of serving, to how we think about and treat people.
Because of our cancelled service last Sunday, I’ve combined two of my suggested amazing gifts we can offer others – into one message. You get this morning a twofer! The topics are related though. I suggest we can first offer others the gift to be themselves. When we do, we will have done so because we have also offered the gift of our open minds. As simple as these seem, they are extraordinary gifts many of us do not always extend. But when we do extend the grace of respecting and celebrating another person for who they are or were, we have offered a profound spiritual gift – a gift that confers dignity for his or her deep rooted soul. That soul is an amalgam of a person’s life, good and bad – their birth, genetics, personality, life experiences, successes, failures and eccentricities. To be a person of true grace, our gift of allowing others to be themselves must be total – not based on any factor other than their humanity.
But such a gift to allow others the honor of being themselves can only come if we have also offered the gift of our open mind. Too often, we judge others based on limited facts and prejudiced thinking. We approach people, issues and situations in life with fanatical convictions and stereotypes – opinions we have formed which we often refuse to change. Few of us are completely free from such rigid thinking – my thoughts, my opinions, my views of other people – are right. I do not need to change. They do.
An open mind, however, is a spiritual quality to which we might aspire. This does not mean we abandon the right to form an opinion. Instead, an open mind is flexible, evolving and questioning. Thoughts and opinions are constantly examined, re-examined and changed – all the better to search for truth. We open our minds by reading and listening to other ideas not as a way to challenge them, but as a way to grow. We don’t isolate ourselves with people who think and act like us but, instead, embrace people with diverse lifestyles, beliefs and cultures. Those who are different from us are not enemies to be feared but ones who expand and enlighten us.
Very few people or issues in life are black and white, good or bad. Much like Mother Teresa, people and issues are complicated and full of seeming contradictions. Are all conservatives heartless? Are all liberals naive hypocrites? Are all gays and lesbians deviants who choose to be supposedly unnatural just for sexual pleasure? Are religious fundamentalists ignorant and fear filled fanatics? Are Atheists amoral and blind to evidence of a higher power? Such questions demand open minds for the persons described – as much as they demand of us a refusal to judge and condemn.
Sadly, we have become people with little grace in that regard. We are often too judgmental, with closed minds and we fail to allow others the respect to be themselves, to enjoy the possibility that their way is as valid as our way, to the fact that they may have wisdom to offer us. We often speak of spiritual ethics like unconditional love and living at peace but we fail to remember them and practice them. I met someone a few months ago with whom I was initially suspicious – all on the basis of my own fears and not based on anything he or she had done. I was soon proven totally incorrect in my initial thinking. What I had done, until I opened my mind to learn more, was deny the person the respect of accepting them as they presented. I robbed the person of their soul as I robbed myself of any claim to grace. I can do this all too easily every day – a homeless person I encounter on the street is a drug addict, lazy, dirty, scary. Someone from my previous conservative church, who I recently ran into, is a bigot, hateful and a homophobe. Why do I presume to judge? Why is my mind so fixed? Who appointed me God?
Too often we can either shun a person who is different, wag our tongues in judgment or seek to change them. We adopt the arrogant attitude that our way of thinking, acting, loving is best and the other must conform to our standards. We do this in our relationships, our families and with our friends. We nag them about characteristics we do not like as we encourage them to be something they are not. The message we implicitly tell them is “I don’t accept you as you are and I would love you more if…” We spiritually kill their souls – denying them the beauty and joy of being true to who they are.
Struggling and broken relationships are littered with people who cannot or will not extend to their partner or friend the gift of being themselves. That gift may not mean we stay with another, agree with another or initiate a relationship – but it does offer dignity and respect without trying to change them, without judging them. It recognizes the beauty of differences. It understands that none of us are perfect and that the other is not only entitled to his or her ways and beliefs, but that he or she may be right. Ideally, in all our human relationships, we can learn to embrace and honor diversity – good and bad – as a part of the colorful fabric that makes up humanity.
A recent article in Psychology Today asserts that people who are constantly trying to change others, who are judgmental and critical of others, they are ones unable or unwilling to control themselves. Failing to control their own emotions, behaviors or attitudes, they seek to control others – they fixate, as Jesus famously opined, on the speck in another person’s eye while ignoring the log in their own. Such people, Psychology Today asserts, are the emotionally immature who project their self loathing on others by being critical and judgmental of them. Such people are the jealous and insecure who demand control over another’s behavior to salve their own issues. They are those people unable to control their own anger or temper and so they try to control and change others.
Healthy people, the article suggests, are those who practice emotional autonomy. They recognize and accept that the only person over which they have practical and legitimate control is themselves and so their outward focus is open minded and rarely judgmental. These are people of grace – they listen more than speak, they never humiliate another, they put the interests and feelings of others above their own, conversations are rarely focused on their concerns but on those of the other, they are gentle, peaceable, kind and encouraging, they have inquisitive and generous minds.
Even more, they intuitively practice a form of Buddhist mindfulness which promotes simple awareness. Observations of other people, what they do and how they act are mentally noted but not analyzed. Open minds, therefore, are not empty minds devoid of thought. Rather, they discern but do not judge, they observe but do not criticize. As Buddhists note, this allows one to find greater inner peace and greater love for others. We let go of the fruitless effort to change other people. Absent critical judgement of others, we can then focus on our own growth as well as on the good that binds people together.
We need not change our ways, therefore, just to be agreeable with others. Indeed, we can disagree with others – our friends, our colleagues, our partners, our political opponents – without being disagreeable. In this time when our nation is so divided, we can remember the intrinsic personhood of political or religious opponents. Their beliefs almost always come honestly and even as we might disagree with them, we can treat them, speak to them and talk about them with grace – even if they do not extend the same. We give them the gift of being and believing as they feel called. We listen to them and seek to understand and even learn from them. We come together as one people who are mature enough to disagree in a manner that uplifts instead of tears down.
Malcolm Muggeridge, a BBC reporter, was one of the first western journalists who reported on the work of Mother Teresa. He is largely responsible for her subsequent fame. Before she was well-known, he wrote of encountering her at the first home she had established in Calcutta that served the so-called untouchables – the lowest class of Indians. Teresa was tending a very old and terminally ill man, one whose body was full of a cancer that was literally eating him alive. He had no family and even the nurses and doctors had deemed his condition hopeless as they focused on helping others. The man’s many open wounds were infected and full of worms. The smell, reports Muggeridge, was almost unbearable. But Teresa slowly and gently applied a potassium mixture to his wounds that would cleanse them and kill the parasites. This took several hours. At one point, the man opened his eyes and peered up at Teresa. He murmured a Hindu phrase which meant “Glory to you, woman.” Muggeridge reports that Teresa replied to him, “No sir, glory to you.” The man died two days later.
The contemporary well known poet Maya Angelou once said, in regard to how we treat others, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I related the story of Mother Teresa not to try and discount any of the critical reviews of her work. Sincere people have legitimately removed the gauzy veil of sainthood that surrounds her. But what is clear is that Teresa, with all her faults, was a woman of grace – one who exuded a kind of peace, humility and gentleness toward others that made them feel loved and respected. When we are people of grace, we focus on how we make others feel. We concern ourselves less with how we feel than with how embracing, listening, and empathetic we can be. We walk and speak humbly and in a way that implicitly tells the world that peace comes with us, that gentleness is present. No matter the cause, no matter the provocation, no matter the differences, people of grace accept others as they are – full of complexities and flaws – but true to their own souls. That is an ethic we aspire to at the Gathering – to welcome all into our midst even as we are also conscious of our safety. To the homeless folk who walk in here, to the addicts determined to get some money from us, to the seemingly unappreciative homeless youth we often serve, to the gays or lesbians who timidly visit, to our partners, family members and friends with all their big and small flaws, to all of the eccentric and diverse ones we meet, let us not with words – but with our open minds and respect – say to them, “Glory to you.”