A Spirit of Poverty | Reflections on St. Teresa's Canonization
One year ago today I was in Rome on the trip of a lifetime. I was given the opportunity to attend Mother Teresa’s canonization. It was an opportunity I didn’t deserve, but an opportunity that transformed my heart. My dear friend, Lindsay Becher, was gifted this trip by the generous supporters of Love Begins Here. Lindsay has worked tirelessly summer after summer for the Mission of LBH. She has given of her whole self to bring Mother Teresa’s teaching to Madison - that love begins at home. Lindsay, in a way, deserved the generosity and compassion shown to her in this gift. And me? I was the tag along friend who benefited from Lindsay’s compassion and service.
My life has been full of these generous gifts that I don’t deserve. I know, I know, woe is me for having amazing experiences. But, as crazy as it might seem, it’s very humbling to realize you’re benefiting solely from other people’s generosity. A generosity I didn’t feel like I deserved. But, I said yes, without hesitation and with total abandonment.
Lindsay and I planned our trip as loosely as possible. For me, there was an element of surrender. I had no agenda and no pre-planned itinerary. All I had to do was show up. I left myself open to the gifts I may encounter.
Every day we would begin our day like this: “What saint do we want to spend Mass with? And what suggested restaurant is nearby?” This led to an incredible experience. (I don’t want to take too much of your time going into detail about how awesome it was to be in a crypt with St. Cecelia and how insta-worthy pasta that literally came out of a wheel of cheese is, so I’ll stick to some highlights.)
On our second day in Rome we made our way to St. Peter’s to walk through the Holy Door and go to Mass. After Mass, Lindsay went to pray in the JPII chapel while I stayed behind to pray a rosary with my bud St. Jude, who just so happened to be buried where we went it Mass. I sat in front of St. Jude, on the floor of St. Peter’s, and tried to quiet myself. I looked up at the end of my Rosary and there was no one around but one guard, standing there with his back towards me. I had closed down St. Peter’s and was completely alone. I had a quiet, intimate moment in one of the busiest churches in the world with one of my favorite saints.
The day continued with more churches, coffee with a seminarian friend, and a lot of laughter. We were making our way to eat pasta out of the cheese wheel when we saw a picture of Mother Teresa outside of some plain looking building. Our curiosity kicked in (we were there to celebrate her after all) and stepped inside. Immediately, we saw multiple women in the iconic blue and white saris/habits. There were Missionaries of Charity everywhere. The walls of the building were lined with stories and pictures of Mother Teresa. We had stumbled into an exhibit on her life- run by her sisters.
We read about her mother's advice to her on the day she left home, “Put your hand in His hand and walk all alone with Him and never look back”. There were stories and quotes from all parts of her life that I had never heard before. I was struck by Mother Teresa’s account of entering the convent as I thought of my own friend who was entering a convent later that month, “All of the sisters were loving and kind. The order is wonderful: to be here; among them, that is happiness. I am so happy that i could not envy anyone because I have reached true happiness for which I was yearning so long.”
In a case was her crucifix, the one she received at the first profession of vows and wore until the end of her life. Her sandals she wore as she traveled thousands of miles to spread God’s love were displayed casually with a simple prayer she prayed daily while putting them on, “Of my own free will, dear Jesus, I will follow You wherever You shall go in search of souls. At any cost to myself and out of the pure love of You.”
Her Nobel Peace Prize was in a case next to a letter she wrote to her sisters. Her writing was everywhere. On envelopes, post cards, and in journals. Her handwritten prayer book laid open with her “Radiating Christ” prayer on display. The same prayer that Love Begins Here participants pray daily. The same prayer that Lindsay has used to teach hundreds of teens about the importance of abandoning ourselves and allowing Christ to shine through us. I watched as Lindsay was moved to tears seeing these glimpses into the life of someone whom she has long admired.
For me, I had always known of Mother Teresa’s work with the poor in Calcutta. I knew she felt a direct calling to leave her order and start the Missionaries of Charity and expose herself to new labors and new sufferings. The mission of the Missionaries of Charity is to love and care for the poorest of the poor. I had read about her time of darkness when she didn’t feel God and still chose to pursue His will. I knew she experienced poverty in a very real way, but this was the first time I had truly focused on her spiritual poverty. Her humility in accepting her need for God. Humbling herself in order to receive the greatest gift: God’s loving mercy.
In a letter to the Archbishop, asking to leave her order in Loreto and start the Missionaries of Charity, she accounted a mystical experience she had with Jesus. She had the thoughts and desires to be in India and work with the poor, and heard Jesus’ voice asking her “Wilt thou refuse?” But she was afraid, “These words, or rather, this voice frightened me. The thought of eating, sleeping, living like the Indians filled me with fear. I prayed long - I prayed so much - I asked Our Mother Mary to ask Jesus to remove all this from me...” She heard the voice say to her, “You have been always saying, ‘Do with me whatever you wish.’ Now I want to act...Trust me lovingly, trust me blindly.” She knew clearly she was called to abandon herself for this work and to win souls for Christ. And she said yes to this call even when she felt unworthy, “God is calling me, unworthy and sinful that I am.”
Mother Teresa’s life perfectly embodies what it means to have a spirit of poverty. To humble ourselves enough to give our heart to God so that He can give us His heart. For most of us, having a spirit of poverty won’t mean abandoning our life’s work and living with the poor - but it will mean abandoning the things we are holding on to and giving them to Jesus at the foot of the cross.
You have to have a spirit of poverty to receive gifts from God. If my heart is full of me, I cannot receive Him. It’s okay to have things, but it is never okay for our things to have us. Even if they are good things. Money, possessions, ideas, health, time, relationships - all of these can be good things, but if our hearts are clinging tightly trying to hold on to those things, we leave no room for God - we have to let them go in order to receive. We must lay this all down at the foot of the cross - not just our suffering. Our relationships, our money, our vanity - we should always be thinking of how we can abandon these at the cross and give them to Jesus.
The day after the exhibit, we went to Mass at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and I got to spend an hour praying with my favorite gal pal, Saint Catherine of Siena. The next day, we got to have Mass at the Opus Dei headquarters, where the host was consecrated on an altar with Saint Josemaria Escriva’s body. While at that church, I went to confession and the priest said to me, “Abandon yourself fully to God and open yourself up to receive His graces. Take advantage of the graces surrounding this canonization.” I turned the corner after this (okay, maybe I was exploring every part of this place I could possibly get to…) and right in front of me were cleric’s worn by Saint Pope John Paul II.
The morning of the canonization, Lindsay and I left our hotel by 4 am. We turned the corner into St. Peter’s square and I remember discussing that we actually had no clue what to expect. “Would there be a line already? How many people?” At 4:21 in the morning (I confirmed with my saved Snapchat story) there were people sleeping, praying, and playing games on the ground in front of the Vatican. Sitting on the ground I could hear echoes of the Rosary being prayed in different languages. We made friends with the people around us (who we’re definitely now Facebook friends with - Hi, Andy and Caitlin!) and tried to remain patient. The waiting wasn’t over when we got into St. Peter’s square. We found our seats in the heat, and I people watched as Lindsay wrote thank you notes to the generous LBH donors. As Mass drew near, the crowd became more and more reverent. A rosary was lead throughout the square and we prepared our hearts for what was about to happen.
The canonization was beautiful. I had never heard the actual words of a Canonization Mass, and was in awe of the intricate beauty as someone came and petitioned for Mother Teresa to be declared a saint. Missionaries of Charity brought up relics to the altar, people from Albania proudly participated, and we followed along with the English translations as Pope Francis declared “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to be a Saint... decreeing that she is to be venerated as such by the whole Church.” Bells chimed and choirs sang as the crowd cheered; there was complete and utter joy.
Reflecting upon the joy that filled Vatican City, I was reminded, once again, that true spiritual poverty doesn’t leave us empty, it allows ourselves to be filled with a living relationship with God. By emptying ourselves, we can be poured into with new graces and in new ways. Mother Teresa’s life and time with the poor can remind us of this. To find contentment in what we have and not be searching for more. By acknowledging our spiritual emptiness and our need for God, we can then be filled with with true joy, with God’s love.
The rest of the trip passed with many little surprises, many reminders to stay open - a favorite restaurant being opened at the time of a thunderstorm, another beautiful Mass in St. Peters, finding a Mother Teresa statue we had been searching for, and of course, passing people on the street and spotting their “canonization tan”.
I know I might not have felt like I deserved the generosity of this gifted trip, but I also know I was meant to receive it. I could feel that in every detail tailored to me. From the moments of silence in the middle of the bustling city, to the priest knowing exactly what I needed to hear in confession - even to the great find of a mustard colored blanket!
By abandoning my plans, I was able to receive. I realize that allowing myself to receive a crazy generous once in a lifetime trip to a canonization might not seem like a huge sacrifice, but it serves as a reminder to surrender ourselves in order to receive gifts from God - a reminder to adopt the heart of Mother Teresa; a heart that is spiritually poor; a heart that isn’t consumed by physical things; a heart humble enough to let God in. Like St. Mother Teresa, I desire, above all else, God’s love to fill my impoverished spirit and to share God’s love with others. I pray that I may allow Him to fill my heart with His will for my life and to, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta prayed daily in her Radiating Christ prayer, “flood my soul with Your spirit and life.”
Let us pray today for God to help us to experience more poverty. Help us to see if our needs are actual needs for God’s glory, and to abandon the rest to His hands. Jesus, we pray that you give us a spirit of poverty. Help us to forget about ourselves a little bit more today than we did yesterday. Put on our hearts one way in which we can forget about ourselves so that we may be able to draw closer to you.