Do You See What I See: The Third Teresa
What’s with the name Teresa in the Catholic lexicon of saints? Peggy Spencer and Viola Athaide have already posted tributes to St Teresa of Avila and St Thérèse of Lisieux respectively. Somewhat coincidentally, the latter also happens to be a favourite of mine, along with yet another woman of faith bearing the same first name – Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
I wonder if I might add a couple of my own thoughts on Thérèse of Lisieux before dwelling on the ‘third Teresa’, saint of the gutters of Calcutta.
Incidentally, I have no doubt there are many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of hidden gems in heaven bearing the same first name – but for the moment three should do, I would think!
St Thérèse of Lisieux appeals to me particularly because of her unpretentious, artless disposition. In one of her writings she noted that she left the learned books she could not understand to great souls and great minds.
“I rejoice to be little,” she declared, “because only children, and those who are like them, will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.” There’s one quote of hers, couched in the simplest words, that’s especially dear to me. “The loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God,” she wrote, “is the heart of a mother.”
As a young girl, Thérèse was rather spoilt and given to tantrums. Her 12-year-old sister Leonie, feeling she had no further use for her doll dressmaking kit, stuffed a basket full of materials for making new dresses and offered it to her sisters Celine and Thérèse. “Choose what you wish, little sisters,” invited Leonie.
Six-year-old Celine picked a little ball of wool that pleased her.
Thérèse simply said, “I choose all!” She tried hard all through her short life to overcome her relatively minor failings, and the following anecdote reveals a novel approach in her efforts.
An older nun in her convent produced strange, clacking noises in chapel – the good lady was probably either toying with her rosary or was afflicted by ill-fitting dentures. Whatever the cause, the rattling sound really got to Thérèse. She tried to shut her ears but was unsuccessful.
How did she respond?
Apparently she made a concert out of the clacking and offered it as a prayer to Jesus! This was the “Little Way” which Thérèse sought to follow – her philosophy was not to accomplish heroic deeds but to achieve little goals through the power of love.
My all-time favorite amongst her sayings is: “The splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not rob the little violet of its scent nor the daisy of its simple charm. If all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, our Lord’s living garden.”
I turn now to ‘Teresa the third’ – one of the most influential humanitarians of the 20th century, St Teresa of Calcutta. I am Indian by birth, so this woman of profound faith and conviction holds special appeal for me.
There happen to be a few similarities between Thérèse of Lisieux and Mother Teresa, who was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, North Macedonia, on August 26, 1910, also in an intensely devout Catholic family. By coincidence, Gonxhe in Albanian means “rosebud” or “little flower”!
Her mother instilled in the young Agnes a deep commitment to works of charity. “My child, never eat a single mouthful unless you share it with others,” she counselled her daughter.
In 1928, at the age of 18, Agnes left home with the aim of becoming a missionary. She went first to the Loretto sisters in Ireland. She never saw her family again. The following year she travelled to India, and two years later became a nun, choosing the name Teresa to honour St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Teresa of Avila.
Distressed by the sight of poverty and suffering on the streets of Calcutta, Agnes followed her inner call to “give up all and follow Christ into the slums to serve Him among the poorest of the poor.”
Over the next two decades, she established a leper colony, an orphanage, a nursing home, a family clinic and a string of mobile health clinics. In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity, to serve “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved throughout society, people that have become a burden to society and are shunned by everyone.”
She did not seek to convert those she encountered to Catholicism. “Yes, I convert,” she acknowledged; “but I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist. And after you have found God, it is for you to do what God wants you to do.”
Mother Teresa preached a similar message to Thérèse of Lisieux. “Not all of us can do great things,” she said. “But we can do small things with great love.”
In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She turned down the Nobel honour banquet and requested that the $192,000 prize money be used to help the poor in India.
After receiving her prize, she was asked: “What can we do to promote world peace?” Mother Teresa responded in her candid, forthright manner, “Go home and love your family.”
I’d like to end with the words of Thérèse of Lisieux, who with simple eloquence observed, “Without love, deeds – even the most brilliant – count as nothing.”