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Mother Teresa on Blessed are you who are Poor
The following passages are taken from the book, “A Life for God,” compiled by LaVonne Neff and published in 1995.
Mother Teresa is never condescending or pitying when she speaks of the poor. To the contrary, she has a positive, vibrant love for poor people. “See the greatness of the poor!” she exclaims after telling a story about a poor person who was especially generous or grateful or loving.
In order to serve the poor, the Missionaries of Charity become poor themselves. They serve as equals, as fiends, of the people they serve. In doing this, they follow the example of Jesus, who became poor for humanity’s sake.
Mother Teresa often speaks to affluent audiences in developed counties. To these people she emphasizes that poverty means more than lack of money. People who are financially comfortable can know loneliness and neglect and abuse. The poor, she warns, may be in our own homes.
The Missionaries of Charity offer more than food and shelter. They offer the kingdom of God, where all needs are satisfied and where people are rich in laughter.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted....
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst...
They shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:3-6, RSV)
Blessed the poor in spirit
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
1. To the world it seems foolish that we delight in poor food, that we relish rough and insipid bulgur; possess only three sets of habits made of coarse cloth or old sauternes, mend and patch them, take great care of them and refuse to have extra; enjoy walking in any shape and color of shoes; bathe with just a bucket of water in small bathing rooms; sweat and perspire but refuse to have a fan; go hungry and thirsty but refuse to eat in the houses of the people; refuse to have radios or gramophones which could be relaxing to the racked nerves after the whole day’s hard toil; walk distances in the rain and hot summer sun, or go cycling, travel by second-class tram, or third-class overcrowded trains; sleep on hard beds, giving up soft and thick mattresses which would be soothing to the aching bodies after the whole day’s hard work; kneel on the rough and thin carpets in the chapel, giving up soft and thick ones; delight in lying in the common wards in the hospital among the poor of Christ when we could easily have private cabins; work like coolies at home and outside when we could easily employ servants and do only the light jobs; relish cleaning the toilets and dirt in the Nirmal Hriday and Shishu Bhavan as though that was the most beautiful job in the world and call it all a tribute to God. To them we are wasting our precious life and burying our talents. Yes, our lives are utterly wasted if we use only the light of reason. Our life has no meaning unless we look at Christ in his poverty. (210)
2. Our Lord gives us a living example: From the very first day of his human existence he was brought up in a poverty which no human being will ever be able to experience, because “being rich he made himself poor.” As I am his co-worker, his “alter Christus,” I must be brought up and nourished by that poverty which our Lord asks of me. (210)
3. A rich man of Delhi, in speaking of our Society, said, “How wonderful it is to see sisters so free from the world—--in the twentieth century when one thinks everything is old-fashioned but the present day.” Keep to the simple ways of poverty: of repairing your shoes, and so on—--of loving poverty as you love your mother. (211)
4. God has not created poverty; it is we who have created it. Before God, all of us are poor. (211)
5. God needs our poverty, not our abundance. (211)
6. I think that if today there are no vocations in the Church, or if they are scarce, it is partly due to the fact that there is too much wealth, too much comfort, too high a standard of living, not only in families but even in religious life.
From all parts of the world young people are coming to India to take on a very poor life, poorer than ours. They are driven by the desire to be free from their environment of wealth. I think they want to be a living example of Christ’s poverty.
It is not enough to know the spirit of poverty; you have to know poverty itself. Poverty means not having anything. Today everyone, even those who come from well-do-do environments, wants to know what it really means to have nothing.
Most of the vocations we receive come from Europe and America. They have asked to join the congregation not because of the work but because of a love for poverty. (211)
7. Riches, both material and spiritual, can choke you if you do not use them fairly. Let us remain as empty as possible so that God can fill us up. For not even God can put anything in a heart that is already full. God does not impose himself on us. (211)
8. When one comes in touch with money, one loses contact with God. May God keep us from that; death is to be preferred.
What can be done with surplus money? Invest it in the bank? No, let us not fall into the habits of the moneylender. We have not the least reason for that, for God is watching over us.
One day there springs up the desire for money and for all that money can provide—--the superfluous, luxury in eating, luxury in dressing, trifles. Needs increase because one thing calls for another. The result is uncontrollable dissatisfaction.
If you have to go shopping, pick up the simplest things. We have to be happy with our poverty. Let us not be driven by our small egotisms.
It may happen that we have to carry water up to a given floor for a bath and that we find three full buckets; the temptation then comes to use all of the water.
If you have to sleep in a poorly ventilated facility; do not give signs of suffocation or difficult breathing, so as to give the impression that you are uncomfortable. It is there that poverty lies.
Poverty makes us free. Therefore we are to rejoice, smile, and have a cheerful heart. (211)
9. The poor are wonderful people. They have their own dignity, which we can easily see. Usually the poor are not known, and therefore one is not able to discover their dignity. But the poor have above all great courage to lead the life they lead. They are forced to live like that; poverty has been imposed on them. We choose poverty; they are forced to accept it. (212)
10. On the cross Christ was deprived of everything. The cross itself had been given him by Pilate; then nails and the crown, by the soldiers. He was naked.
When he died he was stripped of the cross, the nails, and the crown. He was wrapped in a piece of canvas donated by a charitable soul, and he was buried in a tomb that did not belong to him.
Despite all that Jesus could have died like a king and could even have been spared death. He chose poverty because he knew that it was the genuine means to possess God and to bring his love to the earth. (212)
11. It would be a shame for us to be richer than Jesus, who for our sake endured poverty. (212)
12. Our beautiful work with and for the poor is a privileged and a gift for us. St. Vincent de Paul used to tell the young aspirants to his order, “Remember, the poor are our masters. We must love and obey them.” I think that if we go to the poor with that love, with only the desire to give God to them, to bring the joy of Christ (which is our strength) into their homes; if they look at us and see Jesus and his love and compassion in us—--I think the world will soon be full of peace and love. (213)
13. Poverty is freedom. It is a freedom so that what I possess doesn’t own me, so that what I possess doesn’t hold me down, so that my possessions don’t keep me from sharing or giving of myself. (213)
14. When we opened our home in New York, the late Terence Cardinal Cooke was very concerned about the prospect of having to send us a fixed amount every month for the livelihood of the sisters. He was a man who loved the sisters very much. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I found it very hard to explain to him that we work only for the love of God. We simply couldn’t accept any fixed amount for our living expenses. I explained to him the only way that I could. I told him, “Your Eminence, I don’t think God is going to go bankrupt here in New York.” (213)
15. Q: If God created the world, why does be allow such a degree of poverty to exist?
MT: God created the world and saw that it was good. God created man and saw that he was good. God created everything, and he realized that each thing was good. How can we complain against God for the poverty and suffering that exist in the world? Can we honestly do so? God saw that everything was good. What we do with things is another matter. (213)
16. Our poverty is our dowry.
With regard to God, our poverty is our humble recognition and acceptance of our sinfulness, helplessness and utter nothingness, and the acknowledgement of our neediness before him, which expresses itself as hope in him, as an openness to receive all things from him as from our Father.
Our poverty should be true gospel poverty—--gentle, tender, glad and openhearted, always ready to give an expression of love. Poverty is love before it is renunciation. To love, it is necessary to give. To give, it is necessary to be free from selfishness. (214)
17. Desirous to share Christ’s own poverty and that of our poor:
— we accept to have everything in common and to share with one another in the Society;
— we do not accept anything whatsoever from our parents, friends, or benefactors for our personal use. Whatever is given to us is handed over to our superiors for the common use of the community or for the work;
— we shall eat the food of the people, of the country where we live, using what is cheapest. It should be sufficient and wholesome so as to maintain good health which is essential for the work of our vocation;.
— our Houses should be simple and modest, places where the poor feel at home,
— we shall walk whenever opportunity offers, in order to take the cheapest means of transport available;
—we shall sleep in common dormitories without privacy like the poor,
—we and our poor will depend entirely on Divine Providence both for our material and spiritual needs. (214)
18. Poverty is necessary because we are working with the poor. When they complain about the food, we can say: we eat the same. They say, “It was so hot last night, we could not sleep.” We can reply, “We also felt very hot.” The poor have to wash for themselves, go barefoot; we do the same. We have to go down and lift them up. It opens the heart of the poor when we can say we live the same way they do. Sometimes they only have one bucket of water. It is the same with us. The poor have to stand in line; we do too. Food, clothing, everything must be like that of the poor. We have no fasting. Our fasting is to eat the food as we get it. (214)
19. Christ being rich emptied himself. This is where contradiction lies. If I want to be poor like Christ—--who became poor even though he was rich—--I must do the same.
Nowadays people want to be poor and live with the poor, but they want to be free to dispose of things as they wish. To have this freedom is to be rich. They want both and they cannot have both. This is another kind of contradiction.
Our poverty is our freedom. This is our poverty—--the giving up of our freedom to dispose of things, to choose, to possess. The moment I use and dispose of things as mine, that moment I cease to be poor. (215)
20. We practice the virtue of poverty when we mend our clothes quickly and as beautifully as we can. To go about in a torn habit and sari is certainly not the sign of the virtue of poverty. For, remember, we do not profess the poverty of beggars, but the poverty of Christ. Let us also remember that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and for that reason we must respect it always with neatly mended clothes.
We would never dream of using dirty, torn cloth as a tabernacle veil to cover the door of the dwelling that Christ chose for himself on earth since his Ascension into heaven. In the same way, we should never cover the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is our body, with torn, dirty, untidy clothes. Patched clothes are no disgrace. It is said of St. Francis of Assisi that when he died his habit had so many patches that the original cloth was no longer there. (215)
21. I will never forget something that happened when I was at Loreto. One of the children was very, very naughty. She was only six or seven years old. One day, when she was extremely naughty, I took her hand and said, “Come, we’re going for a walk.” She had some money with her. One hand held my hand and the other held tightly to the money “I will buy this, I will buy that,” she kept saying. Suddenly she saw a blind beggar, and at once she left the money with him. From that day she was a completely different child. She had been so small and so naughty. Yet that one decision changed her life. It is the same with you. Get rid of anything that’s holding you back. If you want to be all for Jesus, the decision has to come from within you. (215)
22. The poor do not need our compassion or our pity; they need our help. What they give to us is more than what we give to them. (216)
23. We have no right to judge the rich. For our part, what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter, in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich.
We favor making the poor responsible. We ask their collaboration; we invite them to look for solutions themselves.
In Calcutta there are poor people who survive by serving in the houses of those who have more. They even come to offer their work gratis to our centers, perhaps for just a ha1f-hour each week. This is a way of putting themselves at the level of the rest of men. (216)
24. The indifference of people who walk by without picking up those whom we pick up is a confirmation of their ignorance and lack of faith.
If they were convinced that the one who is lying on the ground is their brother or their sister, I think they would undoubtedly do something. Unfortunately, they do not know what compassion is, and they do not know those beings.
If they understood them, they would immediately become aware of the greatness of those human beings who are lying on the side walks. They would love them naturally, and loving them would lead them to serve them.
I can assert that those who really commit themselves to knowing the poor soon realize that the poor are our brothers, no matter what their race, nationality, or religion. (216)
25. The aim of the Missionaries of Charity is to take God, to take his love, to the homes of the poor and thus to lead them to him. It does not matter who they are, nor what their nationality or social status may be. We intend to make them understand the love and compassion that God has for them, which is a love of predilection. (217)
26. Q: What advice would you give to the people of today?
MT: Know the poorest of the poor among your neighbors, in your neighborhoods, in your town, in your city, perhaps in your own family. When you know them, that will lead you to love them. And love will impel you to serve them. Only then will you begin to act like Jesus and live out the gospel. Place yourselves at the service of the poor. Open your hearts to love them. Be living witnesses of God’s mercy. This may lead you to give up your own sons so that they may serve God, who gives preference to the poor. (217)
27. The poorest of the poor, irrespective of caste, creed, or nationality are:
— the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the ignorant, the captives, the crippled, the leprosy sufferers, the alcoholics, the sick and dying destitutes, the unloved, the abandoned, the outcasts; all those who are a burden to human society, who have lost all hope and faith in life; and every Missionary of Charity, by accepting to live the life of evangelical poverty and by the very fact of being sinners;
— and all hard-hearted, persistent sinners; those under the power of the evil one; those who are leading others to sin, error or confusion; the atheists, the erring; those in confusion and doubt; the tempted, the spiritually blind, the weak, lax, and ignorant; those not yet touched by the light of Christ; those hungry for the Word and peace of God; the difficult, the repulsive, the rejected, the sorrowful, and the souls in purgatory. (217)
28. As you love God you must love the poor in their sufferings. The love of the poor overflows from your love for God. You must find the poor and serve them. When you have found them, you must take them to your heart. We owe our people the greatest gratitude, because they allow us to touch Christ. We must love the poor like we love him. A Hindu told me, “I know what you do in Nirmal Hriday, you take them from the streets and bring them to heaven.” (217)
29. Jesus said, “Go and teach all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In every country there are poor. On certain continents poverty is more spiritual than material. That poverty consists of loneliness, discouragement; and the lack of meaning in life. I have also seen in Europe and America very poor people sleeping on newspapers or rags in the streets. There are those kind of poor in London, Madrid, and Rome. My visits have the sole purpose of making people aware of the poor in their own countries. It is too easy simply to talk or concern ourselves with the poor who are far away. It is much harder and, perhaps, more challenging to turn our attention and concern toward the poor who live right next door to us. (218)
30. All over the world people are saying that Mother Teresa is spoiling the poor by giving them things free. At a seminary in Bangalore, once a nun said to me, “Mother Teresa, you are spoiling the poor people by giving them things free. They are losing their human dignity. When everyone was quiet, I said calmly, “No one spoils as much as God himself. See the wonderful gifts he has given us freely. All of you here have no glasses, yet you all can see. If God were to take money for your sight, what would happen? Continually we are breathing and living on oxygen that we do not pay for. What would happen if God were to say, “If you work four hours, you will get sunshine for two hours? How many of us would then survive?” Then I also told them: “There are many congregations who spoil the rich; it is good to have one congregation in the name of the poor, to spoil the poor. There was profound silence; nobody said a word after that. (218)
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
31. We know that poverty means, first of all, to be hungry for bread, to need clothing, and not have a home. But there is a far greater kind of poverty. It means being unwanted, unloved, and neglected. It means having no one to call your own. (218)
32. It’s possible that in the apartment or house across from yours, there is someone who is blind. Perhaps there is a blind man who would be thrilled if you would go over and read the newspaper to him. It’s possible that there is a family that needs something that seems insignificant to you, something as simple as having someone baby sit their child for half an hour. There are so many little things that are so small many people almost forget about them. But for you, as sons and daughters of charity, these aren’t small things. They show your love for Christ. And this is what I am asking of you. Place yourselves at the service of the poor. Above all, do it right where you are and love them from the heart. (219)
33. In Haiti—--just as in England, Spain, Italy, or India—--there are unhappy people everywhere. Not only because they don’t have any bread to eat. No, they hunger for love, understanding, and companionship. They suffer from loneliness, the feeling of being unwanted and rejected, a poverty of the soul. These are the things that can be far worse than being hungry or not having enough material goods.
In Western countries, your countries, I can perceive this in the people I meet. There exists something in common among your poor and the poor in India: the need for happiness and joy in spite of the hardships of life. It is something marvelous that the same call unites us, so that we can together extend Jesus’ saving work. (219)
34. You must experience the joy of poverty. Poverty is not only renunciation. Poverty is joy. Poverty is love. My reason for doing without is that I love Jesus. Unless you experience for yourself this joy of poverty, you will never understand what I am saying. (219)
35. I want you to experience that joy of poverty which is really the perfect joy of St. Francis of Assisi. He called it Lady Poverty. St. Ignatius called it Mother Poverty. The more we have, the less we can give. So let us have less to be able to give all to Jesus. (219)
36. Do we know our poor people? Do we know the poor in our house, in our family? Perhaps they are not hungry for a piece of bread. Perhaps our children, husband, wife, are not hungry, or naked, or dispossessed, but are you sure there is no one there who feels unwanted, deprived of affection? Where is your elderly father or mother?
One day I visited a house where our sisters shelter the aged. This is one of the nicest houses in England, filled with beautiful and precious things, yet there was not one smile on the faces of those people. All of them were looking toward the door.
I asked the sister in charge, “Why are they like that? Why can you not see a smile on their faces?” (I am accustomed to seeing smiles on people’s faces. I think a smile generates a smile, just as love generates love.)
The sister answered, “The same thing happens every day. They are always waiting for someone to come and visit them. Loneliness eats them up, and day after day they do not stop looking. Nobody comes.”
Abandonment is an awful poverty. (220)
37. There are poor people everywhere, but the deepest poverty is not being loved. The poor whom we must seek may live near us or far away. They can be materially or spiritually poor. They may be hungry for bread or hungry for friendship. They may need clothing, or they may need the sense of wealth that God’s love for them represents. They may need the shelter of a house made of bricks and cement or the shelter of having a place in our hearts. (220)
38. Our sisters are working in New York with the shut-ins. They see the terrible pain of our people, the pain of loneliness, of fear, of being unwanted and unloved. I think it is much greater pain, much greater than even cancer or tuberculosis. The sisters have often met people like that, people who are completely brokenhearted, desperate with feelings of hurt. (220)
39. You in the West have the spiritually poorest of the poor much more than you have physically poor people. Very often among the rich there are very, very spiritually poor people. I find it is not difficult to give a plate of rice to a hungry person, to furnish a bed to a person who has no bed, but to console or to remove that bitterness, to remove that anger, to remove that loneliness takes a long time. (220)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst...
For they shall be satisfied.
40. There is a natural conscience in every human being to know right from wrong. I deal with thousands who are non-Christians, and you can see such a conscience at work in their lives, drawing them to God. In everybody there is a tremendous hunger for God, in spite of all appearances. (221)
41. Christ certainly did not feast sumptuously during his life. His parents were poor, and the poor do not feast on the good things of the table. In fact he often endured real want, as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes and the plucking of the ears of grain on walks the fields teach us. The thought of these instances should be salutary reminders when our meals are meager in the mission or at home. If dishes taste good, thank God if not, thank him still and thank him even more because he has given you an opportunity to imitate our Savior in his poverty. It would be a defect to speak about food or to complain about what is served, to be occupied with such thoughts at any time is not edifying. (221)
42. St. Thérese of Lisieux said, “Our Lord has need of our love. He has no need of our works. The same God who declares that he has no need to tell us if he be hungry, did not disdain to be beg a little water from the Samaritan woman. He was thirsty, but when he said, ‘Give me to drink,’ he, the creator of the universe, asked for the love of his creature. He thirsted for love.” (221)
43. Today the world is hungry for God. You and I can bring him to others, as long as we ourselves have understood the love of Christ. (222)
44. I remember the day I picked up a woman in the street, thinking that she was starving to death. I offered her a dish of rice. She kept looking at it for a long while. I tried to persuade her to eat.
Then she said, with utter simplicity, “I can’t believe it’s rice. I have been a long time without eating.”
She condemned no one. She did not complain against the rich. She did not utter any bitter words. She simply couldn’t believe it was rice. (222)
45. In 1976, at the invitation of the President of Mexico, we opened a house in that nation. Our sisters, as is the custom in our congregation, were full of activity---seeing everyone, walking tirelessly until their legs could endure no more, trying to discover where the greatest need was in order to begin there.
They found deep poverty everywhere in Mexico. All the zones they visited appeared immensely poor. But no one asked them for clothing or medicine or food—--nothing. Only, “Teach us the Word of God.”
I was very surprised. Those people are hungry for God: “Teach us the Word of God.” (222)
46. I believe that we should realize that poverty doesn’t only consist in being hungry for bread, but rather it is a tremendous hunger for human dignity. We need to love and to be somebody for someone else. This is where we make our mistake and shove people aside. Not only have we denied the poor a piece of bread, but by thinking that they have no worth and leaving them abandoned in the streets. We have denied them the human dignity that is rightfully theirs as children of God. They are my brothers and sisters as long as they are there. And why am I not in their place? This should be a very important question. We could have been in their place if we had not received the love and affection that has been given to us. (222)
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