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Her darkness was a warning

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Her straightforward commitment to serve the poorest of the poor did not spare her controversy. She was criticized by the left for not pushing for greater social change. She was faulted by the right for not proselytizing more explicitly, saving souls as she cared for bodies. She understood the uses of influence and how to raise money, but she did not engage in politics or protest to accomplish her goals.

Because of this, Mother Teresa was useful to politicians who welcomed her faith-based initiative approach to social inequities without any direct challenge to the systems that caused them. She was also welcomed by church leaders who liked her example and spirituality of women devoted to charitable work who do not challenge religion's complicity with the status quo or question the structures of authority. Revelations that she experienced a prolonged dark night of the soul in the midst of her years of service may even raise her status as a selfless servant whose faith was not dependent on respites of consolation and encouragement.

She is beyond actual diagnosis by those who suggest that she was clinically depressed or simply exhausted, or that she suffered what many celebrities experience as the gap between adulation and ordinary reality. It is hard to imagine Mother Teresa feeling like a hypocrite, but recall that her life as an icon of holiness was as besieged by paparazzi as any Hollywood star's, and the burden of expectations must have been enormous. She is a saint because she pressed on in the midst of doubt to be present to those abandoned by the rest of the world - those who still die each day by the thousands at the outer rim of every support system and safety net.

What if her legacy was not to demonstrate that God rewards extraordinary servants with extraordinary prayer lives, but that God shares the darkness of the world's desperate poor with anyone willing to go there? What if her apparent silence about the causes of poverty was her way of letting the obvious speak for itself, the way Lazarus and his dogs make their case by their presence at the rich man's doorstep? What if Mother Teresa's darkness was a warning? We made one of the world's prophets into a celebrity, but ignored her message and her example. We wanted to believe that she lived on a higher plane, motivated by miracles and visited by angels. She had her reward.

But what if she was just like us, saw problems, responded, and got deeper and deeper into the suffering of others because there seemed no end to it? She spoke of a "call within a call," successive invitations to pursue God's beloved poor to the bottom.

We who by birth and luck live higher on life's economic pyramids wish that poverty and its consequences could be resolved, but it all seems so complicated and predictable, beyond our control. We suffer the fatigue of seeing things we don't know how to change without disturbing the larger systems that sustain us. Mother Teresa is at last disturbing the world in a way her wonderful works did not seem able to. The question she poses is the starting point everyone can make, however far they take it and wherever they come out in the end: What is your call here and now, and what is keeping you from answering it?


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