I’d like to continue my “Mother Teresa” theme this week (feast day: September 5th). We are often reminded that we need to develop the Christian virtues (habits of holiness) in order to get to Heaven, such as kindness, fortitude, and humility. The problem is, a lot of people make abstractions out of those and say vague things like “I should be more kind or more generous.” What we really need are concrete ways of making that happen, to test if we really are growing in those virtues.
So I like to turn to the saints and their practical wisdom and examples of how to do so.
Many of the saints, including Mother Teresa herself, call humility the “mother of all the virtues.” Without it, we usually can’t grow in
the other ones. She realized that humility meant depending on God rather than herself and understanding that everything good
comes from God. Here’s her quote: “If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what
you are. If you are blamed, you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”
Since Mother Teresa trained her novice sisters how to grow in holiness and virtue, she kept a list for them of ways to grow in humility before Christ. She certainly practiced these in her own life! Most of them apply not only to religious communities, but to Christians in all walks of life.
Here’s that list.
- Speak as little as possible about yourself.
- Keep busy with your own affairs and not those of others.
- Avoid curiosity*
- Do not interfere in the affairs of others.
- Accept small irritations with good humor.
- Do not dwell on the faults of others.
- Accept censures even if unmerited.
- Give in to the will of others.**
- Accept insults and injuries.**
- Accept contempt, being forgotten and disregarded.
- Be courteous & delicate even when provoked by someone.
- Do not seek to be admired and loved.***
- Do not protect yourself behind your own dignity.
- Give in, in discussions, even when your are right.
- Choose always the more difficult task.
Some of these are self-explanatory, but others require background explanation. For example, #3 refers to curiosity in the religious
sense of the word. It does not mean that we should not be curious about and interested in how things work, how to solve a
problem, and so on. It means that we should not concern ourselves with things that don’t pertain to us and/or don’t help us grow in
holiness. For example, we should have no interest in gossip about others, even if it is not negative. Consider all the time and
attention so many people pay to the lives of famous athletes or celebrities or entertainers, or the problems of others. What good
does that do to help us in our own lives, or to become closer to the Lord? At best, it can be a waste of time, at worst detraction and
gossip. In a world fueled by blogs, websites, and social media designed to get us “curious” about things that don’t really matter (for
commercial gain) this is especially difficult to resist. Think of how much time we spend on social media—time that was spent more
often in interpersonal interactions before it was invented. While it has some positive uses, it often pulls us into things that are quite
irrelevant to improving our lives or relationship with the Lord.
Numbers 8 & 9 are very hard for us saints-in-the-making. While we should not surrender to the will of someone asking us to do
something evil, we often strive in life to “get our own way” for the sake of getting our own way, even for things that don’t matter
much. (This is an especially huge challenge in marriage, of course!)
Number 12 is enormously important – and enormously countercultural. Our culture is deeply rooted in “getting noticed,” “getting
admired,” “being loved” – and never having our feelings disrespected. If anyone doubts this, he need only look at what teenagers
are doing on social media. But of course, the business world makes this a foundational building block as well: “If you are not getting
noticed, not ‘networking’, you will not get promoted.” The problem here is that so many people take that concept out of the
business world and transfer it into their personal relationships, or – worse yet – their relationship with the Lord. They might, for
example, only do volunteer work if they get a pat on the back for it, but never if they get no “credit” for it.
Number 15 is a “rule of thumb” for traditional religious communities (like Mother’s Missionaries of Charity). Their sisters and
brothers are taught that a way of doing penance before the Lord is to volunteer first to be the one to do the most menial, unpleasant
or difficult task for the community, such as cleaning the bathrooms – so that the other brothers or sisters didn’t have to. I know that
many families (especially with husbands and wives both working) fight over who does the chores and keep assiduously careful track
of who is doing his “fair share” or not, right down to how many hours are spent. Not very helpful, as Mother advises.
For more on humility and what Mother Teresa has to say about it, check out this piece from the archives of the National Catholic