What I Learned From Mother Teresa

Three lessons from the beloved nun ahead of her canonization.

TWO SAINTS. Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II on May 2, 1992.
TWO SAINTS. Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II on May 2, 1992. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)
In 1983, Pope John Paul II was in the fifth year of his pontificate, and it was 37 years since Mother Teresa heard her “call within a call” to serve the poorest of the poor in Kolkata.  

I was a young man of 24, at the very beginning of my professional career and ready to take on the world. It was at this time that my spiritual journey was about to take me on a new and adventurous ride that is still going strong today, with daily amazement.

I was a cradle Catholic from a good home who was lured away from the Church by the attractions of the world in my late teens and early 20s. But in 1979, I was graced to have a “St. Paul experience,” and my heart and mind were transformed to seek first the kingdom of God and his love, in order to understand how I could serve him best in this world.

It was also in 1979 that Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the poor. 

As someone newly ignited with the fire of love for the Lord, I sought out examples of people who were living out the Gospels in our world. Mother was a shining example to learn from — and not just her personally, but her charism, her spirit and everyone in her movement who reflected the love of the Lord.

I discovered that there were some Missionaries of Charity sisters working in the South Bronx, Harlem and Greenwich Village, and I started to visit them to learn and experience tangible examples of living out the Gospels. I made as many weekend visits as I could and spent a two-week vacation there, staying in the South Bronx as a co-worker with the sisters. 

I’ve learned so much from Mother, her charism and her movement over the years, with three lessons standing out.

We need to be able to accept life and not question it. Mother’s life was a classic example of total surrender to the Lord. She taught us to accept whatever the Lord gives and to give whatever he takes with a big smile:

“Keep giving Jesus to people, not by words, but by your example, by your being in love with Jesus, by radiating his holiness and spreading his fragrance of love everywhere you go. Just keep the joy of Jesus as your strength. Be happy and at peace, accept whatever he gives, and give whatever he takes with a big smile. You belong to him.”

If we totally surrender to God, no matter what in life, good or bad — because our life is no longer ours, but totally surrendered to God to do with as he pleases — then we become truly free. 

Humility is the key ingredient for growing in holiness. Mother captured the value of humility for the spiritual life in the following: “Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. 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.” 

Our Lord said, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29). Mother provided us with an example of how to live this encouragement from the Lord, working to meet every need she encountered without desiring accolades and always desiring to do everything out of love for God and others.

We need to empty ourselves of self in order to have room for the Holy Spirit. Mother transformed the “natural” to the “supernatural” through a total dependence on God’s love and grace, showing the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” My prayer is that we all can strive to do this more and more each day.

Mother Teresa was a beacon of the light of Christ, and she brought this light into some of the darkest parts of the world. And as a result, it shown brightly. 

We can continue her legacy by following her request, “Let’s do something beautiful for God.”

Bob Dirgo writes from Akron, Ohio. He is a member of the Lay Missionaries of Charity.