Is Your Mother Holier Than Mother Teresa?

This month, on newsstands and in bookstores, you'll find a terrific new book, which I highly recommend. To coincide with the centennial of the birth of Mother Teresa, Time has published Mother Teresa at 100: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint.

It's a fantastic introduction to her life, written by the veteran religion reporter David Van Biema, and includes an unlikely but moving introduction from the mega-pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren. Filled with gorgeous full-color photographs spanning her life, the book is that rare combination of a great read and a beautiful look. It's perhaps the best short introduction to the life of the "Saint of the Gutters" around.

There's just one tiny problem. In the middle of an essay called "Teresa of Jesus," about her entrance into a religious order, her life as a Catholic sister, and her amazing spiritual experiences, you'll stumble upon a surprising sentence:

For the vast majority of sisters, brothers, and priests, a "call" manifests itself as a simple heartfelt desire, much as someone else might be attracted to the life of a physician or a lawyer. Yet a call to become a Catholic sister does imply a somewhat higher level of commitment.

That means that being a Catholic sister is a "higher calling" than being a physician or a lawyer. And that's something that I categorically reject.

Ironically, that sentence comes in an essay authored by "Father James Martin, S.J." I could say, "Reader, I wrote that," but that would be false.

Apparently, an overzealous soul, after reading my comment about the "call" being similar in many lives, added the notion of the "somewhat higher level of commitment." By the time I spied what was probably thought to be a benign addition, it was too late. The hardcover edition had already winged its way to the printer.

The irony is that this is not only something that I don't believe (and have written about at great length in several books); it's also something the Catholic Church doesn't believe in. Since at least the Second Vatican Council, which convened in the 1960s and stressed the "universal call to holiness," Catholics have been reminded that everyone has a vocation. Everyone's call is to be holy -- no matter who you are.

To be blunt, that means that the work of a Catholic sister is no holier than the work of your sister -- who might be a mother, a lawyer or a physician. (Or all three.) That doesn't mean that your sister is necessarily a saint, but that she could certainly become one!

That's not to detract from the manifest holiness of Mother Teresa, who I consider to be one of the greatest saints ever. (She vaults into that category because of her unshakeable fidelity to her call even in the midst of her "dark night" of prayer, when God felt absent to her for years and years.) Rather, it's to remind people that the young mother who wakes up in the wee hours of the night to care for her child is every bit as saintly as the Catholic nun who spends hours and hours teaching children in an inner-city school.

Your own mother might be just as holy as Mother Teresa.

That truth was underscored a few years ago, when my first nephew was born. The first night I spent in my sister's and brother-in-law's home after his birth was literally an eye-opener. At 2 AM, my infant nephew awoke squalling and screaming. It astonished me how loud it was, and how long he could cry. How could such a big sound come from such a small person? More to the point, seeing how attentively my sister and brother-in-law cared for their child erased any and all thoughts of whose life was "harder" or "better" in the eyes of God.

Traditionally, this was not always a widespread belief. In Catholic circles, at least, the idea of a "vocation" was seen, in decades past, as something reserved almost exclusively to priests, brothers, and sisters. And it was seen by some as "higher" than the life of the average layperson. When I was in Sunday school as a boy, we were given a drawing to color in. One side featured a drawing of a married couple, and underneath it the word "Good." On the other side of the page there was a picture priest and nun. Underneath the two of them, it read: "Better." Like that mistaken sentence in the new book, it was seen as a "somewhat higher level of commitment."

Everyone is called to lead a different kind of life, in fidelity to whatever his or her vocation is, and to strive for sanctity. How do these vocations arise? Most often from our own strong interests, natural desires and and heartfelt attractions. A physician is interested in medicine. A lawyer desires the life in the legal world. And Catholic nun is attracted to life in a religious order. Through these desires, God is able to work, and fulfill God's desires for the world. A "call" may be of supernatural origin, but it usually manifests itself in some natural ways.

A young mother, then, might be entirely unsuited to the kind of work that Mother Teresa did. But Mother Teresa might have been unsuited for the life of a married woman. (Her constant intransigence in the face of any and all disagreement with her way of doing things might have proven something of a challenge for a husband!) Everyone is called to be holy in his or her own way.

The other day, I read that the new book's mistaken sentence to a friend, and she exclaimed, "That's the opposite of what you write about!" Happily, the offending phrase was corrected in the paperback edition. It now reads, "Yet a call to become a Catholic sister does require a different level of commitment."

I'll bet that Mother Teresa would agree. Better than most, she understood the universal call to holiness. When visitors used to visit her in Calcutta, and offer to work with her, and follow her example, she would happily accept some. But to most, she would say, simply, "Find your own Calcutta."

James Martin, SJ, is a Catholic priest and author of My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He contributed the essay "Teresa of Jesus" to the book Mother Teresa at 100: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint.

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