Amid the wealth, a poverty of the heart

September 12, 1997|By Diane Scharper

"RIGOROUS poverty has been our safeguard,'' Mother Teresa once observed. ''We do not want, as has been the case with other religious orders throughout history, to begin serving the poor and then gradually move toward serving the rich. In order for us to understand and to help those who lack everything,'' she continued, ''we have to live as they live.''

If any one word can explain Mother Teresa, the controversial Roman Catholic nun, whom some believe to be a saint, it's poverty. Members of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order she founded in Calcutta, India, not only take a vow of poverty, as other religious orders do. They also live it. Missionaries of Charity see poverty as freedom, and believe the fewer material things one has, the fewer things one has to take care of.

This way, the sisters can care for ''the poorest of the poor,'' whom they vow to serve. They live beside the poor, in the poorest slums; they eat frugally and possess only two sets of clothes, a pair of sandals, a bucket, a metal plate, basic utensils and sparse bedding.

They are out of synch with nuns who use lipstick, wear mini-habits and drive expensive cars. Yet the Missionaries of Charity multiply at an almost miraculous rate, while other religious orders endure a shortage of vocations.

When Mother Teresa died last week, she had received many of the world's most prestigious humanitarian awards, including the United States' Medal of Freedom, the United Nations' Albert Schweitzer Prize and the Nobel Peace Prize. And her Missionaries of Charity had opened more than 500 centers around the world to help the dying and destitute, including one in Baltimore.

But poverty, according to Mother Teresa, doesn't consist only of physical poverty and doesn't exist only in the slums. One normally pictures the good sisters in their white saris working among poor who look more like skeletons than people. But Mother Teresa also saw another kind of poverty, one which she tried to cure but did not emulate.

Insight into poverty

Her insight into this poverty is what made her the larger-than-life woman she is and was. It gave her holiness and made her loved in a way that only a saint could be loved. Ironically, Princess Diana, with all her wealth, was a victim of this other poverty that Mother Teresa worked to cure.

That poverty is a spiritual poverty. Sometimes, Mother Teresa referred to it as a ''poverty of the heart.'' This is the poverty that is endemic in the West with its vast wealth. Riches can choke, Mother Teresa said. One day you need money, then superfluous luxuries. One feeds the other. Your needs increase. ''The result is uncontrollable dissatisfaction and loneliness.''

One of Mother Teresa's most poignant moments concerned loneliness. It occurred when she visited a home for the elderly in the United States. Here were parents institutionalized and perhaps forgotten by their sons and daughters. The old people had everything -- good food, a comfortable place, clean linens, television. But everyone was looking toward the door. Not a single face had a smile.

Mother Teresa, who was used to seeing smiles on the people her sisters cared for, ''even the dying ones,'' asked why these elderly people were not smiling. She was told that this was the way it was every day. They were watching the door, expecting, hoping a son or daughter would come to visit them.

Spiritual poverty isn't limited to the elderly. In Calcutta, Mother Teresa said, there were visible homes for the dying. In other countries, especially the United States, there are invisible homes, where young people's souls are dying from lack of love. Parents take care of material needs but are absent from their children's lives. One can give rice to the hungry man. But it's harder to rebuild homes and families.

''If today so many young people are misled, it is because grandparents are in some institution; father is absent; mother is so busy that she is not there when the children come from school. If anyone wants to help me,'' Mother Teresa advised, ''let them begin at home. There is help needed on your doorstep, in your place of work, in your offices and in your factory.''

Mother Teresa believed that the world today is upside down, because there is so little love in the home. Parents pursue material goods and have no time for their children or for each other. Children have no time for their parents. Life in the family is broken from the inside, and broken by our own hands. This is the ultimate poverty.

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson University.

Pub Date: 9/12/97

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