Finding Calcutta 2

Last Thursday I started a series on Mary Poplin’s thought provoking book Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service. This is not a science and faith book – and it is a welcome respite from some of the more “academic” questions we discuss on this blog.  I have had a number of commenters over the years bemoan the fact that I waste time on questions and the intellectual aspects of faith – rather than emphasizing living the Christian life. I agree with them on one level, but not entirely. Wrestling with the questions is an important part of the Christian life, the fear that answers may not exist or finding that what we thought to be true simply is not can be devastating. For an example of the impact failure to face the questions see the repost from Daniel Kirk last week. It is significant that he, and many who responded in the comment, see the need for this kind of letter.

But it is also true that we should not concentrate on the head knowledge, answer all of the questions, and then move into living the Christian life. Rather we need to be immersed in the Christian life as we wrestle and learn. Apprenticeship, mentorship, action, education, mission – this is all part of discipleship to be pursued simultaneously.

Dr. Poplin, in the context of her experience in Calcutta with the Missionaries of Charity, works through the meaning and focus of the Christian life.  The emphasis is service, but the focus on loving and serving others is to be rooted in the love of God. Two passages of scripture play a significant role in shaping these ideas about service.

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:36-40)

The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ (Mt 25:40)

What ever is done should be done out of love of God, love for others, and seeing Christ in the eyes and needs of those around.

 What does it mean to see Christ in the eyes of others?

Dr. Poplin writes about the change of focus in her life, a change that began when she first became a Christian in 1993 and continued as she contemplated and requested the opportunity to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta as part of her sabbatical in 1996.

One thing that Mother Teresa repeatedly said was that their work was religious work, not social work. I found this statement intriguing and wanted to know what she meant, What could those of us who live and work outside a religious order learn from her religious work?

Therefore I sent a letter to the Mother House in Calcutta in the fall of 1995 asking if I could volunteer during my upcoming spring sabbatical. … The letter from Sister Priscilla, who was in charge of volunteers, answered “Come with a heart to love and hands to serve Jesus in the crippled, the abandoned, the sick and dying in any one of our centres.” (p. 10)

When Dr. Poplin returned home she tried to write of her experience in a way that would resonate with the people of a secular age and a secular university. Yet she found this to be impossible.

I can see now that even the church in which I grew up taught more about being a “good humanist” than about living with and for Christ. … I finally realized: one cannot understand or explain Mother Teresa in secular terms. Indeed that is precisely what she meant when she said “Our work is not social work; it is religious work.” (p. 12)

The Missionaries of Charity see Christ in the eyes of the poor and destitute they are called to serve, they see Christ in the eyes of the volunteers who come alongside to help them, for a few weeks or many months. In addition they see themselves as bringing and being Christ to those they serve.

Mother said in an interview,

If we did not believe that this was the body of Christ, we would never be able to do this work. No amount of money could make us do it. It is He whom we reach in the people who are unwanted, unemployed, uncared for; they seem useless to society, nobody has time for them. It is just you and I who must find them and help them. Often we pass them without seeing them. But they are there for the finding.

I began to think how differently I would work if I truly saw each person I met as a hungry, hurting Christ. What if every time someone came to me with a problem, I responded as though Christ himself had approached me? What if I saw everyone all day long as in need of a touch from God, and what if I were yielded enough that God could actually use me to give his touch. (p. 39-40)

The importance of religion – or more significantly Christian faith – to the work is much more significant than “mere” motivation and strength. Social action without Christ lacks the power to make any impact, prayer without social action is worthless. Faith without works is, James tells us rather forcefully, dead.

We casually sing worship songs – with raised hands, and hardly paying attention to the words.

Christ be the center of our lives
Be the place we fix our eyes
Be the center of our lives

The Christian call is to put Christ at the center of life, the center of the universe, and the Missionaries of Charity see Christ in the eyes and bodies of every person around them. The call is to service.  The call for Christ to be the place we fix our eyes is a call to serve our neighbors.

Do you think that the Missionaries of Charity have the right approach here?

Should we live as though we see service to Christ in every interaction with our fellow man?

Where would this change your approach to life?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you have comments please visit Finding Calcutta 2 at Jesus Creed.

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