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BLESSED BY THE HEATHEN

Calcutta’s meek shall never inherit the earth, the Sermon on the Mount notwithstanding. But someone who identified with them and spent all her life working for them and caring for them has been selected for special blessing. The beatification of Mother Teresa will take place today. This is part of a well-known ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. But for many outside the arcane world of the Vatican, Mother Teresa was in her lifetime a special and a blessed presence. The Vatican is going through its own ritual of recognizing the remarkable life that Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu led as Mother Teresa. Her ministry on earth can be described with some degree of appositeness by the title of the famous medieval Christian text by Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. Even her detractors, and they number many, admit her devotion to the poor and the ailing, although they are critical of her motives and her ways of working. She was simple and accepted her calling with a seriousness and commitment that were unusual. Her flock was never confined to the Christians of Calcutta. The love she received from her chosen city was evident when she died. The people of Calcutta, irrespective of their religion, stood in a silent and orderly queue to pay their last respects to the Mother. It was a memorable tribute to a memorable woman. Thus for the people of Calcutta, the ritual of beatification marks the Vatican’s recognition of what they had already known when Mother Teresa was alive and working in the city.

The ritual of beatification is often seen as the first step towards sainthood. The initial declaration of being specially blessed by God is taken forward by making a human being into a saint and thus into an icon and even a cult. Saints are seen as Christ’s extensive affinity — a special group of people who are closer to Jesus than those waiting to be redeemed. Those thus specially blessed acted as intercessors on behalf of men to the divine. By the act of beatification, the Vatican is declaring Mother Teresa to be superior to the men and women she worked for and chose to represent. She was a self-confessed servant of Christ, she had no other identity. But this is different from endowing her with supra-human and godly qualities. It cannot be said with any degree of certainty that Mother Teresa wanted this kind of special status. If she ever had a halo it was the poor of Calcutta.

Subsequent to her beatification, her grave and her place of work will be transformed into a shrine. This might bring some attention to Calcutta. This, however, is not the kind of attention that Calcutta demands or requires. Calcutta needs less, not more, spirituality. Mother Teresa intuitively understood this and her own spirituality was always underplayed. The more important part of her message was her work, the caring of the poor and the terminally ill. Christ appeared to her in the form of the poor of Calcutta. This is something that the Vatican may find difficult to accept since it believes in miracles. The only miracle in Mother Teresa’s life was her simplicity despite the fame and publicity. She blessed the meek of Calcutta who in turn blessed her.

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