Luke 17:5-10b, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fr. John Iacono is a 78-year-old Italian missionary I met in Cebu when I was assigned there for three years. He doubled up as my spiritual director and confessor. For many years before retirement, Fr. John ran a day-care center for Cebu’s poorest of the poor living in the city’s garbage dump. In his ministry, he had grown to love Mother Teresa quite deeply and considered her his kindred. I got together with Fr John last month and he told me yet another interesting story about Mother Teresa.
One time, a lady from the media wanted to do a magazine feature Mother Teresa’s ministry to India’s destitute. So, the community welcomed her. For a whole week, the lady did as the Sisters of Charity did. She went out with them to the streets and the slums, helped them bring the elderly sick and dying back to their hospice. She bathed them, fed them, changed them like the Sisters did, 18 hours a day, all week long. One day, while Mother Teresa was cleaning a leper’s maggot-infested wound as the lady watched from a distance, she overheard the lady say: “I would never do that even for a million dollars!” And Mother Teresa replied, “Nor would I.”
That “nor would I” bounced from my head to my heart and back for several days. What unbelievable faith Mother Teresa had, I thought; what magnanimity of heart and soul. “Nor would I,” I understood that to mean “I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars either. I’m not. I do this free of charge.” I mean, to spend 18 hours a day for years, tending the hopeless, hapless, and helpless in a country where government builds billion-dollar nuclear weapons but can’t even care for their dying destitute—I was thinking “burn out.” I was thinking “exasperation.” None of that for Mother Teresa. Now that kind of incredible faith could be driven only by incredible love…for God…for the poor. In that case, “nor would I” was true. A million dollars would’ve never been enough incentive for anyone to do all that for that long…if she didn’t have great faith and great love. And I’m sure that’s not strange to us, sisters and brothers, deep love driving deep faith. I mean, would you entrust your life to someone you don’t really love? Do you still have faith in someone you no longer love? Would you invest your life doing some thing without really loving some one? No, right? Only great love drives great faith.
Then, I remembered something from Mother Teresa’s memoir. She once wrote to her spiritual director something like this: “Jesus has a very special love for you…. But as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear—the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak…. I want you to pray for me that I let Him have a free hand.” Sisters and brothers, for nearly 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa did not feel the nearness of God. In fact, God felt very, very far away. She couldn’t feel God in her heart, she couldn’t feel him even in the Mass, for close to 50 years! Can you imagine? In Carmelite-speak, that’s called “the dark night of the soul;” in Jesuit-speak, “desolation.” Now when I remembered that, I saw another side of “nor would I,” and it was this: deep faith in God is not always accompanied by the music of deep consolation, of feeling “high” of divine romance. Deep faith in God is not always lit by lanterns of pious thoughts, or brightened by fireworks of inspiration. Deep faith doesn’t always feel like a ball of energy in your gut, ready to explode and spring you forth to apostolic action. In fact, I think, what confirms deep faith is when we continue serving and praying to God even in the dark night of the soul, in the weariness of desolation. If love drives faith and if love is not a story of constant delight—then the lack of exhilaration over God doesn’t necessarily mean lack of faith, no. To keep doing God’s will minus the highs doesn’t render our faith lacking. It makes our faith more realistic. It makes our faith more true. True faith makes us focus less on what we want to feel, and more on what our neighbor needs for us to do for them regardless of what we feel. Deep love is self-abnegating, so deep faith is that way, too. The opposite is also true. Someone who’s always leery, always self-protecting, always agonizing over whether to give of himself more or pull back—a man like that might actually have no idea what real love looks like. So, his faith is merely functional and clichéd. Ang takot pong magmahal, hindi rin marunong magtiwala. Pero ang malalim umibig, natututong sumampalataya.
It breaks my heart when I hear people beat themselves up in confession, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My faith in God is so weak, Father,” really feeling bad about themselves. But, see, if their faith were so weak, they wouldn’t even brave the confessional box and open their hearts to me. So, I don’t know if it makes them feel better, but I try to say, “God is so unbelievably kind and merciful po that he treasures our mustard seed faith more than he begrudges our lack of it.” Really, sisters and brothers, God trusts us more than we can ever trust him. I have seen in my own how God entrusts himself to me more than I have ever entrusted myself to him.
If Satan ever yelled up at God, “I would never trust your puny, fickle, wishy-washy human beings even for the chance to be loved back by them!” I imagine God’s answer would be, “Nor would I. I don’t trust my children so they could love me back. I trust them because I made them. And because I made them, I love them.”