As a brother I had only two changes of clothing, wore sandals even in winter, slept on a thin mattress on the floor, and, as I had no room of my own, I had no privacy. But it did not matter to me, for I was offering it all to God, and I thought I would live this way until I died.
I told God, I am giving you the best of my nature; I cannot give you more than I am giving now, for I have left everything to serve you in the form of the poorest of the poor.
A year or two after Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she came to visit us in Los Angeles, as our novice master, Fr. Sebastian, was a dear friend of her. Now, though Mother was very slight of built, everyone knew that she had the strength of God himself when it came to serving the poorest of the poor.
And by that time she was known around the world over as the saint of Kolkata, a generous and wise soul who, though she was homely-looking, was described by all who met her as a deeply beautiful person, a person of serenity and courage who inspired in people the urge to give more, to be of true and everlasting service to God and to others.
When I met her, I so wanted to be better than I actually was, I wanted to be holy and without sin.
We novices did get to meet with her and speak to her and ask her questions. It was at this meeting that she told us, without any prompting, that if we wanted to be holy, to be true saints for God, we should expect to struggle, to work at it one day at a time, little by little, and that holiness, that is righteousness, is never to be taken for granted, and that it is never really, truly, finally ours. She said, “Look at me; maybe tomorrow I will be tempted and run away with the ambulance driver!” “So every day I ask God for his grace of holiness.”
We laughed. We knew she had caught us at it: We were in awe of her. We all thought, “Well, if this little old lady can do it; so can I.” I was so young and inexperienced that I thought becoming holy, a saint, was all up to me: I would stay true; I would be generous; I would succeed at being a most totally spiritual being.
I was the center of all the ideas and notions and pictures I had of what holiness is. Holiness, it seemed to me, was something I had to achieve no matter what. Because—and I was completely wrong, and blind about this—God demands it of us.
In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus pretty much hit the proverbial nail on the head when it comes to righteousness, holiness, saintliness: It has nothing to do with amounts of goodness, for the goodness that can be counted and listed and possessed and made to shine, is not the true holiness of God. Any holiness that is used as self-praise is not God’s holiness, for God has no need to show off, or to be approved, or to be assured or convinced that we are holy, acceptable.
This is why Jesus praises the tax collector. He was certainly despised by others, for he worked for the hated enemy, the Romans, who collected taxes from the Jews to support the empire, to support their standing army in Jerusalem. He who couldn’t even raise his eyes to face the Lord his God. But still, he spoke from his heart; and therefore he told God the truth: I am a sinner; forgive me. He wanted God to save him from his own private hell; maybe from his own self-hatred and his self-disgust that irritated him so, that he took it out on others. Or from his own inability to be or to do good.
Yet, says Jesus, it is he who went away justified; that is, found worthy and righteous in the eyes of God. God had indeed found a dwelling place in him, for his heart was fertile, his heart was poor, his heart suffered, his heart asked for help. His heart repented.
There is only One who is Holy. Only One who is good: God in whom we live, and move and have our being. The wondrous truth is that God is so humble, so good and so generous and fertile with his holiness, his righteousness, that he shares it all with us: All of God’s goodness is ours, if only we ask for it; if only we are patient with him; if only we do not deny our humanness; if only we go to him in Christ.
Prayers offered to God straight from the heart, straight from our lives, straight from our sins, is a prayer he hears: because it is a prayer that means what it says; it has no filter. So never think your prayer has to be “holy,” “spiritual,” or “saintly.” Let your prayer rise up to God from where you are, as you are.
May God shine love upon your suffering, your sin, your fear, and thus free you to be holy, generous, kind and fruitful as He the Lord is. May God who redeems all things and all people, pour out every last part of you into his Christ our Lord Jesus, so that through you the world can be redeemed.