Focusing on the Christian meaning of poverty renders Mother Teresa a more complex figure than the one of popular imagination. Mother Teresa fought against poverty, going out into filthy streets to serve the destitute, but also embraced it in her own life, giving up all her material goods and physical comfort. Her understanding of poverty and her relationship to poverty were much more subtle than most people comprehend.
To our modern Western ears, the word poverty exclusively means material poverty. We think of the favelas like festering wounds on the brilliant cities of South America, the distended bellies of malnourished children in developing countries, heaps of trash being picked over by the hungry.
Yet to Mother Teresa, that was only one kind of poverty, and the least important. She knew that there are three kinds of poverty: material poverty, spiritual poverty and the virtue of poverty. She fought hard against the first two, and practiced the third with a kind of holy perfection.
It was in her speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994 that she taught the American people, including Hillary Clinton (who was there as first lady) about spiritual, or moral, poverty. Her speech was a shock to a complacent and prosperous country, ready to admire a woman who cared for the hungry and needy in slums while congratulating itself that here we manage things much better. We are, after all, a country that shows our love of neighbor by funding government programs and social services that keep our fellow citizens decently housed and fed. Fighting material poverty is something we generally know how to do.
But Mother Teresa gently pointed out that in our “rich” country, we suffer not from material poverty but rather from spiritual, or moral poverty. A poverty marked by the lonely elderly in nursing homes, the young people given over to drugs, and the hundreds of thousands of lives blighted by abortion (both children and their parents).
She told us we show a terrible lack of love toward each other. We are not willing to embrace the children we create, preserve the families we form and tend to the lonely ones who need our company and tenderness. The result is a spiritual poverty, a crying emptiness as bad as, or worse than, the hunger and need of material poverty that she combated in Kolkata.
Mother Teresa taught us that the success of a society cannot be measured in GDP. A people glutted with things and enjoying a surfeit of goods is not successful if we don’t have, as she put it, “the peace of heart which comes from loving — from doing good to others.”
And Mother Teresa did not just fight material and moral poverty. She also lived poverty as a virtue.
It is hard for us to conceive of poverty as good. We think of it as something to avoid at all costs. Yet Christians — who are meant to take Christ as their pattern in all things — have to think about the fact that God chose to be born abjectly poor, and that Jesus remained completely detached from material things, owning nothing and seeking to own nothing.
In the Christian tradition, many saints have lived this poverty as a source of freedom: the freedom to do good without the anxiety of one who is afraid to lose the “valuable” things of this world, and without the corrupting desire to acquire things.
Mother Teresa divested herself of every material thing besides a spare sari and gained heaven instead. The rest of us, whether rich or poor, can also live the virtue of poverty in the middle of the world. That means not living for the pleasure of having and acquiring. It means rejecting consumerism, materialism and the lust for things — all while using the goods of the world not as ends in themselves but as a means to achieve the greatness of faultless love.
Pope Francis will give St. Teresa of Calcutta to the “poor church for the poor” as a perfect model and inspiration. Like her, we must all strive to fight against two dimensions of poverty: lack of physical necessities and lack of love. Like her, we must keep in mind that lack of love is the greater evil. And like her, we must arm ourselves with the virtue of poverty itself.
Grazie Pozo Christie, a radiologist in Miami, is a policy adviser for the Catholic Association.