Stories Of Saints For Today

Three women who have served many by developing their own spiritual journeys with passion and determination are Dorothy and the Two Teresas, one a canonized Saint, two small saints for our times.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Soup Kitchens, is a woman of modern times, who has not yet, and may never be, ordained a Catholic saint. But in her life of striving for the good of others while following her own conscience in the steadfast worship of God, Dorothy Day became a giant of her times. Born in New York in 1898, Dorothy moved with her family to California as her newspaperman father sought work. While there she experienced the Earthquake of 1906, and witnessed her mother reaching out to help clothe and feed the homeless and destitute who sought help in the days afterward. She would never forget the experience.

From a large family, Dorothy often cared for younger children in the family, and went away to college wrenched by the separation from her close family. Although they were often lonely for her, Dorothy's college days brought alive in her a serious concern for human rights, justice, and political reform. As a. young writer out of college she joined one small newspaper staff after another, including the Catholic Worker, which she co-founded with French philosopher Peter Maurin. Her Greenwich village apartment became the setting for revolutionary and literary foment, including an abiding sympathy for socialist forms of government, and the urge to work for justice for the poor.

At one time, her civil protests for the enfranchisement of women, for peace and social justice, led to her imprisonment in a life-changing incident. Forever afterward her sympathies lay with those incarcerated, or denied the privleges of the many. While she eschewed organized religion in her early days, in her twenties, while in a common law marriage and expecting her first child, she realized she could no longer resist the call of God she had been hearing in her soul. She had her child baptized Catholic, and then studied to be converted to the Catholic faith herself.

As with everything she approached, Dorothy mastered an understanding of the Catholic tradition which many born into the faith have never realized. Its charities, with the underlying message of Christ's Great Commandment, "Love one another," at its base, deeply impressed her and guided her actions throughout the rest of her life. Peter Maurin was again instrumental in her life in helping her to see that their shared faith in Christ the healer, provider, just One, could change the world. Together they began opening houses of refreshment, food and rest for people without work, money or homes. These "soup kitchens" and places of hope for so many thousands continued to spread across the United States, and are still in existence today, nearly seventy years later, from New York to Los Angeles, and in other countries as well. There are currently nearly two hundred such Catholic Worker Houses.

In their prime, Dorothy and Peter Maurin also attracted other hard-working idealists who shared their belief in providing for and living among the poor. They opened farms called "Maryhouses" where folks could labor to grow their own food, as well as find hopeful communal places to develop in their Christian lives, although they never made religion a factor in whether they served a hungry person. Like Jesus Christ, they gave because they loved, not because they could change someone. Deeply respected by clerical and lay people of many religions all over the world, Dorothy once met with Mother Teresa and countless world leaders, yet remained humble and giving until the end of her years in a Catholic Worker setting.

Father Daniel Berrigan said of her, "The simple task, the one everyone boggled at or bowed out of, this she would do"¦her politics stemmed from a command that she heard proclaimed from someone of no time or place. Of every time and place"¦'Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are the poor in spirit, What you do for the least of these, you do for me.'"

The humility, determination and selflessness of Dorothy Day is a spiritual icon for the self-centered world-weary of our times.

Another Catholic who was as modern, strong and defining a person in her day as Dorothy Day was in hers, is Theresa of Avila, 1515-1582. It is somewhat surprising that Teresa has actually been canonized a saint of the church, considering the many experiences she had at odds with the church magisterium. She established her own monastery and wrote her own Rule and many additional mystical writings for the benefit of the young women who followed her.

In times of political, intellectual and economic foment, Teresa focused on the soul and the spiritual life. Instead of making the spiritual journey something distant and impossible for most people to attain, she helped ordinary people to strive for union with God through contemplation and mysticism. Her writings showed that even the physical and spiritual could be joined as part of one's journey to God, a novel idea in her time. In her detailed writing she analyzed her own faulty (by her admission) journey in faith, finding fault with her approach to God, her selfishness in enjoying the spiritual union she found in fleeting moments, her temper and her bossiness.

Confounding her confessors, and indeed, many church leaders, by her wisdom and spiritual grace, she wrote prolifically and wouldn't take no for an answer if the cause was advancing the inner journey of belief of all people. The Interior Castle, one of her most admired works, is rich with the lived journey, full of aphorisms and struggles with truth. Like so many today, Teresa found relationship with others to be central in experiencing the God of her beliefs. She felt the journey of faith was an iward one, going deeper into the elf in seeking God's will, unencumbered by the impediments of worldly attractions. She felt the religious such as herself had the best opportunity to find God through such contemplation, but greatly admired those who could do so outside the seclusion and peace of a convent wall.

It took hundreds of years, but Teresa was finally the first woman ever named a Doctor of the Church. She received this honor in 1970, fifty years after a disciple of hers, St. John of the Cross, was similarly named. She spoke of sensing the breath of God within her, and to Teresa, such a delay would have seemed like nothing at all, so fastened was she on the love of God and the immersion in God's eternal time. Although she might have disagreed with it, to many today she seems the most unworldly person, the one who has lessons for those of us caught in the chaos of the world around us and striving to move into deeper communion with God.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, winner of the Novel Prize for Peace in 1979, born Agnes Boyaxhul in Yugoslavia in 1910 is herself a bridge between the silent, serving women of the past and the modern woman like Dorothy Day who have made an impact on the world. Tiny Agnes joined the Loretta sisters in Ireland at the age of 18 and within a year was sent to do her novitiate year and to begin her teaching at a high school in Calcutta. She taught there for 20 years, but on the way to a retreat in 1946 says she heard a call to give up everything and serve among the poorest of the poor in the slums of India. From the American Medical Mission sisters she learned some basic medicine, and soon was not just teaching the poor of Calcutta, but treating them in their homes.

When an official took her to an abandoned temple to the goddess Kali and offered her the space, she started the hospital and home for the destitute sick and dying known as Kalighat. Over the years she expanded her work enormously by responding to every sort of deprivation she encountered. Houses for her work have been established in many cities around the world. She took in orphans, carried dying old people in, established clinics and care centers for lepers, among other things. Eventually her work led to the founding of her own order, the Missionaries of Charity which now has thousands of members ministering in over 50 cities worldwide.

In an era of declining vocations, she explains the attraction of women to her work among the poor as understandable, since "There are women in this work who are still looking for a life of prayer, poverty and sacrifice." Despite her fame world over, Mother Teresa continued in her humble work among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, washing her own laundry and doing her own dishes, until she could do so no longer. Visitors were always struck by her simplicity and frugality, and her definite hands-on approach in her care for the dying.

Before she died at the end of the 20th century, Mother Teresa found fault with "too many words" that people spoke or wrote about her. She stunned jaded members of the press corps by denying that she knew "anything" about feminism or changes in the world view of many in the church. "I only know a person doing this work for the praise of men could do it for only a year," she said, about her work. "Only by doing it for Christ can you go on and on." Humble, gentle, loving and attentive to the neediest, she spoke even on world platforms in the simplest terms about the need to love one another as Christ has loved us, the Christian message distilled to a few choice words that are, except for Teresa and a few like her, the hardest to follow.

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