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Why Teresa bothered feeding sheep

As several people have pointed out, Mother Teresa’s canonization has brought out spasms of vitriol from extremes on both sides. From the far left, we have angry accusations that the saint was a fraud and a sadist, and that she tricked helpless victims into converting against their will; and from the far right, we have angry accusations that she was an indifferentist and a heretic, and that she neglected godless pagans who desperately needed conversion.

Here I am, stuck in the middle with Teresa, sayeth the Lord.

For a comprehensive debunking of the accusations made by Christopher Hitchens et al, see this essay by William Doino, Jr., in First Things.

And as for the critics on the far right: Even as Mother Teresa dedicated her life to caring for the physical needs of the most wretched “untouchables” whose bodies were abandoned and despised by the rest of the world, she and her sister most certainly did not withhold the Catholic Faith from anyone she met. She was directly responsible for bringing countless souls to conversion to Catholicism. She baptized those who wanted to be baptized; she baptized dying babies; she prayed ceaselessly and explicitly taught everyone about Jesus who was open to hearing about Jesus; her houses were filled with prayer and hymns; and she fearlessly proclaimed the word of God to many a hostile audience of politicians and world leaders. So I wish we could put to rest the ludicrous lie that she somehow neglected her Catholic duty to openly evangelize. She neglected people’s souls in the same way as Arnold Schwarzenegger neglected his body. Okay?

Now, I’d like to address one of the weirder complaints made against her. We’re seeing a resurgence of the ever-popular idea that God actually doesn’t want us to care for the physical needs of the poor. The body will return to dust, these folks say, but the soul is immortal, so why waste time on food? Here’s a quotation that one Catholic shared on social media to show that Mother Teresa is not a saint, but a heretic:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” —John 6:27 

Got that? Soul important, body not important. Spiritual nourishment vital, physical nourishment trivial. Spiritual works of mercy good, corporal works of mercy bad. Mother Teresa, goes the argument, was basically an especially busy lunch lady, but feeding people is not on the top of God’s wish list.

I’ll pause for a moment while you go find your lower jaw. It’s down there on the floor somewhere. I’ll wait.

And now let’s make a distinction, for those who are still confused. Christ and the saints exhort us to deny ourselves, to voluntarily turn away from the lure of physical comforts, to sell all we have to follow Him. He wants us to learn that we have a choice: to give ourselves over to the demands of the flesh, or to master the flesh and try, instead, to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst.

But Christ did not exhort us to deny others, to prevent other people from enjoying physical comforts, or to neglect their physical needs. Not even one time, ever, anywhere did Christ say this.

Instead, He told us, over and over and over again, to feed His sheep, feed the poor, feed the hungry, feed feed feed them. And that’s what Mother Teresa and countless other saints did: they fed people. Yes, with plain old physical food, that poor people could eat with their bodily mouths and digest with their earthbound bellies.

When Jesus said “Feed my sheep,” He meant that we should minister to each other’s souls. But He also meant feed feed, as in feeding food. That’s what makes the images of spiritual “feeding” so powerful: because we all know how important literal food is. It’s immensely significant. All living things understand this, even before they understand anything else. We all know that we need food, and we all know what it feels like when we want it and can’t get it.

That’s why Jesus made the main source of spiritual sustenance, the Eucharist, into something we literally take into our bodies, swallow, and digest: because we need food. And when we need it, we are reminded that we must not deny it to others — not out of selfishness, not out of stinginess, and most certainly, God forbid, not out of some ghastly misguided idea that we’re doing a work of mercy by teaching hungry people to forget their empty bellies and think about their souls.

Let’s look again at the claim that there’s no saintly virtue in feeding the poor, and that saints who truly care for the salvation of souls will skip the soup and go straight to the catechesis.

Ever try to write a clear paragraph, play the piano, articulate a abstract idea, do some math, or solve a tricky puzzle when you’ve skipped a meal or two? Not easy, is it? Your head swims, you can’t concentrate, and you feel weak and confused. And that’s just writing, or math, or puzzles  — easy stuff.

Now imagine fixing your mind on something a little more complex, like the doctrine of original sin or the mystery of the Trinity, and do it when you’ve skipped the last ten meals.
And now imagine some well-fed Westerner explaining that it’s for your own good. That he’d like to give you some gruel, but not until you learn and repeat that God loves you.

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard all day, and I got up early.

Listen. When Jesus rose from the dead, one of the first things He did was cook His buddies some lunch. He even built the fire with His own hands. Yes, the miraculous catch of fish was a symbol of the abundant spiritual favors that God bestows on us; but it was also fish, real fish, which they could and did gobble up, and I bet they were delicious. I bet Jesus got a kick out of watching them eat, because He loved them, and he wanted them to be fed. Fed fed, in their hungry bellies.

This is how God talks to us: by taking care of our bodies, which He created. Remember, “they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.” Oh, Him! We know Him! He’s the one who feeds us.

If you feel called to fast, and to deny yourself all kinds of physical comforts, then God bless you. Many saints, including Mother Teresa, did just that, and penance like this may help bring souls to God.

But will you use the name of Jesus Christ, God-made-flesh who fed us with His body, and will you tell other people that they must not eat? How will you dare?
***
 Coptic icon: Christ Feeding the Multitude (Public Domain)
A portion of this essay originally appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2014.

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