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Lessons on labor, love, and life from St. Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa teaches us that work must be based in love in order to be truly fruitful. This truth applies to all work, whether one is building a Manhattan skyscraper or serving the destitute in Calcutta.

Members of the Missionaries of Charity pray during a Mass in honor of St. Teresa of Kolkata Sept. 11, 2016, at the main square in Skopje, Macedonia. (CNS photo/Georgi Licovski, EPA)

In his 1991 best-selling book, Awaken the Giant Within, motivational speaker and life coach guru, Tony Robbins, equates the motivations of Donald Trump and Mother Teresa.  In the chapter, “The Force That Shapes Your Life,” Robbins claims that “Donald Trump and Mother Teresa are driven by the exact same force…they’re both driven by pain and pleasure.”  Trump purportedly gets his kicks by “accumulating the biggest and best toys,” while Teresa feels pleasure when she helps others out of their misery.

But was the pursuit of pleasure really the moving force behind the works of St. Teresa of Calcutta?

No, the power that inspired Teresa to radical service was not her sense of pleasure or pain, or a method taught by a life coach, or a commitment to positive thinking, or the force of her will, or a precise prayer or spiritual technique.  It was a gift—the gift of Christ’s friendship.  This close friendship brought his perspective ever more into focus for her, which naturally stirred her to work for the good of others, and to “love until it hurts.”  Teresa devoted her life to toilsome and tireless work, doing the most humble tasks for the destitute and dying of Calcutta and around the world.  But whatever tasks she completed, she did with great love, which is the only way to make work ultimately valuable.

But how does Teresa’s example apply to us?  We don’t work with the destitute in miserable conditions.  We work for wealthy employers (at least by global standards) in clean, OSHA compliant, temperature-controlled buildings, and in ergonomically designed workspaces.  But Teresa emphasized that love must motivate every kind of work in all circumstances.  In Love: A Fruit Always in Season, she says that what matters most is the love we invest in our work:

[W]hether we are working for the rich or we are working for the poor, whether we are working with high-class people or low-class people, it makes no difference, but how much love we are putting into the work we do is what matters. (58).

Love is not necessarily an emotional feeling of affection.  Rather, it is willing the good of the other and pursuing it.  Benedict XVI also, referring to the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, describes love as “bearing one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).  To a general audience on November 26, 2008, Benedict said that since Christian love “springs from Christ’s total love for us,” its demands extend to “the point of tormenting us since it forces each one to no longer live for himself, closed into his own selfishness,” but to live for Christ and one another.  Loving until it hurts, with a love that torments us, is not the stuff of mere pleasure.

In Centessimus Annus, St. John Paul wrote that the purpose of all work is loving service.  Work is with and for others: “it is a matter of doing something for someone else” (CA 31).  In Laborem Exercens, he taught that work requires one to go “outside of himself and beyond himself” (LE 26).  One reason why this is difficult is our strong inertia against active service, and our tendency to see work only through the lens of self interest.

In his 2003 homily at Teresa’s beautification, John Paul said that the love of Christ and Christ’s thirst for love was “the inner force that drew [Teresa] out of herself and made her ‘run in haste’ across the globe” serving the most needy.  Benedict identified this same force in Caritas in Veritate.  Its first three lines emphasize that the passion and resurrection of Christ is the principal, extraordinary “force” that “leads people to opt for courageous and generous engagement in the field of justice and peace.”  One’s personal encounter with Christ compels a life of gratitude and service.

How do we participate in this force?  According to John Paul in his 1980 letter Dominicae Cenae, the Eucharist is the “school of active love” and “the deepest motive of our relationship with our neighbor.”  The Eucharist intensifies our awareness of the dignity and needs of others.  In the words of Benedict, it gives us “a heart that sees.”  Teresa listened to the Scriptures, prayed, and received the Eucharist daily.  She was ever more aware of the dignity and needs of the weakest, and discerned how to coordinate a community and resources to effectively meet them.  After daily Mass, she went to work in the streets to seek out those most in need, or to care for them at the house of her community.  While thousands walked down a Calcutta street, it seemed that only Teresa noticed a man helplessly lying in the gutter, and quickly stooped to help him.  She and her community did this all over the globe, organizing homes, meals, health and hospice care, education, and other services for the poor.

John Paul explained that if work is motivated by the love of Christ, even Christ crucified, it becomes a spiritual activity.  When a person works, the entire person, body and spirit, is at work.  (LE 24). Wealth is created when people “see” the needs of others and work to coordinate a skillful community that creates products and services to meet those needs (CA 31).  Even the work product can have a spiritual value.  Along with material development, enterprise can also elevate the spiritual life of a society by “building up a more decent life through united labor, of concretely enhancing every individual’s dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God’s call” (CA 28).

Pope Francis also speaks of love as the motivation for work.  In his 2014 Lenten message, he explained that the force of Christ’s love is based on his “poverty”.  This is not poverty in the sense of deprivation or destitution.  It is power; it is a dynamic poverty, a poverty that creates authentic human development.  The poverty of Christ is shown by his gift of emptying himself, taking flesh, sharing our burdens, and loving us to the cross.  Only this power saves us.  When we generously give of ourselves in our daily work, we are motivated by, and participate in, this poverty.  According to Francis, real development, justice, and peace are not the result of human will and the clever organization of material resources.  “God’s wealth passes not through our wealth, but invariably and exclusively through our personal and communal poverty, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ.”  This poverty was the basis of Mother Teresa’s life of service.

We are called to do our best work, but not measure its success solely by wealth or fame.  Material success does not necessarily signify spiritual growth.  Notoriety is fleeting and unavailing; it is what Blessed John Henry Newman called the “making of a noise in the world” (CCC 1723).  As such, Teresa advised all of us, even the most successful, to work as one who is poor in spirit.  A person aiming solely for one’s success can become full of oneself, leaving no room for Christ to work through them.

Instead, Teresa welcomed the humblest of tasks, even preferring an emptiness that allows Christ to work through her.  She trusted that Christ could do much more good though her emptiness than her self-directed work.  She said that while many people aspire to do the “big things … very few people will do the small things.” There is a noble dignity in doing the small things with great love.  The lesson for us is that if our work opportunities are limited to humble tasks, we should do them well and with love, whether or not the work is noticed, praised, or rewarded.  For those given the opportunity to do great things, they should do them well and with love rather than out of ego or ambition.  Teresa explained that even if one exhausts or “kills” oneself at work, “unless her work is interwoven with love it is useless.”

If success or fame is not guaranteed or the highest value of our work, then what is the basis for our hope for fulfillment? In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis explains:

We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how, or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. (279).

Only acts of love—even the most mundane—are eternal. This is the fulfillment of Christ’s love in Teresa.  Christ called, motivated, enabled, and guided her.  She started with five rupees and a strong faith, and founded a community of thousands spanning the globe.  Her work is now united to the same vital force of God.  She lives in its embrace, and through it continues to inspire us to good works. She achieved her ultimate goal, which was for Christ to be her “All in all.”

In March of 2009, Benedict journeyed to Angola to express his compassion for their suffering amidst war and destruction, and to provide hope.  He encouraged the youth to rebuild their nation and reshape their future by unleashing “the power of the Holy Spirit within you, the power from on high!”  This is the real “giant within,” the real force that shapes one’s life and society in an authentic way.  This Labor Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta teaches us that work must be based in love in order to be truly fruitful.  This truth applies to all work, whether one is building a Manhattan skyscraper or serving the destitute in Calcutta.

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published in slightly different form on September 4, 2016.)

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About Michael J. Nader 4 Articles
Michael J. Nader is an Employment Law attorney. He earned a JD from the Notre Dame Law School, where he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, and an LL.M. at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He has also served as a judicial clerk for two federal judges at the district court and appellate levels.

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