photo: Denise Krebs on flickr

photo: Denise Krebs on flickr

Where do you fall on the Mother Teresa fan-spectrum?

Love her? Indifferent to her? Admire her work but have a problem with the institution with which she was aligned?

From my quick scan of Wikipedia extensive research on the topic of Mother Teresa’s life, I am aware of her multiple contradictions. Her selfless service to the poor, and her arguably punitive methods of caring for the sick. Her devotion to God, and her confessions of feeling disconnected from the Divine.

Given these contradictory impulses, I was not surprised by a story about Mother Teresa by Lynne Twist.

Ms. Twist is the author of the excellent book, The Soul of Money. In the book, Twist describes an encounter she had with Mother Teresa in the early 1990s.

Twist, on the MT fan-spectrum, falls solidly on the Enthusiast Side.

photo: Jiaren Lau on flickr

photo: Jiaren Lau on flickr

She was so excited to meet Mother Theresa, she worked herself into a tizzy. When Twist was finally face-to-face with the famous sister, she kneeled in front of her and kissed her hands and feet.

They proceeded to have a conversation about their work, Mother Teresa in her Missionaries of Charity, and Twist in her work with The Hunger Project.

As they were talking, the two women were interrupted by an Indian couple, a man and a woman. As Twist describes them, the couple appeared to be quite wealthy, with bold, flashy jewelry and expensive clothes. The man had a ring on every finger.

photo: liz west on flickr

photo: liz west on flickr

The couple demanded to have a picture taken with Mother Teresa and enlisted Ms. Twist to snap the photo. In the process of taking the picture, the woman placed her hand under Mother Teresa’s chin and forced her head upright so it could be seen more clearly in the photo.

Ms. Twist, understandably, was shocked by the woman’s behavior.

After the couple left, she was so angry and upset, she had a difficult time focusing on her few remaining moments with Mother Teresa.

When she returned to her hotel room, Twist wrote a letter to Mother Teresa describing her reactions to their visit, including the rage and upset she’d felt about the couple who interrupted them. Twist was embarrassed by her lack of compassion for the couple, and asked Mother Teresa’s forgiveness and counsel.

A few weeks later, Twist received a letter from Mother Teresa. In the letter, Mother Teresa admonished her.

Now, I have to say, I always get confused by the word admonished. Is it a good thing? It sounds like admired. But no, that’s not what it is. It means to scold or reprimand. Admonish.

photo: Steve Browne and John Verkleir on flickr

photo: Steve Browne and John Verkleir on flickr

Mother Teresa pointed out that the wealthy are in need of our love just as much as the poor. She pointed out that wealth brings its own traps and problems, and that Twist had shown little understanding or compassion for this issue.

I agree with what Mother Teresa was saying.

Indeed, the idea that wealth can bring as much pain and suffering as a lack of wealth is eye-opening. In her book, Twist informs us that this letter from Mother Teresa led her to a greater compassion for the wealthy, including a discovery of the abuse, addiction, and other dysfunctions that often accompany the lives of those with lots of money.

photo: Jesus Solana on flickr

photo: Jesus Solana on flickr

But.

I couldn’t help but notice that, in Mother Teresa’s admonishment of Ms. Twist, she seems to have displayed a lack of compassion for Ms. Twist.

Yes, the poor deserve our compassion. Yes, the wealthy do as well.

And so do those who have preconceived ideas about the poor and the wealthy.

Like Ms. Twist.

We all deserve compassion, right?

photo: Jesslee Cuizon on flickr

photo: Jesslee Cuizon on flickr

Of course, this is where I realized that I was feeling all holier-than-thou because I had caught Mother Teresa – the holy woman herself – in contradictory moment.

And, in the process, I was withholding my compassion from her.

Gosh, this spiritual growth thing is relentless, isn’t it? You think you’re doing so well, and Bam! You’re judging a holy woman from India for some random comments she made in a letter to someone you don’t even know.

Alrightee, then!

So where does that leave me?

In spite of the admonishing tone with which the message was delivered, Mother Teresa’s advice gave me a greater compassion for the plight of the wealthy.

I also gained a greater compassion for my own holier-than-thou tendencies.

And, last but not least, I learned you should never, ever, under any circumstances mess around with someone’s chin when you’re taking their picture.

It’s just not nice.

photo: Tony Alter on flickr

photo: Tony Alter on flickr

Have you ever caught yourself in a holier-than-thou moment? Share your comments below!

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