God Squad Rabbi Marc Gellman

Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.

Last week, by my rough calculations, Mother Teresa became the 10,804th Catholic saint. However, I have a much shorter list of Catholic saints I gladly venerate, a list that includes Augustine, Anselm, Francis and John Paul II. It includes Mother Teresa at the very top. I truly loved her and considered her to have been the most morally and spiritually significant human being on earth until her death in 1997, when I gladly and informally bestowed that title upon His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. By the way, I have no one on the list to replace the Dalai Lama, so I pray he decides to keep his dharma body with us for many more years.

First off, I have something to say about the “two-miracle-rule.” This is the rule of Catholic theology that two miracles must be attributed to a person in order for him or her to be canonized. I understand that mere goodness is not enough to separate the good among us from the truly good among us, but the rule seems more than a bit contrived to me. Since miracles are often in the eye of the beholder and not scientifically proven occurrences that violate natural law, proving miracles is a daunting historical and spiritual task. I don’t need the miraculous testimonials.

Mother Teresa has been a saint to me ever since she won the Nobel Peace Prize and said, “I am not worthy,” and meant it. Such humility is utterly unforced and puts all our preening and self-aggrandizements to shame. She lived without artifice or ego.

Mother Teresa has been a saint ever since I saw her business card that she gave to Tommy (The Rev. Tom Hartman, my pal, may his memory be for a blessing). On Mother Teresa’s card there was no phone number and no address. It did not even have her name on it. All that was on the card were these words: “Happiness is the natural fruit of duty.” It still seems to me the greatest and deepest truth about happiness I have ever encountered. We reach our greatest happiness when we reach beyond ourselves to do what we know it is our duty to do. Some of her critics blamed her for not trying to overthrow the corrupt system that forced so many into abject poverty. This criticism is shameful and utterly misunderstands the nature of duty. Because we cannot cure all the world’s ills does not free us from the moral obligation to do what we can every day to cure what we can.

We cannot change this broken world, but we can do something today to help one person. I have in the past shared with you one of my favorite stories — adapted from Loren Eiseley’s book “The Star Thrower” — about an old man on a beach after a storm who was throwing stranded starfish back into the ocean. He was berated by a young passing jogger who said to him, “Look at this beach, old man. There are hundreds of starfish stranded here. You can’t get to all of them before the sun gets high and dries them up. Old man, what you are doing doesn’t matter.” The old man just bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it into the safety of the waves, and said, “Son, it mattered to that one.” Mother Teresa is a saint because she was the very best starfish saver any of us will ever know.

The most poetic and congenial description of the kind of saints I believe in was written by the great poet and song writer, Leonard Cohen. He wrote:

“What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill. . . . Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance.”

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God bless you, Saint Teresa.