St. Teresa of Calcutta first came to India at the age of eighteen as a postulant with the Loreto Sisters. On her arrival, she was struck by the poverty and the suffering of the native people. She began teaching in the Loreto convent school and later became headmistress. Her love for the poor was evident even at this stage of her life, but its expression was restricted as she was cloistered in the convent.
Eighteen years later, on September 10, 1946, Teresa experienced God’s command — “a call within a call” — to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. After over a year of waiting, she began teaching the children and serving the sick and dying in the slum of Motijhil.1
Eventually, this little nun attracted the interest of people throughout the world and touched the hearts of both believers and cynics. But how did St. Teresa of Calcutta, who avoided the spotlight and only dedicated herself to serving others, come to have such influence?
Today, we’ll look for direction from St. Teresa as we turn to the last of the four steps to conversion: surrender.
Self-knowledge, guided by Revelation, leads to understanding.
Understanding, inflamed by Love, leads to metanoia.
Metanoia applied, leads to action.
Action surrendered, leads to conversion.
Why a Fourth Step?
As I’ve reflected on the process of conversion, I found myself wondering: Why is surrender the fourth step? After all, don’t the first three steps describe how to surrender to God? Isn’t the act of conversion complete once we’ve experienced metanoia and have taken action?
I was then reminded of all the times I said “yes” to God and then went on to resist Him. I don’t think we ever fully understand what our “yes” will mean for us. Elements of natural resistance, attachments, and sin arise to divert us. On more than one occasion, Jesus challenged someone professing a readiness to follow him:
A scribe approached and said to him, “Teacher,” I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
Matt. 8:19-20 NABRE
Jesus gave his followers three simply stated, yet extremely challenging, conditions for discipleship:
Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
Luke 9:23 NABRE
St. Teresa, as much as anyone I know of, lived a life of total surrender to Christ. Drawing from her writings to her congregation and compiled in the book, Total Surrender, 2 we can learn what it means to put the words of Jesus into practice.
It Starts with Love
He has chosen us, we have not first chosen him. But we must respond by making our society something beautiful for God — something very beautiful. For this we must give all — our utmost. We cling to Jesus, we grasp him, have a grip on him, and never let go for anything. We must fall in love with Jesus. (p. 15)
Poverty is love before it is renunciation. (p. 54)
Without this love, we would never make the journey, and the result would not be the same.
For the love of Christ impels us … He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
II Cor. 5:14-15 NABRE
We Must Deny Ourselves
Self-denial doesn’t sound very appealing. But for St. Teresa, it was a path to joy.
As missionaries we must be ready to accept joyously the need to die daily if we want to bring souls to God. (p. 17)
When we recite the Creed we say “God from God, Light from Light.” And there was the little body [baby Jesus], so small, and Jesus says to us: “Unless you become like little children you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And Mary knew and replied, “Yes, behold the handmaid of the Lord.” (p. 24)
Get rid of anything that’s holding you back. If you want to be all for Jesus, the decision has to come from within you. (p. 61)
We must be free to love — and to love him with an undivided love. (p. 68)
Take Up Your Cross
We often think of our “crosses” as the nuisances and difficulties of life that we have to tolerate. In answer to this, can you think of St. Teresa as just “putting up with” the poor and dying people of Calcutta? Like Jesus, she embraced the cross.
Submission for someone who is in love is more than a duty — it is a blessedness. (p. 69)
The difference between our work and social work is that we give wholehearted, free service for the love of God. (p. 83)
As missionaries we must be happy to undertake any labor and toil, and glad to make any sacrifice involved in our missionary life. (p. 17)
The more repugnant the work, the greater should be our cheerful faith and devotion. That we feel repugnance is but natural, but when we overcome it for the love of Jesus we may become heroic. (p. 30)
Our answer to God for his tremendous love is total surrender…he can do with us whatever he wants…Let Jesus use you without consulting you. (p. 38)
If you are humble, nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. (p. 29)
Don’t waste time waiting for big things to do for God. You will not have the readiness to say yes to the great things if you do not train yourself to say yes to the thousand-and-one occasions of obedience that come your way throughout the day. (p. 72)
You don’t have to be a Christian to practice some form of self-denial. Nor is faith in God required to take on difficult tasks. But one thing that distinguishes Christian disciples from everyone else is that we love and follow the Son of God, Jesus.
Jesus wants you, not your works. (p. 72)
“Lord, you have called me.” The moment we stop hearing our name being called we will be separated from him. We can recognize his voice calling our name only in the silence of our hearts. (p. 93)
Be a little pencil in God’s hand. (p. 126)
Jesus said, “I thirst.” Quench the thirst of Jesus for souls, for love, for kindness, for compassion. (p. 19)
Follow his footsteps in search of souls by showing great love in small things. (p. 66)
The Missionary of Charity is not content with the common lot of a soldier. Her desire is to push on until she comes close to the King — crucified and dying of thirst. (p. 87)
Putting It All Together
Self-knowledge, metanoia, action, and surrender — all steps through which the Holy Spirit leads us to conversion. Once you pass through these, what’s next?
First, there is no “passing through.” The work of conversion is ongoing in our growth toward perfection. Here’s a faulty way of looking at conversion:
Self-Knowledge -> Metanoia -> Action -> Surrender -> CONVERSION
In reality, it’s more like this:
–> Self-Knowledge –>
<– Action <–
We are a work continuously in progress, undergoing perpetual refinement, as long as we give God permission.
Second, some steps of conversion have to wait until we’re ready. I can see what’s God has done in my life so far, but much of what lies ahead is unknown. Let us, then, say to our Lord: “I am Yours, and I will go wherever You lead.”
1 You can learn more about the life of St. Teresa of Calcutta by reading: Spink, Kathryn. Mother Teresa: An Authorized Biography. New York, NY: Harper One, 2011.
2 Mother Teresa. Total Surrender. Edited by Br. Angelo Devananda. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1985.
Conversion 101: Metanoia is the last in a six-part Conversion 101 series about energizing your spiritual life through ongoing conversion. You can find the first of this series as the featured post, “Conversion 101.”