Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Spiritual Superstars

"Pointing the Way"

This weekend Pope Francis formally declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta to be a Saint of the universal church. Adoring throngs of people crowded Saint Peter’s Square for the “canonization” ceremony, many were holding pictures and icons of the little nun from Albania who is known throughout the world for her work with the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, some were on their knees begging the Now-Saint Teresa for miracles and favors. It was quite a religious spectacle as a new spiritual superstar was officially awarded a “heavenly halo.”

This weekend, as I watched some scenes from that ceremony in Rome, I must say that I had some mixed feelings. On the one hand it felt pretty good to see so many people gathered to celebrate a life devoted to compassionate care for the poor and needy - such a refreshing antidote to the strident, poisonous “Trump-style” rhetoric that has infested the public media in recent months; but I also felt as if there was a darker side and an underbelly to the adulation all those many people were pouring out onto the new, bigger than life superstar: Teresa of Calcutta.

From everything I have read about her, Teresa was a flawed human being just like the rest of us ordinary people ( that’s why I think it’s a good idea to honor her.) Throughout much of her life, Teresa lived with her demons of doubt, many say she was often kind of aloof and cranky and yet she also walked with her bright angels of compassion, getting up every day and doing her best to make her way through the wilderness of life by extending herself for the good of others.

Whenever someone like Teresa of Calcutta is formally canonized they are somehow remembered as people with super-human qualities,  recognized as miracle workers who now hold a special place close to God, far superior to all the rest us ordinary struggling human beings. Personally, I think saints and spiritual superstars are icons of the ordinary- teaching us how each and every one of us on any path in life might walk the way of a spiritual journey.

It is much easier and far simpler to offer adulation to spiritual gurus, holy saints and wise teachers than for each of us to walk the path ourselves. It is far easier to ask holy people to intercede for us and so we make our saints and teachers our vicarious representatives on the spiritual journey rather than struggling to do out best to walk the way ourselves.

But as I see it, we recognize saints and honor spiritual superstars because their lives serve as models and examples that we all might follow. Each of us is broken and flawed. We do not walk a spiritual path because we are so perfect but because, in our imperfection we continue to persevere, doing our best to follow a path of compassion and live a life of service, caring for the common good. This is what the life of Saint Teresa of Calcutta teaches me.

I think of something Alan Watts once said:

I have always found that people who have quite genuinely died to their old false self
make no claim of any kind about their own part in the process.
They think of themselves as lazy and lucky, and if they did anything at all,
it was so simple that anyone else could have done the same,
for all  they have done was to recognize a universal truth of life.

To the genuine sage, mystic, buddha, enlightened one,
the notion that he or she attained this state by some special capacity of their own
is always absurd and impossible.

Several years ago I visited a very famous Buddhist shrine in South Korea and I was rather surprised (maybe even shocked) to discover that the walls of the shrine were covered with hundreds of “Buddha” statues of various shapes and sizes. When I asked why there wasn’t one central image of the Buddha to be worshipped, I was told that the many “buddhas” serve as a reminder that all of us are called to be “buddhas”- enlightened ones who understand that we all belong to one another and that our mission on earth is to treat each other with sublime compassion.

If anything, the lives of spiritual superstars serve to remind us that we are all “buddhas” (enlightened ones), all of us are “christs” (anointed ones),  all called to be enlightened by truth and to make this world a better place.

There is a passage from the Buddhist scripture:

Everyone must strive, the buddhas only point the way

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