Yesterday at daily Mass we began the Book of Qoheleth with these words: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Pretty hard words…. No matter how hard we work, says Qoheleth, no matter how good we look or how many friends we have, life all adds up to nothingness. We are just dust in the wind. Jesus describes us as “useless servants.” His judgement on human life is pretty harsh, but of course we suspect it to be true.
Mother Teresa’s own estimation of her net worth was pretty minimal: “I have nothing and I am nobody.” This month’s National Catholic Register reprints an interview with a Time magazine journalist who chased her about Calcutta with a microphone in 1988. “Humble as you are,” he said, “it must be an extraordinary thing to be a vehicle of God’s grace in the world.” Mother Teresa replied: “But it is his work. I think God wants to show his greatness by using nothingness.” Journalist: “You are nothingness?” Mother Teresa: “I’m very sure of that.”
Notice how effortlessly she responds to his question. Our greatest fear, I think, is nothingness. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” the ancients said, and our greatest existential fear is to be nothing. “To be or not to be,” quoting Hamlet. “That is the question.” We fear non-being (death), but even more terrifying is the possibility that our few decades on earth have absolutely no significance. Mother Teresa stared this horrible possibility straight in the face. She disarmed it by looking elsewhere for meaning. She looks through herself, and into herself; she looked through others and into others, to see God in these apparently meaningless husks. It is his work, she insisted. I need not, and cannot, achieve any significance of myself. But God is with us, in us, around us. He alone gives meaning to our lives. Mother Teresa thirsted for God, searching for him in every person, in every corner of creation, and she found Him. If my life seems meaningless, it simply means I’m looking in the wrong place. It means there is too much noise in my life. “See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence,” She wrote. “See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… in the silence of the heart God speaks.” We all know that life is too stressful, a busyness that keeps us from the core significance of life. The only thing for it is stillness, in which the vanity of our lives becomes filled with meaning, filled with the presence of God.