In a by-now famed quote, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta said that in our Christian living, we are not just called to love, but to love till it hurts.
On the mere level of language alone, this quote seems to be something akin to masochism, self-loathing and even craziness. But then, so do many other quotes when taken out of context. What is the context of Blessed Teresa? Undoubtedly, it is the context of the love of God, where we not only demonstrate our love of God, but also become channels of the love of God to a world that is aching, longing and hungering for his love. Oftentimes, we will readily see that loving those who are easy to love isn’t much of an issue. These people are those whom we are already probably comfortable with in life, or what I would call our ‘pew sharers’ – the folk who we share the Church pews with each Sunday. These could be, but are not limited to our spouses, our children and our fellow Christian families to whom we exchange that sign of peace with before we sing or say the Agnus Dei or Lamb of God at Mass.
Doing this is indeed good and even necessary, but it is in the Church’s mind that this action is something that is carried outside of the pews, where we become the vulnerable lamb at challenging places. These are the streets and junctions of our lives where signs of Christ’s peace and love are as endangered as the giant panda or the snow leopard. If we really and truly understand the etymology of the word “Mass”, we will see its great importance. Shortened from the Latin “missa” it means dismissal or the state of being sent. Realizing this, just ‘attending’ Mass does nothing to encourage our being Eucharistic once we step outside of safe confines of a prayer hall’s concrete walls. If at all, the ‘attendance’ becomes a necessary empowerment that enables us to be ‘sent’ out to the mission fields of the often agnostic and atheistic world like our neighbourhoods, our work places, where we enjoy our meals and where we recreate and recharge.
It is most likely that it is in these ‘pagan’ areas of our lives that true loving which comes from a formed decision to love becomes so difficult and challenging. Oftentimes, even pondering whether or not to bring up the name of Christ or sharing how our faith affects our daily lives in a positive way makes us feel awkward and edgy. But being real about it is what requires a certain element of prudence, where we have a sense that the person whom we are with has a certain softened foundation in the heart that is not hardened and cold, but has instead a softness that is open to having some seed sown in the form of a direct sharing of Christ’s saving truths. This, I believe, takes prudence that comes with practice and prayer. It will always be challenging, but a decision to love is what makes the essential difference. Decisions to love are sometimes the more painful thing to do because it stretches us beyond what we are comfortable with.
I think this is the essence of what Blessed Teresa meant when she tells us to love till it hurts. When we are willing to undergo an embarrassment, perhaps being misjudged for our good intentions, when we are far more interested Christ touches the person we are present to as compared to how we look or sound, it will always be painful in some way. But the decision to still continue loving is when that hurt becomes holy because it is no longer about us. We have displaced ourselves in that situation and placed the other person centrally in our midst.
I would venture to add something to Blessed Teresa’s famous axiom of love. Love till it hurts, but do not stop loving when it hurts. Because that is when it truly counts.
Our human instinct is to stop when things are hurting, and for the most part, it is a good instinct. This is why we have pain receptors in our bodies. It protects us from causing injuries to ourselves, and it helps to preserve our lives. In a blog quite a few years back, I recall reflecting on how persons born with the condition of Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy (HSAN) are a danger unto themselves simply because they lack the ability to feel any sensation of pain. They are totally insensitive to any bruises and cuts that they suffer, even if the wounds become infected. They bite their tongues and can end up scratching out their eyes simply because they cannot feel pain. Yet the very notion of being impervious to pain seems to be a boon rather than bane. But the reality is that the ability to feel pain is in fact something good and beneficial for us.
Blessed Teresa’s call to love till it hurts, and my addendum to it to continue to love when it does hurt is thus counter intuitive. Yet, we know that it is when love is not a reaction to love received, but rather when it is a decision made in the face of it being either rejected or unacknowledged or appreciated that it comes close to being redemptive - resembling the saving love of Calvary’s cross where Jesus, the Lamb of God was slain and a divine choice to love was made despite not receiving love in return. That God goes beyond the pain and chooses to love despite the pain makes this decision to love truly redemptive and salvific at the same time.
Apparently, even sporting legend and boxing heavyweight Mohamed Ali held similar views, albeit applying it to his punishing exercise regiment.
When a sports reporter asked Mohammed Ali how many sit-ups he did when he trained, his response is as legendary as the man himself. He said: “I don’t count my sit-ups. I just do it repeatedly until it begins to hurt. That is when I start counting, because when it hurts is when it really counts”.
Loving till it hurts brings the pain. But loving after it hurts makes it count too.