On leadership

To the surprise of many Christians, Christ turns out not to be the sort of leader who promises stuff for nothing. He is not a politician looking for votes, who will deliver what the people want, on pizza trays. (In baskets, once, but that was an unusual case.) He says uncomfortable things to His supporters, such as, “Shape up.” He says this especially when He gets them alone; but does not hesitate with crowds, either. The “empathy” is there — or rather an unearthly, almost inapproachable kindliness, which is not as advertised in the brochures. He is more like a Marine commandant, than a grief counsellor; He does not seem to hear our excuses.

(“Rise, let us be on our way.”)

He sends us into battle, and not against a pretend Enemy. And did you know that the Saints who truly love Him, cuss at Him sometimes?

An earlier Mother Teresa — of Avila, not Calcutta — was capable of repeating the old mediaeval saw: “When I see how you treat your friends, Lord Jesus, I don’t wonder that you have so few.”

The Mother Teresa who will be canonized tomorrow (a little too soon after death, in my view) was, in my own brief sight of her, not only physically small and wiry, but tough as nails. She was a school marm, on top of her other virtues; she had been principal of St Mary’s convent school, in Calcutta — which is why she got respect even from such as Indira Gandhi (who attended St Mary’s convent school, in Allahabad). She was officer-class: could command obedience. I interviewed once Sister Nirmala, her successor (who died last year, age eighty-one). She assured me that our twentieth-century Saint Teresa was no putz. Her nuns had to deal with lepers, with the dying, with abandoned babies, and hard-case orphaned kids. This is entirely unlike a vacation.

To this day, and even round the corner in Parkdale here (for I’m three blocks away from the local Missionaries of Charity franchise), many of their customers are charmless. Why, just this morning I was looking at one. Not the sort of person with whom I should like to share a flat.

Teresa’s love was of the Christian kind, which is to say: burning. There were eyes and — sometimes, not always — a smile that could put you on your knees. She was infallibly polite, I should mention; but I would not have called her a “nice” person.

One of her nuns once fetched me a glass of water. I feel as though I were still sipping it.

My favourite, of all her wonderful sayings, is: “I wouldn’t touch a leper for a million dollars!” (This is an American translation; originally she had indicated, “a thousand pounds.”) Said, with almost the flippancy of a Valley Girl. This caught one’s attention admirably. And with perfect, Bengali comic timing she would add, “I only cure him for the love of God.”

A minor observation, to be sure, but I think this is also worth mentioning: that she had, for some occasions, a “wicked” sense of humour. She was thoroughly equipped, to stay sane. Feet on the ground; no floating angel. Even though she was very light. Not an inch over five feet; thin, and somewhat crook’d in old age, for if she had wings, they weighed upon her.

(And by the way, she was aggressively “pro-life.”)

We perhaps underestimate the need for sanity in our leaders. Most of those we select appear to be not only humourless, but mad. This is not surprising. For the successful politician, in a progressive democracy, makes his living as a salesman, by flattering people. If he’s very good at it, he may go to the top. (Ability and experience are unnecessary.) The people must be flattered; they must never be told the truth about themselves. Especially while they are waiting for their pizza.

Perhaps it is the effort to sustain the lies that uncouples them from the golden chariot; leaves them running to keep up; desperately pounding. (“Don’t hop on the Great Chariot,” sage Confucius told us in his Book of Songs, “you will only be covered with dust.”) Finally they collapse in uncomprehending exhaustion, gasping for oxygen as the political lifeguards carry them away. Being a Saint can be quite hard work; but being a fraud is probably harder.

(“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”)

Nobody elected Mother Teresa. The only permission she got was from her (male) superiors. Having got this permission, she then went, precisely where the Spirit led her: from the modest office in her nice clean school into the darkest, dankest slum.

We do not need any more politicians. Every one of them fails. We need leaders, instead. It is more than that: we need real leaders, and the only reliable ones are sent by God.

(Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.)