Mother Teresa

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Mother Teresa: Come Be My LightThe Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” published on the tenth anniversary of the nun’s death, reveals her inner life in her own words, as well as through the testimony of those who knew her. The book is meticulously documented by editor Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Catholic priest of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers and official postulator of the cause for her canonization. Kolodiejchuk, who met Mother Teresa in 1977 and was associated with her until her death twenty years later, also provides an essential narrative that places the various writings in context.

He spends little time on Mother Teresa’s early life. She was born in Skopje, Ottoman Empire (now in Macedonia), on August 26, 1910, and baptized as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. Her first language was Albanian; her second, Serbo-Croatian, which she spoke at school. English came much later, after she realized that she had a vocation to serve the poor and traveled to Ireland to join the Sisters of Loreto, a missionary order dedicated to educating the young. In 1928, she took as her religious name that of her patron saint, the Carmelite nun Thérèse of Lisieux. The new Sister Teresa began her novitiate in India in 1929, making her first profession of vows two years later. Appointed to teach at Saint Mary’s School for girls in Calcutta, where she would eventually be named principal, she also became an Indian citizen. After she made her final vows in 1937, she was addressed as Mother Teresa.

The editor focuses his attention on three distinct aspects of Mother Teresa’s interior life: a private vow she made while still a Loreto nun, the subsequent mystical events that inspired her to found the Missionaries of Charity, and the spiritual darkness that plagued her for most of her lifetime. With the permission of her confessor, the Jesuit priest Celeste Van Exem, Mother Teresa made a private vow in April, 1942 (similar to one by Saint Thérèse), binding herself under pain of mortal sin never to refuse God anything, no matter what He asked of her. It was an attempt to hold herself to absolute, unquestioning obedience as proof of her intense love for Jesus, a promise she would faithfully keep, albeit with difficulty. No one knew of this vow except her spiritual advisers.

On September 10, 1946, as she traveled by train from Calcutta to the Loreto convent in Darjeeling for an annual retreat, Mother Teresa underwent a mystical experience, a calling to give up her life in Loreto and go directly into the streets “to bring Souls to Godand God to Souls.” Her notes and letters, often with erratic punctuation, describe a voice, imploring her to “comecarry me into the holes of the poor.Come be My light,” and urging her to dedicate herself to the abject poor in the slums of Calcutta. She believed this to be the voice of Jesus, which would continue to speak to her intimately for several months, entreating her to become a Missionary Sister of Charity, dressed simply in a sari and living in absolute poverty with the Indian poor, sharing their lives and ministering to them. The voice told her, “There are plenty of Nuns to look after the rich and well to do peoplebut for My very poor, there are absolutely none. For them I longthem I love. Wilt thou refuse?” She could not.

This experience marked the genesis of the Missionaries of Charity, the society Mother Teresa ultimately founded. She reported these events to Father Van Exem when she returned to Calcutta. However, she could not act without the consent of her superiors, including Van Exem and Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, both of whom were cautious. Finally, with Van Exem’s permission, she wrote an impassioned letter to the archbishop, detailing her plans for this proposed society of missionary nuns and requesting permission to live beyond the convent walls so that she could go freely to the poor and sick of Calcutta’s slums.

Archbishop Périer questioned whether her call to do God’s work was genuine. She wrote to him reassuringly, “[God] will do all . I am only a little instrument in His hands.” She sent further accounts of her dialogues with Christ and of three visions of Jesus on the cross that she experienced, adding, “If the work be all human, it will die with me, if it be all His it will live for ages to come.” She continued to hear the voice through the summer of 1947. Then it ceased.

Early in 1948, Pope Pius XII granted Mother Teresa’s petition to begin her new mission in the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

America 197, no. 8 (September 24, 2007): 14-17.

Booklist 104, no. 3 (October 1, 2007): 27.

Newsweek 150, no. 11 (September 10, 2007): 41.

Time 170, no. 10 (September 3, 2007): 36-43.

The Washington Post, September 5, 2007, p. A21.