Mother Teresa

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1850

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.

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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 slums. Alone, she left Loreto to obtain the basic nurse’s training she would require to serve the poor. The Missionaries of Charity was officially established in Calcutta on the third floor of a private home, and by mid-1950 the community of one had grown to twelve. Nuns taught the children, nursed the sick, and comforted the dying. In spiritual terms, the society’s mission was “to quench the thirst of Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls” and “bring about their conversion and sanctification.” In every Missionaries of Charity chapel, Christ’s penultimate words on the cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28), would appear next to the crucifix as a reminder of this call. For herself, Mother Teresa wrote, “I want to drink only from His chalice of pain and to give Mother Church real saints.” Although she saw the words of Jesus being fulfilled, she told Périer, “One part [is] still left that I would have to suffer much.”

Most shocking to those who admired Mother Teresa is her revelation of an inner darkness that no one suspected. “There is such terrible darkness within me,” she wrote. “It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’” In 1955, she mentioned to Périer an inner loneliness so intense that she could not speak about it even to Van Exem: “I used to get such help and consolation from spiritual directionfrom the time the work has startednothing . Pray for mefor within me everything is icy cold.”

Two Jesuit priests were especially helpful to Mother Teresa. After she was deeply moved by a 1956 retreat led by Lawrence Trevor Picachy (later, Cardinal Picachy), she began a correspondence that revealed how abandoned by God she felt, even as her love for Him increased. Except for the archbishop and her confessors, she offered up her suffering in silence for the poor she served: “I want to smile at Jesus and so hide the pain and the darkness of my soul even from Him.” After the death of Pius XII, the darkness in her heart briefly disappeared, but within a month it returned.

Father Picachy encouraged her to write to Jesus what she could not say: “My Godhow painful is this unknown pain . What are You doing My God to one so small?” Perhaps her bitterest cry of doubt appears in another letter to Him: “What do I labour for? If there be no Godthere can be no soul.If there is no soul then JesusYou also are not true. Heaven, what emptiness .” Still, she was faithful. In the same letter she added, “Your happiness is all that I want . I am ready to wait for You for all eternity.”

Mother Teresa was aware of her contradictions. Nevertheless, she had great difficulty comprehending the purpose of this darkness, although she accepted it as God’s will. After theologian Joseph Neuner conducted a 1961 retreat in Calcutta, she began to speak to him also about her interior life. What she could not deal with was the feeling of abandonment; she had been so close to God, and now there was nothing. Neuner too asked her to write down her feelings. She wrote of “this terrible sense of lossthis untold darknessthis lonelinessthis continual longing for God.”

Neuner was particularly supportive by giving Mother Teresa new insight into her darkness, as a silent sharing in Christ’s agony on the cross. She began to view it as a “very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth” and was then able to welcome it. To Neuner she wrote: “For the first time in this 11 yearsI have come to love the darkness . If I ever become a saintI will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heavento light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

Her good works were many. When the Missionaries of Charity first began, people were dying in the streets, cases so hopeless that hospitals would not accept them. Mother Teresa wanted to create a shelter where they could receive basic medical care and die with peace and dignity, and the city of Calcutta provided her with such a place. She also built orphanages, schools, and homes for AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis patients. Archbishop Périer gave her permission to open new missions outside of Calcutta and appointed her superior general of the society, a position she held until shortly before her death. In 1965, she began to establish missions worldwide.

Mother Teresa included lay coworkers in the society, men and women who wished to join and work with her but were prevented by illness or disability. These became “spiritual twins” of the nuns who served the poor, each group offering encouragement and prayers for the other. She founded the Missionaries of Charity Brothers, the first male branch of the society, followed by a contemplative branch of priests and brothers, and by the Missionary of Charity Fathers.

Frequent travel for speeches and awards only made Mother Teresa feel more isolated. An increasingly public life was a trial for her, for she did not like to be in the public eye. Even as she inspired others, her own spiritual aridity persisted. She suffered from chronic headaches, and in later years a serious heart condition required a pacemaker, but she kept up normal activities as much as possible. She died September 5, 1997, at eighty-seven. At that time, the society consisted of more than 600 missions in 123 countries, with 4,000 sisters, 300 brothers, and 100,000 volunteers.

Kolodiejchuk’s book has engendered controversy. Mother Teresa wished all her correspondence to be destroyed to avoid focusing interest on herself rather than on Jesus, yet some critics are angered that Kolodiejchuk and others chose to ignore this request. Others have charged that money she collected was not spent on the poor, that she had no interest in eliminating poverty, and that she was a hypocrite. Writing in Newsweek, Christopher Hitchens dismisses her as “a confused old lady” who “suffered from self-hatred.”

Kolodiejchuk argues that Mother Teresa endured not a crisis but a trial of faith and that without the pain of her interior darkness and the extended test of faith that followed, she could never have achieved such absolute identification with the poor. He concludes that it was not her suffering that made her a saint but her intense love for God and her fellow humans. Clearly, his intent in this book is to support her canonization, but his evidence, in her words, remains impressive.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20

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.

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