I’m a long way from the streets of Calcutta where Mother Teresa focused her ministry, but as I reflect on the account of her life in Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh (InterVarsity Press, 2017), I’m struck by three key lessons for me and for anyone in Christian service:
Lesson #1: Be Christ-centred and surrendered to God
One wealthy man observed Teresa cleaning the oozing wounds of an emaciated leper. Repulsed, he declared, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” “Neither would I,” said Teresa, “But I would gladly do it for Christ.”
Lesson #2: Allow God’s call to shape you
The voice insisted, “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be my light.” Over months of conversations with the Voice, her new life of radical compassionate service took shape—and formed the iconic woman we know as Mother Teresa.
Lesson #3: Ground ministry in faithfulness instead of relying on feelings that do not last.
Teachers from other spiritual traditions offer techniques promising inner bliss. I know I’m not the only one going for serene assurance of God’s presence and direction. Mother Teresa pushes against our expectations when she shifts the focus from feelings to fidelity. Turning the tables, she calls for commitment followed by faithfulness; affirming emotions are beside the point.
The quotes above and the longer excerpt below are taken from Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright March. Copyright (c) 2017 by Karen Wright Marsh. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. Used with permission from InterVarsity Press.
Vintage Saints and Sinners
by Karen Wright March
No saint was ever more in the public eye than Mother Teresa. Cameras followed her through the backstreets of Calcutta, trailed by her devoted Missionaries of Charity. There she is on screen, giving her very life for the poor. As she bends down to embrace an HIV/AIDS sufferer, she declares,
Christ is in the poor we meet,
Christ in the smile we give
and the smile we receive.
Her words are all Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. As the most sacrificial person imaginable, she draws from a bottomless well of warm, liquid, supernatural peace. Surely this woman who was named the “Saint of the Gutters” knew God intimately—and was completely known to God.
So it’s a shock to read the letters published after Teresa died, for they recount an interior journey she confessed only to her closest spiritual confidants. Teresa’s private letters reveal a woman who suffered deeply for decades, who felt abandoned by God. She writes,
In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,
of God not wanting me,
of God not being God,
of God not really existing.
She laments that her prayers feel miserably dry and frozen. It gets so bad that she confesses, “I don’t pray any longer.” This revelation does not make sense.
How could it be possible that God fell silent for Teresa of all people—after everything she sacrificed in the name of Jesus? What could it mean that Teresa still proclaimed God’s love when she herself felt spiritual darkness, even interior desolation? Her feelings of confusion, bafflement and pain were no passing phase. “As far as we know,” said her confessor, “Mother Teresa remained in that state of ‘dark’ faith and total surrender till her death.” Now I am curious. Who was this woman—really? And even more, who was the Jesus she kept on loving?
Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhui, an Albanian girl who felt called to the devoted religious life from a young age. We know that she was uncommonly brave, for she left home as teenager to become a missionary nun to India, truly a world away from Europe in the 1920s. Her adventure was off to a promising start.
If you’d crossed paths with Agnes at the age of thirty-six, renamed Mother Teresa by then, you would’ve met a devoted but unremarkable teaching nun, beloved by her students at the Loreto Sisters girls’ school in Calcutta. There would be no mention of the private vow she’d quietly made to God: she would refuse nothing of God, no matter what he asked of her. Teresa’s pledge was to be tested in ways she couldn’t have foreseen.
On September 10, 1946, an exhausted, overworked Teresa was sent for a brief retreat in the Himalayas. She was aboard the slow, grimy train to Darjeeling when Teresa plainly heard a voice saying: “Wouldst thou not help?” It was Jesus, she knew it. Clear as day, she heard him ask her to leave the safety of the convent and go to the most destitute slums, where Jesus waited in his most distressing disguise, the bodies of the poor. This happiest nun recalled her instant response,
The thought of eating, sleeping—
living like Indians filled me with fear.
I prayed long—I prayed so much . . .
to ask Jesus to remove all this from me.
Yet the request came again: Wouldst thou refuse to do this for me?
Teresa would always refer to this encounter as her “call within a call.” She hadn’t anticipated the immediate deep intimacy with God, the vivid presence of Christ. The voice insisted, “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be my light.” Over months of conversations with the Voice, her new life of radical compassionate service took shape—and formed the iconic woman we know as Mother Teresa.
An obedient nun, Teresa was bound to seek permission to act on the divine message. The skeptical archbishop needed convincing; her request was unheard of, doomed to fail. Teresa proved relentless in her appeals, spurred on by the audible voice. When approval came at last, she wrote,
On Tuesday evening
I am leaving the convent. . . .
All is very dark—plenty of tears—
I have very little courage—
but I trust Him blindly,
in spite of all feelings.
Teresa exchanged her nun’s habit for a simple cotton sari, and with five coins in her pocket, she left, alone, to seek Jesus in the desperate byways of Calcutta.
A few sisters joined Teresa as Missionaries of Charity to serve with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. In the face of endless need, Teresa insisted on cheerfulness. To tend the suffering bodies of dying people was to touch the literal body of Jesus. Who wouldn’t be happy, living intimately with Jesus twenty-four hours a day? Not everyone saw the appeal. One wealthy man observed Teresa cleaning the oozing wounds of an emaciated leper.
Repulsed, he declared,
“I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.”
“Neither would I,” said Teresa,
“But I would gladly do it for Christ.”
Teresa always taught that God does not require success; God demands only faithfulness. Still, Teresa’s venture was wildly successful. She labored nonstop, rigorous in her regulations, housekeeping standards, and daily worship. No, it wasn’t easy—but, Teresa said, “In order to be a saint, you have to seriously want to be one.” The Nobel Peace Prize, honorary doctorates, and donations piled up as the selfless Missionaries of Charity spread to one hundred twenty-three countries in Teresa’s lifetime. When Teresa died in 1997 she was eighty-seven years old, committed as ever.
Teresa the celebrity saint never stopped speaking of the joy of serving. But unknown to the world, Teresa’s companionable, guiding voice had gone silent. Jesus simply stopped speaking. It happened early in her ministry, leaving her alone for decades to grieve her loss. Teresa confided, “I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” This is not an episode taken from inspirational Sunday school illustrations. It’s not part of my spiritual superhero’s tale. Why did Teresa keep smiling?
In making her private promise to God, young Teresa had done something perilous. She asked to share life fully with Jesus. Did she know what she was asking? In his life on earth, Jesus Christ had suffered on the cross. He had cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” Was Teresa participating in Jesus’ own suffering when she wrote, “I find no words to express the depths of the darkness”? With an unshakeable commitment I can’t even comprehend, Teresa bravely converted her feelings of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God.
The worst poverty is not physical or material, Teresa often taught. The worst poverty is the distress of loneliness, of not being loved, of not being wanted. Anyone, whether they are wealthy or destitute, experiences the anguish of meaninglessness; these are the privations of our questioning, anxious modern age. Who suspected that Teresa felt that poverty too? She comprehended, in the depths of her own spiritual life, the pain of the poor left in the streets, “unwanted, unloved, uncared for, of having no one.”
Some Christians say they “have peace” about a decision, peace being that happy feeling, evidence of God’s approval. Teachers from other spiritual traditions offer techniques promising inner bliss. I know I’m not the only one going for serene assurance of God’s presence and direction. Mother Teresa pushes against our expectations when she shifts the focus from feelings to fidelity. Turning the tables, she calls for commitment followed by faithfulness; affirming emotions are beside the point.
Turns out I’m no Mother Teresa. I do what I can. But extreme acts of mercy are just not for the likes of me, I tell myself. I don’t feel called to it. Surrounded by stately white columns and prosperous neighbors, wretched poverty feels like an abstraction to me anyway. Yet every newspaper that lands in my driveway brings one staggering humanitarian crisis after another, day after day: desperate Syrian refugees flood Europe, young girls are trafficked for sex, homeless families freeze on America’s streets. What can I do about all of that? I sure hope that inspired people like Teresa and her Sisters will step in, the heroines of compassion, to help. And soothe my guilt.
Will Mother Teresa let me off the hook here in my college town, a world away from miserable slums? I know the answer to that one. When Teresa met my sort on her worldwide travels, she’d say, “Find your own Calcutta!” God is close to you, God is with you, she insists.
“Keep smiling!” was Teresa’s motto, and it always sounded trite to me. Knowing what I know now, I no longer dismiss her as an unearthly saint miraculously powered by endless supplies of divine rapture. She knew that warm feelings and bright words from God are unnecessary; faithfulness to Jesus is all. I hear in her words a call to courage:
We can do no great things,
only small things with great love.
What other lessons might you glean from this book excerpt?
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That is so very profound.
I was recently visiting at an evening service that felt so very deeply meaningful as they talked about the ‘higher call” of knowing Christ. But there I was, wrestling greatly in my mind as to how I might personally find a relatively balanced interpretation and application of ‘knowing Christ’.
The group seemed to define that higher call more as “intimacy with God”. In some ways I can see their point because their focus on ‘manifestation’ of the Holy Spirit is indeed profound; they partner directly with a ministry that has brought healing – miracles of sight and hearing recovered, etc, etc – to throngs of those in poverty in India! Connecting with this group brought me fresh hope I really needed! Being around them has truly brought a fresh sense of healing in my own life.
But, on the other hand, I have been thinking hard about the aspect of practical faithfulness in mundane service as a manifestation of knowing Christ too. Knowing Christ and what that looks like can hardly be boxed in to one or two definitions. I love how Mother Theresa’s legacy provides such concrete proof of the higher call of knowing Christ; simply in the very faces of those in greatest need….even without the emotional comfort of spiritual manifestations. At the same time it’s very interesting to know that her world-changing ministry did have roots in a supernaturally-oriented conversation with God!
I appreciate your thoughts on this, for I want to embrace both the intimacy of knowing Christ and the practical outworking of faith in daily living. Sometimes one or the other may seem to have more emphasis in our lives–at least I experience that kind of ebb and flow–so I’m intrigued by Mother Teresa’s experience. Yet however she might have felt at different points in her life, she learned to persevere, which is a beautiful lesson of faith and commitment.