Father Joseph Langford, co-founder with Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1983, believes that her spirituality is a gift for all people of our time; hence he has undertaken this labor of love to make her spirituality more accessible. By and large he succeeds, although there are flaws in the book, both in its structure and in its style. But let’s first note the successes, which are considerable.
Langford begins with the simple fact, underlined by St. Paul, that God uses the weak things of this world to confound the strong. Mother Teresa herself could hardly believe that she would be the one singled out for a special mission to the poor of Calcutta. But she was. And if she had not accepted the mission, think of what the world would have missed. Father Langford over and over makes the point that each one of us can make a difference in our world because each one of us is the object of God’s love. All we have to do is what Mother Teresa did: open ourselves to God’s love and thirst for us. God wants a world where all know of the divine love and thirst, and live in it and from it. But God’s desire for such a world cannot be realized without our cooperation.
Why Calcutta for Mother Teresa? That is where millions of desperately poor people lived and died without hope and without any sign of God’s love. God, it seems, was so pained by the plight of these millions that he asked this diminutive Sister of Loreto to do the impossible, to bring his light and love into their lives without anything but herself and her faith in God. As I read this book I caught a glimpse into the sorrow of God at the horrors so many people suffer in this world he creates and sustains. In this sorrow Mother Teresa was asked to share, and her acceptance of God’s request may explain her nearly 50 years of darkness in prayer, a darkness she lived out in great faith and love for God and for God’s people. Langford writes, “Mother Teresa’s whole desire was to bring the poor, forgotten by society, and seemingly forgotten by God, to see themselves as God sees them—as beloved.” To those who would say that only the beautiful are loveable, she would say—and spend her life demonstrating—“that God’s love bestows beauty on all things.”
In Chapters 8 and 9 Langford details the “legacy of light” left by Mother Teresa’s spirituality. What comes across is the loveliness of God and God’s infinite desire for our friendship. God will stop at nothing to convince us of divine love and to win our love. The centerpiece of Mother Teresa’s spirituality comes from Jesus’ words on the cross, “I thirst.” These words speak of God’s thirst for us, for our good, for our companionship. Langford shows how this spirituality of God’s thirst suffused Mother Teresa’s actions and words. When people met her, they were transformed, because they met the God whom she allowed to suffuse her heart, mind and soul. And the God they met in her was warm, smiling, tender, caring and all-inclusive.
This is not a book for dilettantes of the spiritual life. The author wants readers to let God touch them the way Mother Teresa allowed God to touch her. Each of us is the “apple of God’s eye” and an image of God created to share in God’s dream for our world. Her secret, she said, “is simple…I pray.” That’s not much to ask. Moreover, as Langford notes more than once, no one but I can satisfy God’s longing for me. He also writes: “Years later she reflected that had she not picked up that first person dying on the street, had she not risked beginning something entirely new in mid-life, she would not have picked up the thousands later on.” Each one of us can surely say something similar. Taking the first step toward another, prompted by love or compassion, changes our lives and those around us.
Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire deserves to be read by many, for, as the author notes hopefully, it will change readers’ lives. I wish, though, that the structure had been clearer; it is difficult to figure out why one chapter follows another at times. And a care for more inclusive language would have made the book more accessible to women, who find references to human beings always in the masculine disconcerting, if not aggravating. These quibbles aside, Langford’s book is a reliable guide to a spirituality God has given for our time.