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James Martin, S.J.August 25, 2010

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.  Her ministry to the poor was well known during her life.  Her ministry to the doubtful, the confused, the seeker, the one in darkness, the one who feels distant from God, began after her death, with the publication of Come Be My Light, which detailed her decades-long spiritual darkness, which lasted until her death.  Her having accomplished so much on earth in near-darkness, without the benefit of the fruits of prayer as enjoyed by almost all the saints, places her, in my opinion, among the very greatest of saints in the church.  For many of the saints did what she did--founded a religious order, served the poor, led a life of heroic virtue.  Few, if any, did so without any fruit in prayer. 

Bill McGarvey has a great interview with David van Biema, author of the new Time magazine book (and Catholic Book Club Selection) "Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint," which is accompanied by a great slide show.  For my part, here is a meditation on her life, slightly abridged and adapted from My Life with the Saints

Many of us believe that is only us mortals who struggle with our prayer, who can find prayer dull or dry or boring.  Who wonder if God hears us.  Who wonder if God cares.  Who wonder if it's all worth the effort.  How lovely, we think, it must be to be a saint, and to find prayer always easy and sweet and consoling and useful.  We're sure that all the saints had to do is close their eyes to be instantly rewarded with warm feelings of God's presence.  But the example of Mother Teresa—who struggled with great interior darkness for the latter half of her life--shows us that, in the end, the saints really are like the rest of us, and struggle in every way that we do, even where we would least suspect it: in the spiritual life.  Sometimes they have to struggle even more. 

Over time, with the help of her Jesuit spiritual director, Mother Teresa came to view this painful darkness, recently detailed in the book Come Be My Light, as the "spiritual side" of her ministry, a way of completely identifying with Christ, even in his feelings of abandonment on the cross.  "I have come to love the darkness," she wrote in one letter, "for I believe it is a part, a very, very small part, of Jesus's darkness and pain on earth."  Now she too would experience what it meant to feel like the old, sick woman whom her mother had cared for years ago in Skopje.  She would feel forgotten and unwanted.  And in this she would be able to identify more with the poor in their suffering.

Mother Teresa struggled intensely with her spiritual life.  And this makes what she accomplished even more extraordinary and her example more meaningful to me.  It also vaults her, in my opionion, into the company of the very greatest saints in the church.  For many of the saints have done what she accomplished—founded religious orders, helped the poor, led a life of heroic virtue.  Few, perhaps none, have done so in the face of complete spiritual darkness.  Her ministry, based as it was on a singularly intimate encounter with Jesus that would gradually fade into silence, is a remarkable testimony of fidelity of the greatest kind. 

Nothing so binds me to Mother Teresa as this facet of her life, and I have found, when telling this story to others, whether in articles, in homilies or on retreats, nothing so deepens their appreciation of her holiness.  

But I knew none of this when, as a Jesuit novice in 1988, I was working with the Missionaries of Charity in Kingston, Jamaica.  All I knew was that Mother Teresa's sisters worked hard, were cheerful with everyone in the hospice, and asked the Jesuit novices only to follow their example. 

Our work at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Mother Teresa's center in Kingston, was to wash, dress and care for the men who lived in the hospice.  Modesty prevented the sisters from showering an dressing the men (they did so for the women) the sisters employed one elderly Jamaican man for the task.  But since he was unable to wash the dozens of men in the hospice by himself, Bill Campbell, my fellow novice, and I were put to work.

Simple tasks, really, but also grim work to which I never grew accustomed.  In the early morning Bill and I would be greeted by a phalanx of poor, elderly Jamaican men seated placidly on cheap plastic seats in the courtyard, awaiting their showers. 

Leading them into the steamy bathroom, our first task was to help the men out of their clothes.  More often than not, their pants were wet with urine or stained from where they had soiled themselves during the night.  This made the otherwise straightforward act of undressing them an ordeal, as I struggled to pull the dirty clothes off them, while I knelt on the wet tiled floor in the bathroom.  Next I guided them into one of the showers.  Also a challenge: many of them were infirm and so needed to be led across the slippery tile floor.  One man, named Ezekiel, was blind and so needed practically to be lifted into the shower.

Then I would reach around the men, turn on the water and help them wash themselves.  Sometimes during their shower they would ask me to reach places that they couldn't reach, and I would use a rag to wash them.  Ezekiel often used this time to blow his nose, using his finger.  (I had to be fast on my feet to stay out of firing range.)  After drying them off I pulled on their new clothes and guided them back to the men's dormitory. 

By the end of the morning I was wiped out, but thankful that showertime was over, and happy to help the M.C.'s distribute bread and tea to the men and women.  This was an opportunity to chat with everyone, and since the showers were over I was in a good mood.  Bill and I could rest for a few minutes before turning our attention to other duties, the least appealing of which was clipping toenails.  "Brother Jim, Brother Jim," some would shout when they saw me doing this for one of the men, "clip my nails, too!"

As much as I wanted to envision myself as a sort of Jesuit-style Mother Teresa, as much as I desired to find Christ in all the people, and as much as I tried to be mindful during my ministry, at the beginning of my time at the hospice, I found the work revolting.  Bill seemed to take more easily to the work than I did, which added to my frustration and sense of failure.  I felt that, as a Jesuit, these most Christian of tasks should somehow be easier for me.  Why wasn't God helping me to feel more comfortable here?  I wondered if I was cut out for working with the poor.

But often, just when I was about ready to throw in the towel, one of the sisters would smile and make a joke, or tell me what a great job I was doing, and how Mother would be proud of my work, and how Mother loved the Jesuits, and did I know that Mother liked Jesuits best of all for spiritual directors?  And I knew that I couldn't let the sisters down.  The sisters got me through the first few weeks, and after that I was gradually able to enter more fully into the work.  (Though I never, ever liked clipping toenails.)  In time, I grew to know the men at Our Lady Queen of Peace as individuals, not simply as bodies to be washed. 

This was a great grace, which would deepen over the course of the novitiate: the understanding that "the poor" or "the sick" or "the homeless" were not categories but individuals.  Malcolm Muggeridge, the English author, speaks about this same realization in his book, Something Beautiful for God.  During the filming a documentary in Calcutta at Nirmal Hriday, Muggeridge moves through three stages in response to the sick and the dying.  The first comes horror at the sights, smells and sounds of the hospice.  Second is compassion.  And the third, something Muggeridge had never had experienced before, is the awareness that the lepers and the sick before him "were not pitiable, repulsive or forlorn, but rather dear and delightful; as it might be, friends of longstanding, brothers and sisters." 

The sisters' cheerfulness, which I had originally assumed was an artful camouflage designed to hide disgust at their tasks was revealed over time as both utterly genuine and wonderfully helpful to me and to the poor with whom they worked.  And, as I would later discover, it found its roots in the spirituality of Mother Teresa.  It was not a cheerfulness that masked the difficulties of the work--for the Sisters were serious about their tasks.  They struggled daily in a difficult situation: working long hours in a hot climate with the neediest of persons using the simplest of tools.  Rather, it was a cheerfulness that communicated the joy of their vocation and the joy of serving Christ. 

It had a practical application, too.  Their attitude was a gift to those poor who had known mostly misery and rejection in life. "We want to make them feel that they are loved," Mother Teresa told Muggeridge.  "If we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed."   

Plainly, the women of Our Lady Queen of Peace were happy to be Missionaries of Charity.  And they were happy to be serving God in this way.  "True holiness," Mother Teresa had written, "consists in doing God's will with a smile."  That is a difficult statement for many to accept, since it's so close to the banal and empty "offer-it-up-for-God" spirituality. But Mother Teresa, whose interior life was full of darkness, put it into practice what she believed to great effect.  So did her sisters. 

And their joy was contagious.  I had no trouble understanding why they attracted so many vocations.  It reminded me of a comment by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, then the Jesuit superior general, who visited our Jesuit province just a few months after I entered.  During his presentation at the New England novitiate, one novice asked Father Kolvenbach the best way to increase and promote Jesuit vocations.  His answer came without hesitation: "Live your own joyfully!"

Towards the end of my time in Kingston, I was grateful not just for having survived my ministry at Our Lady Queen of Peace, not just for meeting some wonderful people among the poor with whom we worked, and not only for never once getting sick, as I had feared.  I was grateful most of all for the chance to come to know the Missionaries of Charity and encountering first-hand the remarkable spirituality of their order.  In the midst of difficult work they were joyful.  And this joy was a great example to me, a singular gift to the poor, and truly, in the words of Mother, "something beautiful for God."

James Martin, SJ

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Gabriel McAuliffe
13 years 7 months ago
Thank you for your post!
Robert Killoren
13 years 7 months ago
Fr. Jim,

Thanks for the reminder... also thanks to you or the staff for including the new stamp that is coming out early in September. I got online to order the Mother Teresa stamps for my mail, and for a keepsake. But most importantly thanks for sharing how Mother Teresa's and her sisters were such great role models for how we are called to serve. Maybe that was her biggest "miracle" - to give others the inspiration and the desire to serve the poorest of the poor. 

I think many (if not all) the saints suffered periods of profound darkness. Even Thérèse of Lisieux, who is normally pictured as being blessed with the beatific vision admitted that she felt so alone, as if there was a great wall between her and the Lord. One of my friends thought that Mother Teresa did all her work in the state of union with the Lord. Little did we know that this was far from the truth. Yet, in a way, she was in union with him - because she was in such close to those for whom she cared. 

Deacon Bob 
13 years 7 months ago

This is an aside.  On an email a few minutes ago, Amazon recommend that I buy ''The Jesuit guide to almost everything.''  So since tomorrow is also my anniversary on this earth as well as Mother Teresa's, not nearly near Mother Teresa's length, I bought your book as a birthday present to myself.

Unfortunately for Amazon, I bought it on Barns and Noble for my Nook reader which will accompany me next week to the Jersey shore.

Thanks for letting us in on your experiences both personal and with the Missionaries of Charity.
Bill Collier
13 years 7 months ago
Malcolm Muggeridge spoke and wrote on numerous occasions about how his encounters with Mother Teresa were the catalyst that drew him to embrace Catholicism.

"Come Be My light" is a wonderful book. Thankfully, Mother Teresa had a brief respite (a week or two of experiencing transcendence if I remember correctly) in what she believed was the aridity of her spiritual life. And the difficulty of bearing her lengthy sense of separation from God became more tolerable when one of her confessors pointed out that she had been granted what she had prayed for as a young nun, i.e., to share in the suffering of Christ, including experiencing His aching loneliness during the Passion. I agree with Fr. Martin that Mother Teresa's fidelity in the face of spiritual silence sets her apart from most other saints.  
J L Grabowski
13 years 7 months ago
Beautiful and thought-provoking article.  I respect and take exception to the writer's opinion about "empty "offer-it-up-for-God" spirituality.  For some of us Catholics, that spirituality is rich, not empty. 

Thank you, too, for this: 
"'The poor' or 'the sick' or 'the homeless'" or, dare I add, the Mexicans, the undocumented, those on welfare, are "not categories but individuals." AMEN!
Mother Teresa, pray for us in our holy darkness!
13 years 7 months ago
I respect and take exception to the writer's opinion about "empty "offer-it-up-for-God" spirituality.  For some of us Catholics, that spirituality is rich, not empty. For some of us Catholics, that spirituality is rich, not empty.

Amen, Mr, Grabowski.
13 years 7 months ago

Mother Teresa
The Person, Religious, and Channel of Grace
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We shall pray our work,” her Sisters are told, “but we may not substitute our prayer for work. If a sister has missed any community prayer for some reason, she must make up for it.”
"As one came to know Mother Teresa more personally, one learned that she had no illusions about the practicality of religious life. Many years of working with her and her community have made one thing clear. Religious life is not mainly active labor for the poorest of the poor. The heart of religious life is to grow in intimacy with Jesus. Everything else is not only secondary, but depends absolutely on this union with Christ, especially with Christ Crucified here on earth, as a prelude for union with Christ Glorified in the world to come"

See link below:

Kay Satterfield
13 years 7 months ago
In discussing Mother Terese's darkness in a group discussion at my parish one friend gave the comment that after Mother Terese experienced communicating directly with Jesus on the train that day, anything else would feel ''empty''. It must have been an intense experience of love.  I thought it to be an insightful comment.  

Mother Terese and Therese are examples of people who learned to love in the darkness, to love without effect. To keep loving even though you get nothing in return.  In a small way I can compare it to loving your teenager even when he/she is not very lovable.   It's how Jesus loved. 

I am certain that Mother Terese is experiencing the ''fullness'' of love now that she did on the train that day.  The whole world is glad she said ''yes'' like Mary to what was being asked of her.  What an incredible life!

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