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As I looked around that room in Washington, filled with so many powerful people, I realized that one day in Mother Teresa’s life brought more good to the face of the earth than all our efforts combined for a lifetime.

It was utterly ludicrous, stepping out of a chauffeured White House limousine to go hear Mother Teresa. Even then I recognized that, as a twenty-something working at the locus of political power. Her simple sari and sandals were incongruous among the tailored suits and silk ties of the people who styled themselves as Masters of the Universe. The crowd was large, and the photographers and reporters jostled each other aggressively to get near the woman popularly believed to be a living saint. She seemed uncomfortable, not as much from the noise and shoving as from the praise she received. She fixed her glance to the floor as Senator James Buckley introduced her. Mother Teresa spoke quietly to several hundred perfectly still listeners. Every small gesture she made provoked a swarm of photographic clicks like a cloud of gnats around her. But the sound of the milling photographers soon dissipated in a consciousness riveted on her joyous face. Now we know that we were gazing on the face of a saint who would be canonized in September 2016.

She told us of newborn babies that were left in dustbins in Calcutta near the home of the Missionaries of Charity, with the mother’s unspoken hope that they would be found and saved. She and her Sisters found eight aborted fetuses outside an abortion clinic that were still alive. They brought them home, nurtured them; one survived to grow up into a healthy child for whom they found an adoptive home. Mother Teresa and her sisters collected thousands of people from the streets: abandoned children, lepers, the sick, and the dying. Every day in Calcutta, the Missionaries of Charity fed 8,000 people and somehow they never had to turn one away because there was nothing to give.

She told us of a man who lay dying in a gutter, half-eaten by worms, rotting. Mother Teresa herself carried him to her home for the sick and dying. She laid him in a bed, washed his entire body using a basin and cloth, picked the maggots out of his open wounds and dressed them with ointment, laid him in fresh sheets and gave him a drink of cold water. He was given what he had not known until then: a clean place to lie, unconditional love, and dignity. “I have lived like an animal all my life,” the man told her, “but I will die like an angel.”

With flashbulbs popping, Members of Congress came to stand by her side, one by one. I waited in line to shake Mother Teresa’s hand, to ask her to sign my copy of Malcolm Muggeridge’s biography of her, Something Beautiful for God. The tiny nun, who barely came up to my shoulder, took my hand and pressed it into her rough and calloused one, saying “Love God, Barbara,” which came out sounding more like “Luff Gott, Bahbada.”

As I stood there among the purveyors of political power in the most powerful nation in the world, self-satisfied, puffed up with what we thought was our own importance (and I include myself among them), her presence inserted a slender needle of doubt, deflating my own exalted notions of political prowess. It occurred to me, as I looked around that room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, that one day in Mother Teresa’s life brought more good to the face of the earth than all our efforts combined for a lifetime. The thought shook me to my core. And I can see now retrospectively that she lit a long fuse in me that would ignite the fire of faith in my soul six years later.

The next day, Mother Teresa came to the White House for lunch with President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. A crowd of reporters and many of my colleagues from the White House staff joined them for her farewell. “What did you talk about, Mr. President?” shouted one of the reporters. “We listened,” he replied.

Mother Teresa came to Washington again to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. More than 3,000 people assembled from virtually all the nations of the world: Prime Ministers, Presidents, Ambassadors, Members of Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and dignitaries from 150 countries. I had traveled there with leaders from nations newly liberated from Soviet domination. President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary were seated on the stage. As I looked around the huge ballroom in the Washington Hilton at the staggering assembly of the world’s political power, the tiny nun entered. The electrifying response made it clear who had the real power. She spoke with a moral and spiritual authority that eclipsed that of the governing officials.

Despite the fact that Mother Teresa had to step up on a footstool to be seen over the podium, her presence filled the ballroom to the rafters. She said boldly, “St. John says that you are a liar if you say you love God and you don’t love your neighbor. How can you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you see, whom you touch, with whom you live? Jesus makes himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the unwanted one.”[1]

Mother Teresa then threw down the gauntlet on behalf of the unwanted ones, with Bill and Hillary Clinton seated a few feet away. Mother Teresa said in a firm voice, “The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion. And if we can accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? We are fighting abortion by adoption–by care of the mother and adoption for her baby. We have saved thousands of lives. . . . Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted, and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child.”[2] Give me the child. Her plaintive plea seared the hearts of everyone who heard her. As all of us in the entire crowd rose to our feet in thunderous applause that billowed through the hall. Only two people remained seated: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The Call Within the Call

On my first trip to Europe right after graduating from college, armed with a passport and a Eurail pass but no particular itinerary, I boarded a train in Luxembourg to travel to Greece, hoping it would be warmer than the northern clime where I had landed. As it turned out, this train went through Yugoslavia, stopping at Skopje, where hospitable locals offered me the opportunity to stay overnight and then continue on. I didn’t know that I was making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of a saint who would change the direction of my life. As it turns out, that was the town where Mother Teresa was born of Albanian parents in 1910 as Agnes Bojaxhiu. She entered the Irish order of the Sisters of Loreto at the age of eighteen and bid her family a tearful farewell as she left for Ireland to learn English. She feared that she would never see them again, and that proved to be the case. She had chosen her new name after Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower. She was sent to Calcutta in 1929, where she taught geography and catechism at St. Mary’s High School, and later became the principal. There she learned Hindi and Bengali, as she taught in the school that served orphans and poor children as well as more affluent boarding students. On her daily trips to the Loreto school she observed the bone-crushing poverty and squalor of the city. Dead bodies were collected from the streets where the weakest had fallen victim to disease or starvation. It seared the heart of the nun who lived cloistered away in the safety and relative comfort of the convent.

Mother Teresa was on a train Sept. 10, 1946, when she received what she called “the call within the call.” It became quite clear that she was to follow Jesus into the poorest slums of the city, live among the poor, and do his work there. We know that she did that heroically. But what has come to light only recently in the investigation for her canonization is that she had a much more difficult time acting on this call than was known. She struggled first with her own uncertainty, and then with the Church, from which she had to receive permission for this unconventional ministry. The Postulator of the cause, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk of the Missionaries of Charity, has documented her story, based on interviews and correspondence with her spiritual advisor Father Van Exem and Archbishop Perier.

Mother Teresa had made a secret vow in 1942 that she wanted to give as a gift to Jesus, “something very beautiful . . . something without reserve.” She promised “to give God anything that He may ask–not to refuse Him anything.”[3] She carried this private vow within her four years, not knowing in what way she could give this gift. When she received the “call within a call” to go and live among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, this was what God was asking her to give. He spoke to her in an interior voice she sensed rather than heard. The words that resonated through her were these: You have become my spouse for My love. Will you refuse to do this for me? Refuse me not.[4] She kept a journal of these inner locutions, and wrote,

One day at Holy Communion I heard the same voice very distinctly: I want Indian nuns, victims of my love, who would be Mary and Martha, who would be so very united to me as to radiate my love on souls. I want free nuns covered with my poverty of the Cross. I want obedient nuns covered with my obedience of the cross. I want full of love nuns covered with the charity of the Cross. Wilt thou refuse to do this for me?[5]

In the hope that she could obtain permission to embark on this work among the poor, she wrote to Archbishop Perier in 1947, citing these things God had put in her heart. “These words, or rather, this voice frightened me. The thought of eating, sleeping, living like the Indians filled me with fear. I prayed long–I prayed so much . . . The more I prayed, the clearer grew the voice in my heart and so I prayed that He would do with me whatever He wanted. He asked again and again.”

Mother Teresa continued to pray, and she kept a journal of what God was impressing on her agitated soul. On another day she recorded:

You have become my spouse for my Love. You have come to India for Me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far. Are you afraid to take one more step for your Spouse, for me, for souls? Is your generosity grown cold?… You have been always saying, ‘Do with me whatever you wish.’ Now I want to act…. Do not fear. I shall be with you always. You will suffer and you suffer now, but if you are my own little Spouse of the Crucified Jesus, you will have to bear these torments on your heart. Let me act. Refuse me not. Trust me lovingly, trust me blindly.[6]

The Lord punctured any potential pride by telling her You are, I know, the most incapable person, weak and sinful, but just because you are that, I want to use you for My glory.[7]

When Mother Teresa initially asked to be released from the convent to go onto the streets, she was denied permission and was told to say nothing and go back and pray, which she did obediently. As she waited to act on this fire that was increasingly consuming her, the outlines of what she was to do became more clear. She was to go with other Indian nuns to reach the unwashed children on the streets, bathe them, teach them to read, and feed them. She was to go to the sick and dying, wash and bind their wounds, and give them a place to die with dignity. She was to go to the forgotten ones, the lepers, and be a presence of love and light. She knew that she would need nuns equipped to move about in the city, and even began to make plans for them to learn to drive vehicles, which was outrageously unusual for any women, let alone nuns, in Calcutta in the 1940s. The contours of the ministry became clearer as she prayed, and thought, and planned. When she implored again, her superiors in the church doubted the authenticity of her call. Once again, she went back in obedience to pray further. But still, the permission was not granted from the Church.

In a vision, she saw a crowd with their hands lifted to her in the midst, as they cried out “Come, come, save us. Bring us to Jesus.” She wrote in her prayer journal, “I could see great sorrow and suffering in their faces. I was kneeling near Our Lady who was facing them. I did not see her face but I heard her say, ‘Take care of them. They are mine. Bring them to Jesus. Carry Jesus to them. Fear not.’” Then she could see the crowd in darkness with Christ on the cross before them, as she stood as a little child with Our Lady, facing the cross. Our Lord said, I have asked you. They have asked you and she, my mother, has asked you. Will you refuse to do this for me, to take care of them, to bring them to me? She answered, “You know Jesus, I am ready to go at a moment’s notice.”[8]

Mother Teresa’s perseverance and prayer finally sufficed to persuade Fr. Van Exem of the authenticity of her call. And when Archbishop Perier received Mother Teresa’s letter with the excerpts from her prayer journal cited above, he no longer doubted that it was the will of God, either. She then asked permission to move out of the convent to live among the poor. It was highly unusual to have a nun remain under vows but live in the outside world. But when the permission finally came from Rome to live on the streets among the poor, she was permitted to remain in her order. But her struggles for acceptance were not over. She encountered serious resistance from her fellow believers in Calcutta. “One convent where she stopped by to eat her lunch ordered her to eat under the back stairs like a common beggar. A Yugoslav Jesuit, of the very nationality and order that had first inspired her love for India, commented brusquely, ‘We thought she was cracked.’”[9]

Mother Teresa embarked on the ministry that the world now knows: the outreach to the unloved, the lost, the unwanted, the lepers, the untouchables. She picked up the dying and brought them to the home she founded to give them love and dignity in death. She picked up babies and infants that had been abandoned in the garbage heaps, like human refuse, and nursed them back to life. David Aikman wrote, “Many, perhaps the majority of the babies, had been abandoned almost as soon as they were born, and almost all were suffering from acute malnutrition or tuberculosis. Their eyes were weary and sunken into their skeletal little faces, their limbs often mere sticks, incapable of independent movement. Several were beyond saving even when immediately provided with the proper medicines and nutrition. And, of course, all of them were starving for love.”[10]

The Fruit of a Contemplative Life of Prayer

Mother Teresa always insisted that the work she and the sisters did was not social work, but the fruit of their contemplative life of prayer. There were many people eager to push a label of social activism on her, or engage her in political issues centered on the poor. But she would have none of it. She said, “We are contemplatives in the world.” The work she did was rooted in prayer, and was an outpouring of the love she received in the mystical union with Christ. She saw Him in the destitute people she touched. As she explained it, she served “Christ in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” In touching their filthy and diseased bodies, she was touching his body. By serving them, she was participating in his love.

There are two words written on a sign that hangs on the walls of the Missionaries of Charity homes all over the world: “I thirst.” These words Christ uttered on the cross are a reminder to the sisters that he thirsts for souls. This thirst motivated Mother Teresa, and became a motivating force for the order she founded. The constitution of the Missionaries of Charities says: “Our aim is to quench the infinite thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross for love of souls. We serve Jesus in the poor, we nurse Him, feed Him, clothe Him, visit Him.” It was this profound love, deepened in contemplative prayer, and nourished daily by the Eucharist, that sustained Mother Teresa through what would have been a crushing burden of misery for lesser souls. The ultimate source of this power is Christ Himself.

She warned that it is not possible to do this kind of work “without being a soul of prayer.” Time for silence and contemplative prayer was crucial for her work. “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of the silence,” she said. “We need silence to be able to touch souls. . . . We must be aware of oneness with Christ, as He was aware of oneness with his Father.” We must “permit Him to work in us and through us, with his power, with His desire, with his love. We must become holy, not because we want to feel holy, but because Christ must be able to live His life fully in us. We are to be all love, all faith, all purity, for the sake of the poor we serve.”[11]

Mother Teresa set ripples of goodness into motion by her presence. “Our work is to encourage Christians and non-Christians to do works of love,” she said. “And every work of love, done with a full heart, always brings people closer to God.”[12] When she brought rice to a destitute woman in Calcutta, she found that a Hindu woman gave half of what she received to a Muslim woman who lived nearby, because she too was in need. Rather than giving the first woman more, Mother Teresa let her make the sacrifice, because it had a value to the heart that had been moved to generosity.

Even the very poorest beggars gave Mother Teresa donations for others. She cherished the gift of a beggar who scraped together a few coins by not smoking for several days, and gave her what he had saved. The amount was miniscule, but the sacrifice was great. She loved a young couple that decided not to have a lavish wedding, but instead by wearing simple clothes and having a modest dinner with a few friends, they were able to give a gift to the poor of the money they had saved. These gestures of sacrificial giving touched her heart, because they were evidence of the participation of others in what God was doing. “Give until it hurts,” she often said. She knew the joy that would result. “We must grow in love and to do this we must go on loving and loving and giving and giving until it hurts–the way Jesus did. Do ordinary things with extraordinary love: little things like caring for the sick and the homeless, the lonely and the unwanted, washing and cleaning for them. You must give what will cost you something.”[13] She also often said, “There are no great deeds. Only small deeds done with great love.”

She points us toward the way of what she calls A Simple Path.

The fruit of silence is
The fruit of prayer is
The fruit of faith is
The fruit of love is
The fruit of service is

Mother Teresa called herself a pencil in God’s hand. In her faithful yielding to God, she wrote with her life what He intended to demonstrate to a world grown cold. She was able to live and give His transforming love. She also had a winsome but arresting way of enlisting the aid of people to assist her efforts. She would simply ask them: “Would you like to do something beautiful for God?”

Although she had labored in relative obscurity for much of her life, she made the cover of Time magazine in December 1975 with an essay that declared her a living saint. She won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Templeton Prize for Religion. Her story penetrated the conscience of a jaded generation. The respect for her saintliness spread throughout the world, and her order now spans the globe in 139 countries. What began with twelve sisters has grown to 5,600 people, including two orders of brothers and one of priests, who run hospices, homeless shelters, and homes for the mentally ill. It has become one of the largest women’s orders in the Catholic Church worldwide. Although the Missionaries of Charity live in the acute poverty of those they serve, there is no shortage of young women, and now also men, who have joined this order. Their ministry has spread to other countries, including some in the West that did not think of themselves as home to the “poorest of the poor.” But the spread of AIDS, drugs, and the squalor of urban slums in first world countries has spawned pockets of Third-World conditions.

The conditions of poverty in the First World are expressed in two very different ways. Beyond the pockets of material poverty in otherwise affluent cities, there is a quiet, crippling poverty of the soul that is not as visible but every bit as devastating. Spiritual and relational impoverishment are often found in countries that are materially wealthy. Mother Teresa found in First-World countries people who hungered for sustenance at two levels: “the hungry and lonely, not only for food but for the word of God; the thirsty and the ignorant, not only for water but also for knowledge, peace, truth, justice, and love; the naked and unloved, not only for clothes but also for human dignity; the homeless and abandoned, [who yearn] not only for a shelter made of bricks, but for a heart that understands, that covers, that loves.” She expanded the definition of the “least of our brethren” to include “the unwanted, the unborn child, the racially discriminated against.” She reached out to alcoholics and drug addicts, captives “not only in body but also in mind and spirit.” Her heart went out to “all those who have lost all hope and faith in life.”[15]

The Mystery of Spiritual Darkness

One of the greatest mysteries in Mother Teresa’s life is a phenomenon that was almost entirely unknown to others during her lifetime. Only her spiritual directors knew. She suffered from a spiritual darkness that lasted more than forty years, until, as far as we know, her death. This woman whose radiant smile lit up the world around her was in fact walking by faith, and not by sight. Her communication with her spiritual directors in the 1960s, 70s and 80s describe a “darkness and nothingness” that eclipsed her spirit. In her “dark night of the soul” that lasted for nearly four decades, she had an overwhelming thirst for God that caused her great anguish. She likened her suffering to that of souls in Hell, parched for God. She questioned whether He had rejected her. And yet she remained surrendered to Him, and persevered despite all.[16] It was only later that this intense longing for Him became a part of her union with Him. The postulator for her canonization, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, says, “She understood that the darkness she experienced was a mystical participation in Jesus’ sufferings.” She described in her prayer journal the sense of aloneness that Jesus experienced, the pain and darkness that he endured. In being allowed to share in his pain, it gave her a paradoxical joy. She wrote, “Today really I felt a deep joy that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony, but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes, more than ever I will be at His disposal.” The interior pain she experienced was acute, and in a moment of unfiltered candor she voiced her cry to God: “When You asked to imprint Your Passion on my heart, is this the answer? If this brings You glory, if You get a drop of joy from this, if souls are brought to You, if my suffering satiates Your Thirst–here I am, Lord. With joy I accept all to the end of life and I will smile at Your Hidden Face–always.”[17] In the very deepest sense, she offered up the profound pain of separation from Christ to him as a gift. Fr. Kolodiejchuk concluded, “Seen in this light, the long and painful interior darkness takes on not only new meaning, but also gives the reason for total, even joyful surrender to it.”[18]

Mother Teresa told Malcolm Muggeridge, “Without our suffering, our work would just be social work, very good and helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus Christ, not part of the Redemption. Jesus wanted to help by sharing our life, our loneliness, our agony, our death. Only by being one with us has he redeemed us. We are allowed to do the same; all the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed, and we must share it, for only by being one with them can we redeem them, that is, by bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.”[19]

Mother Teresa made it a goal of the Missionaries to Charity to “quench the infinite thirst of Jesus on the cross for love and for souls” by doing joy-filled work among the poorest of the poor. One personal hallmark was the undiluted joy that she radiated with a dazzling smile from her whole being. Joy was the one characteristic she insisted on for all those who joined her order. She only wanted women to join her who would radiate joy in their faces and their demeanor, regardless of how trying their circumstances. We know now that the joy she consistently showed was not an easy effervescence. It required an extraordinary resolution of will and a commitment of her whole person to withstand the hardest of trials in extreme poverty, and even a darkness of the spirit, and not to let it show. It is one of the hardest aspects of her life to fathom. And yet she radiated pure joy and the fragrance of Christ wherever she went.

She encourages us to go and do likewise. The Missionaries of Charity often sent a prayer to people by way of thanking them for contributions, however modest. Those that I received in the 1980s came with a hand-typed letter from one of the sisters, obviously written on a manual typewriter. The prayer was this:

Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being, so utterly,
That our lives may only be a radiance of Yours.
Shine through us, and be so in us,
That every soul we come in contact with may feel Your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus!
Stay with us, and then we shall begin to shine as You shine;
So to shine as to be a light to others.
The light O Jesus will be all from You, none of it will be ours;
It will be you, shining on others through us.
Let us thus praise You in the way You love best by shining on those around us.
Let us preach You without preaching, not by words but by our example.
By the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what we do.
The evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.

Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) was canonized by Pope Francis on September 4, 2016. Portions of this essay appeared first in Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities by Barbara J. Elliott and it was first published here September, 2016 by the permission of the author.

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[1] Address of Mother Teresa to National Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D.C. February 4, 1994.

[2] Mother Teresa, Ibid.

[3] Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., “The Soul of Mother Teresa: Hidden Aspects of Her Interior Life,” Rome, Nov. 28, 2002, part 1A. ZE02112820

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., “the Soul of Mother Teresa: Hidden Aspects of Her Interior Life,” Rome, Nov. 29, 2002, part 1, ZE02112920

[8] Ibid.

[9] Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa–The Spirit and the Work (Garden City, NY: Doubleday& Co. 1985), 38.

[10] David Aikman, Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson 1998), 226.

[11] Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God, (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 47.

[12] Eileen Egan, Such a Vision of the Street, 357.

[13] Mother Teresa, A Simple Path, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995) 99.

[14] Ibid 1.

[15] Ibid xxx-xxxi.

[16] Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., “The Soul of Mother Teresa: Hidden Aspects of Her Interior Life,” Rome, Dec. 19, 2002, part 2. ZE02121922.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., “The Soul of Mother Teresa: Hidden Aspects of Her Interior Life,” Rome, Dec. 20, 2002, part 2 concluded ZE02122020.

[19] Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God, 49.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is  a photo of President Ronald Reagan presenting Mother Teresa with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony as First Lady Nancy Reagan looks on, 20 June 1985, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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