It was ten years ago today, September 5, 1997, that we learned of the death of Mother Teresa. We all know the bare bones of her biography: she was born in 1910 in Albania, became a nun in 1931, and started her own order the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India in 1948. She and her community were committed to working with the “poorest of the poor” and her success at this led her to win the Nobel Prize in 1979.
What we are finding now, though, is that her interior life was much more complex than her exterior life. In a book that was published yesterday, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light and excerpted in Time magazine we’ve learned that much of her life was a desert experience where she could not find God.
One of the first things I learned in reading the Time article is the thing that causes me the most concern: Much of this book is taken from correspondence between Mother Teresa and her superiors or confessors. She had asked that these correspondence be destroyed after her death but they weren’t. A large part of me is uncomfortable with the fact that she never intended us to be reading this; correspondence between penitent and confessor is not protected by the seal of confession but still it should not be released for anyone to read. Particularly when the confessor suggests or recommends that the penitent write out their troubles (as was the case in 1955), it seems to me that these writings should be protected. While I read the article and plan to read the book I still feel a little strange reading what she never intended me to see.
That said, I also find myself refreshed by what I’ve read so far. In reading about the lives of the saints (even though she has not yet been proclaimed a saint) I find it easy to believe that they were “more than human.” She certainly did a ministry that I could never do and appeared to do it with a grace and humor I could never muster: there is the story of her giving a bath to someone with horrible sores all over his body. A priest who witnessed this said: “You know, I wouldn’t do this for a million dollars.” Mother Teresa smiled and said: “Neither would I.” I say this as a way of saying that many of us thought she found this easy. I always thought that she had some communication line with God that allowed her to do this ministry with a confidence and self assuredness that the rest of us could only hope for.
Now we find that for most of her life with the Missionaries of Charity she didn’t experience this at all. Instead she experienced a dryness and emptiness that at times called her to wonder if God even existed. It called on her to reach deep inside of herself and pull out the courage, wisdom, and perseverance that it took to wake up every morning and greet the poorest of the poor and look for the face of Jesus.
It called for faith. It called for her to ignore the evidence and other voices and keep on doing what she was doing. This has been a good reminder that what makes a person a saint is not only what they do but also what they overcome. It’s also a good reminder that we are all called to overcome what tries to stop us from doing what we know to be right.
The Vatican has not yet determined that she is a saint, but the more I read about this, the more I’m convinced that God has.