When we think of Mother Teresa, we think of her as someone who brought God’s love, care, and kindness to the most abandoned people in the world. We also think of her as someone who was guided daily by God. After all, her entire endeavor to leave the Loreto Sisters and begin a new order of sisters, was at the personal wishes of Jesus. You would expect that her spiritual journey was one long honeymoon with God. Surprisingly, that was not the case. The book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light — a collection of her writings to her spiritual directors and confessors—reveals an unexpected twist to to her story. These writing reveal that Mother Teresa experienced more than five decades of total abandonment at God’s hands. Let me just read one of her entries. “Lord my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The Child of your Love—and now become as the most hated one—the one—You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no one on whom I can cling—no, Not One.—Alone… Where is my faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness and darkness—My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart—and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
As we reflect on Mother Teresa on the day of her canonization, it is impossible to ignore today’s gospel reading (Luke 14:25-33). It contains the stringiest demands that Christ makes on his disciples. He says, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Mother Teresa’s fidelity to the mission that Christ entrusted to her in spite of her sense of abandonment is a great witness to Christian discipleship. What do we learn from Mother Teresa that might help our own discipleship?
DISCIPLESHIP IS NOT A FEELING. On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa received the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance speech she said, “It is not enough for us to say, “I love God, but I do not love my neighbor….” ‘…this is very important for us to realize that love, to be true, has to hurt. It hurt Jesus to love us, it hurt him. And to make sure we remember his great love he made himself the bread of life to satisfy our hunger for his love. He makes himself the hungry one - the naked one - the homeless one - the sick one - the one in prison - the lonely one - the unwanted one - and he says: You did it to me. Hungry for our love, and this is the hunger of our poor people. This is the hunger that you and I must find….” While there is much more to that acceptance speech, Mother Teresa, in these words was telling us that faith is more than just about “good feelings.” There are Christians who propose the “gospel of prosperity,” — meaning that anyone who follows Christ cannot be poor or suffer. There is also the “spirituality of perpetual high,” — meaning that God must always make me “feel good.” Similarly, it is common for many of us to think of God as a magician who can make our problems disappear. Many a time what we expect from religion is magic - for example, say a prayer and a thousand souls will escape from purgatory. Mother Teresa teaches us that faith in God and our spiritual life is not a “happy pill.” Faith is the quest to live like Christ as we navigate through life. It involves hard work, conscious decision-making, and die-hard dedication. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us that sometimes discipleship may rob us of the things that are dearest to us - family, friends, and even our own life. The true worth of Mother Teresa charitable work comes from her sense of abandonment. It means that she was not doing this for her own sake or to get some pleasure out of it, or to simply get to heaven. Her faith was not magic. Her abandonment tells us that she was doing her work because she loved God and loved God’s people unconditionally. She loved God and others even when she did not herself feel loved. As she put it, “I have the joy of having nothing—not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist].” Yet she would say later, “I accept not in my feelings—but with my will, the Will of God—I accept His will.” This is the kind of discipleship we must strive for.
DISCIPLESHIP IS LIFE FROM GOD'S PERSPECTIVE. Many experts have tried to analyze Mother’s Teresa’s experience of abandonment. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the promoter of her cause for canonization for example, suggests that “She was a strong personality, and a strong personality needs stronger purification.” Dr. Richard Gottelib, a teacher at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute asks, “Could she have imposed it on herself? Psychoanalysts have long said that people of a certain personality type are conflicted about their high achievements and find ways to punish themselves. Both Kolodiejchuk and Gottelib were fascinated by this statement by Mother Teresa: “I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved.” In other words, she aimed high and her abandonment was her way to temper her high goals. I am no expert but the way I look at it, her experience of abandonment has something to do with her work with the abandoned. Her experience of abandonment from God united her to the abandoned in the world. She knew how they felt because of the experience of her own abandonment at God’s hands. Perhaps, this explains why she was able to work with so much zeal for the abandoned. The more she felt abandoned the harder she works to remove people’s experience of abandonment. What does this mean for us? It means that even in time of doubt, God is accomplishing a purpose. Discipleship is learning to look at life from God’s perspective.
DISCIPLESHIP IS A DECISION. Mother Teresa’s life and ministry affirms today’s gospel reading. Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus’ compares the decision to follow him to a person’s decision to construct a tower or a king’s decision to go to war. Such decisions involve a conscious, deliberate, and calculated decision. Perhaps, this explains Mother’s Teresa faithfulness to her mission in spite of her experience of abandonment at the hands of the very God who called her. Her “second-calling” to leave her Loreto Convent was her conscious, deliberate, and calculated decision to be Christ’s disciple. She loved Christ more than her own life. What mattered to her was fidelity to her calling. This is true discipleship. As we go through life, we realize that life, faith and fidelity to our calling is not easy. Marriage is not easy. Raising children is not easy. Making ends meet is not easy. Relationships are not easy. Conflicts are not easy. A holy life does not mean a life without struggles. A holy life is a life that is lived like Jesus would have lived it. Mother Teresa spiritual life was not easy. Yet she was up every morning at 4:30 and waited for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. She had made a deliberate, conscious to decision to follow Jesus, in spite it all.
One morning, still feeling abandoned, sitting in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, she wrote to Jesus: “Your happiness is all I want.” And then she stepped out into the world to hold the most abandoned people as if she was holding the Blessed Sacrament. May her life inspire us to make discipleship a conscious and deliberate decision.
Saint Teresa of Kolkatta, Pray for us! Amen.
- Fr. Satish Joseph