When I went to Calcutta to work with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries for two months, I was forty-four and a three-year-old in Christ; she was eighty-six and had already experienced many deaths in answering her call. The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once asked her to describe her life, and she began by telling him about her childhood in Albania, her decision to join the Sisters of Loreto, her move to India, and her life as a teacher in the St. Mary’s School in Entally, a suburb of Calcutta. Then she turned to her call within a call, when Jesus asked her to “go into the darkest holes of the poor to bring the poorest to Jesus and Jesus to them.” She stopped and noted, “And that was the end of my life.” Muggeridge wrote, “It was the end of her biography and the beginning of her life.”1
Dying to Self: “Never Say No to Jesus”
In September 1946, at age 36, Mother Teresa was on a train trip to Darjeeling for her annual retreat. On this trip, Jesus revealed himself to her in visions and through his audible voice. He asked her to leave Loreto and gather a group of Indian nuns to serve the poorest of the poor. This would be a unique order for the Catholic Church, and she had to defend the notion that Jesus wanted Indian nuns to live as Indians among the poorest of the poor. They were not to join a European order or to build places where the poor had to come to them. They were to go into the darkest holes of the poor and take Jesus, who promised Mother Teresa he would never leave them. These visions were revealed to the public for the first time in Father Kolodiejchuk’s recent book about her spiritual “dark nights.” Except for a handful of priests and bishops who were her confessors, Mother Teresa only told people that the trip to Darjeeling resulted in her call within a call. To this day, the Missionaries still celebrate September 10 as the Day of Inspiration.2
Mother Teresa waited two years for the Catholic Church to release her to live with the poor and an additional two years for the establishment of the Missionaries. Though frustrated by the church’s delays, she submitted to her authorities, convinced that their approval was confirmation of the call she had received. Once released, Mother Teresa laid down her life for the poor everyday; she took up her cross and fulfilled the three vows she made early and continually in her life—to become a saint meek and humble, to never say no to Jesus, and to drink only from his chalice of pain. Her vows were more like those of medieval nuns, yet here she was, successfully working in the heart of one of the world’s most chaotic cities. But Mother Teresa always admonished the sisters that their work with the people was not their first work; it was the result of their primary responsibility: to belong to Jesus, to protect at all costs their relationship with him, and to pray unceasingly. Out of this relationship with Christ sprung Mother Teresa’s work with the poor.
Dying as Reparation: “To Be His Victim”
Mother Teresa believed that she and her sisters were called to make reparation for the sins of the poor (and the sins of the rich against them) through their own voluntary sacrifice, suffering, surrender, and obedience. With Paul, she could say, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). In an explanation of the Original Constitution of the Missionaries, Mother Teresa wrote:
True love is surrender. The more we love the more we surrender. If we really love souls we must be ready to take their place, to take their sins upon us and face the anger of God. It is only thus that we make ourselves their means and them our end. We must be living holocausts, for the world needs us as such. For by giving the little we possess, we give all—and there is no limit to the love that prompts us to give. To give oneself completely to God to be His Victim—the victim of His unwanted love—the love that made the heart of God love men so much. This is the Spirit of our Society—one of complete giving to God. We cannot be pleased with the common. What is good for other religious may not be sufficient for us. We have to satiate the thirst of an infinite God, dying of love.3
Dying to the Mystical: “I Will Smile at Your Hidden Face Always”
Mother Teresa had to die the excruciating death of the mystics, death to mystical experiences with Christ. Once the Missionaries were well established, the visions and the voice of Jesus ended. John of the Cross described this process and its purpose in this way: “They harbor in the midst of the dryness and emptiness of their faculties, a habitual care and solitude for God accompanied by grief or fear about not serving Him. It is a sacrifice most pleasing to God—that of a spirit in distress and solicitude for His love [. . .] it begins to kindle in the spirit divine love.”4 At first Mother Teresa feared she had displeased God, but her confessors urged her to look at the fruit as the sign that God was not displeased. Finally, she began to accept that death to the precious intimacy had a larger and divine purpose.
I believe, as John of the Cross wrote, that Mother Teresa’s darkness was producing in her a divine love. No other love, not agape or eros or philia, could sustain the difficult and tedious work of the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa and the Missionaries needed divine love, they needed Jesus working directly through them. So although she did not feel, hear, or see him any longer, those of us who worked with her experienced his presence through her. And every ounce of Jesus that flowed so constantly and purely through her she gave away to those of us who came with only our poverty.
Dying to Serve the Dying: “Enter Their Holes”
Once on the streets, Mother Teresa’s first act of obedience was to pick up and serve the dying, the poorest of the poor, those with no one else to help them. The stories she told of the dying were always about redemption.
There was the woman she picked up who had been eaten by worms and rats. As Mother Teresa cleaned her, the woman railed against her son, who had thrown her out onto the streets. Mother Teresa led her to forgive the son, and the woman died later that evening in peace.
And there was a young man dying of AIDS who cried for his father; she found his father and united them. As they held and forgave one another, the young man slipped peacefully away.
There were so many men and women who died in peace and many more who lived because of the order’s faithfulness in doing “small things with great love.” By 1985, they had picked up over 40,000 people from the streets in Calcutta alone.5 These were the ones Jesus told Mother Teresa he wanted; these were the ones no one wanted. Jesus had said to her, “How I long to enter their holes—their dark unhappy homes. Come be their victim—in your love for Me—they will see Me—know Me—want me.”6
Were there deathbed conversions? I do not know. Evangelism was against the law in India. Mother Teresa fought hard against a proposed law that would have made speaking of religion even more restrictive. The law and political correctness made it difficult for the Missionaries to speak of conversion, but Mother Teresa always thought of herself as a missionary. She wrote, “To labor at the conversion and the sanctification of the poor in the slums involves hard, ceaseless toiling, without results, without counting the cost [. . . .] To convert and sanctify is the work of God, but God has chosen the Missionaries of Charity in His great mercy to help Him in His own work. It is a special grace granted to the Missionaries, without any merit of theirs, to carry the light of Christ into the dark holes of the slums.”7
If the Missionaries knew that a man or woman who had died was a Muslim, they gave the body to the Muslims; if the person were a Hindu, they gave the body to the Hindu priests. If the sisters did not know the religious heritage of the person, they gave the person a Christian funeral. I do not know what Mother Teresa and the Missionaries spoke to the dying in Calcutta, but I know she never spoke to anyone about anything without speaking of Jesus.
She lived her life and died her daily deaths so that others could live and die closer to God. She wrote, “We the Missionaries of Charity carry out an offensive of love, of prayer, of sacrifice on behalf of the poorest of the poor. We want to conquer the world through love, and thus to bring to everyone’s heart the love of God and the proof that God loves the world.”8 This is the way Mother Teresa and the Missionaries evangelize the world: by living out the indestructible, incomprehensible, almost unbearable love of Christ.
Final Death into Life: “My Work is Done”
In March of 1997, Mother Teresa set off for her final trip, one that would take her to Rome, New York, and Washington D.C. to preside over the Professions of the Sisters. She had been increasingly ill and weak in the past year, and Sister Nirmala had been elected the new superior. The doctors strongly advised against Mother Teresa making the trip, but Sister Nirmala knew how important this was to Mother Teresa. She said later:
I knew I had to support Mother’s decision to go to the USA for this purpose, even at the risk of her life. If Mother had lost her life during the journey, it would be the consummation of her life in the fulfillment of her mission for which Jesus had called her. That would be her joy and glory.9
When Mother Teresa returned, she told a friend, “My work is done.” And the sisters reported that for the next few months she was extremely joyful, loving, and full of fun.
One sister reported that she found Mother Teresa in her room, shortly before her death, looking at a picture of Jesus and saying to Him, “Jesus, I never refuse you anything.” Mother Teresa was not afraid of death, and when the sisters asked her not to leave them, she would tell them that she could do more for them from heaven.
On September 5, 1997, after night prayers, Mother Teresa complained of severe back pain. She said goodnight to the sisters and to Jesus; then her breathing became labored. The Sisters called a doctor and a priest and brought a breathing machine to assist her. At that moment, both of the two independent electrical sources supplying the Mother House failed, and Mother Teresa passed from life into greater life. In just five days, she would have celebrated the fifty-first year since Jesus met her on the train—Inspiration Day.
To live well, Mother Teresa believed we must die daily, because in dying we empty ourselves so that God can fill us more fully with His love. The last death then is an easy one, a natural graduation where at last we are completely empty and can reawaken, fully known in his image. What joy she must have had experienced to meet Jesus, who once in a vision called her “my own little spouse.”
Dying to the World: “You Have to Find Your Calcutta”
Mother Teresa once told me that God did not call everyone to serve the poor or to be poor like them. In fact, he called some to be wealthy and powerful, which is why she could minister to the poorest woman on the streets and to Princess Diana. But she added, “God does calls everyone to a Calcutta, you have to find yours.” Upon my return to the United States, I began to speak and write about my experience with Mother Teresa and her sisters. A full-blown intellectual crisis began to reveal more clearly the shape of my Calcutta.
At first I tried to write about Mother Teresa in a way that everyone could understand, in a way that would offend no one. But this was impossible: the safer I made her seem for the culture, the further I got from the truth of Mother Teresa. I saw that from any of the worldviews currently dominant in the university and larger culture, Mother Teresa’s life and work are incomprehensible. To make her fit secular intellectual perspectives, one must interpret Mother Teresa as simply a good humanist, a unique bundle of brain neurons and chemistry, or a follower of one of many ways to be good. But none of these depictions accurately describes Mother Teresa or anyone who seriously follows Jesus. Mother Teresa’s life is a testimony to a lost public conversation, to the limits imposed on us by secularism in the university and the western world.
Mother Teresa was one of Christ’s best witnesses—to see her love for him and the poor was to see and want him, just as he had promised her. As Richard John Neuhaus wrote, “In a world captive to wealth and glitter and power, her witness kept alive the rumor that there is a radically different measure of human greatness. And even those whom the world counts as great half suspected that she was right.”10 These two are communing now with that great cloud of witnesses whose lives have shown us that our Calcutta, like that city, is beautiful and tumultuous, joyous and terrifying.
1. Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (New York, NY: Image Books, 1977), 14.
2. Brian Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2007).
3. Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light, 331-332.
4. John of the Cross, The Collected Works of John of the Cross (Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1991), 383-384.
5. Ann and Jeanette Petrie, Mother Teresa (New York, NY: Petrie Productions, 1986). This excellent video of her life is available from Ignatius Press.
6. Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light, 77.
7. Angelo Scolozzi, Total Surrender (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1985), 140.
8. Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado, Heart of Joy (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1987), 119.
9. Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light, 330-331.
10. Richard John Neuhaus, The Best of the Public Square, Book Two (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 101.