Mother Teresa's Secret

What Forged Her Soul Was an Intimate Encounter With Divine Thirst

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By Father Joseph Langford, MC 

TIJUANA, Mexico, SEPT. 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Ahead of the 13th anniversary of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta's death on Sunday, and following the recent celebration of the 100th anniversary of her birth (Aug. 26), Missionary of Charity Father Joseph Langford shared with ZENIT some excerpts of his book "Mother Teresa's Secret Fire" (Our Sunday Visitor).

Together with Mother Teresa, Father Langford is a co-founder of the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity.

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The Train to Darjeeling: Another Reading

On the morning of Sept. 10, Sister Teresa Bojaxhiu left Calcutta’s Howrah Station, bound for Siliguri, in the northern plains of West Bengal. She would disembark in Siliguri and board what was affectionately called the "toy train," so nicknamed for its tiny dimensions, and from there continue on the last leg of her journey.

The tiny train’s steam powered engine climbed along a narrow, two-foot gauge track up to Darjeeling, snuggled five thousand feet high in the foothills of the Himalayas. We can surmise something of Mother Teresa’s journey from an earlier account of a similar trip to Darjeeling, recorded by a visiting Englishman:

[The fact that] here the meter gauge system ends and the two foot gauge of the Darjeeling-Himalayan railway begins, confirms what these things hint at. One steps into a railway carriage which might easily be mistaken for a toy…With a noisy fuss, out of all proportion to its size, the engine gives a jerk and starts. Sometimes we cross our own track after completing the circuit of a cone, at others we zigzag backwards and forwards; but always we climb…

Inspiration Day

As the train ascended into the clean, cool mountain air, Sister Teresa would have looked out her window onto lush thickening forests. Trains were slow in that day, not because the engines were weak, but because the track was unreliable. A trip of several hours could turn into days, as late-summer heat could buckle rails and add hours to the journey. But, when moving, a passenger’s mind could ride the rhythm of the train’s progress and easily move into prayer.

Somewhere on this ordinary journey, in the heat, in the gathering shadows, in the noisy, crowded car, something extraordinary happened. At some unknown point along the way, there in the depths of Mother Teresa’s soul, the heavens opened. 

For decades, all she would tell her Sisters of that life-changing moment was that she had received a “call within a call,” a divine mandate to leave the convent and to go out to serve the poor in the slums. But something incomparably greater and more momentous had transpired as well. We now know, thanks to early hints in her letters and conversations, and her own later admissions, that she had been graced with an overwhelming experience of God -- an experience of such power and depth, of such intense “light and love,” as she would later describe it, that by the time her train pulled into the station at Darjeeling, she was no longer the same. Though no one knew it at the time, Sister Teresa had just become Mother Teresa. 

For the still young nun, barely 36 years old, another journey was beginning; an inner journey with her God that would turn every aspect of her life upside down. The grace of the train would not only transform her relationship to God, but to everyone and everything around her. Within eight short days, the grace of this moment would carry her and her newfound inner fire back down the same mountainside, and into a new life. From the heights of the Himalayas she would bring a profoundly new sense of her God back into the sweltering, pestilent slums of Calcutta -- and onto a world stage, bearing in her heart a light and love beyond her, and our, imagining.

From then on, Mother Teresa would simply refer to September 10th as “Inspiration Day,” an experience she considered so intimate and ineffable that she resisted speaking of it, save in the most general terms. Her silence would prevail until the last few years of her life, when she at last was moved to lift the veil covering this sacred moment.

Putting It All Together

As I worked on our constitutions in the Bronx, I began to ask myself if there might be a connection between Mother Teresa's experience on the train and Jesus’ words, “I thirst.” Could they both be part of the same grace; could it be that Mother Teresa’s encounter on the train was, at its core, an encounter with Jesus’ thirst? If that were the case, the words on the wall would simply be her way of telling us, without training the spotlight on herself, yet in a way we would not forget, the essence of what had happened that grace-filled day on the train.

As I prayed and thought over it in those months, I became more persuaded that the grace of the train had been, at least in part, Mother Teresa’s own overpowering experience of Jesus’ thirst. The only thing left to complete my quest was to seek her confirmation.

On her next visit to New York, in early 1984, I finally had both reason and opportunity to ask her about the experience of the train. A few days into her visit, when I was alone with her in the front garden outside our house in the Bronx, I told her of what had been my long search to better understand her “inspiration,” and my desire to describe it accurately in our community’s constitutions. I explained to her that, for me, the only thing that made sense of her placing “I thirst” in her chapels, was that it grew out of her own experience of the thirst of Jesus -- and most importantly, that her encounter with the divine thirst had been the heart and essence of September 10th. If this were true, I did not want to leave it out of our constitutions, but if it were not, I did not want to continue being in error.

I waited in silence for an answer. She lowered her head for a moment, then looked up and said, “Yes, it is true.” Then after a pause, she added, “And one day you must tell the others…”

At last I had the confirmation I was seeking, and the answer to the questions sown in my soul years before in a Roman bookstore. Here, finally, was the core of Mother Teresa’s secret. In the end, it had not been some dry command to “work for the poor” that had made Mother Teresa who she was. What had forged Mother Teresa’s soul and fueled her work had been an intimate encounter with the divine thirst -- for her, for the poor, and for us all.

More than a confirmation, her words that day were a mandate. This was not to be the end of my quest, nor of delving into the words on the chapel wall. It was, instead, another beginning. I had to somehow “tell the others;” and while I felt entirely inadequate to the task, I needed to find some way to share her words, not only with her Sisters, but with a wider public.

In the most indirect and humble of ways, not unlike the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa had wished to exalt the goodness of the God she had met on the train, and the divine message that, after changing her life, held the power to change our own. She had always known, as I later realized, that her message was meant for us all -- for the neediest and furthest away first of all. And the message of Jesus’ thirst, of his longing to love us, silently conveyed in her works of love as much as by her few and gentle words, was bearing fruit all around her and all around the world. Already, in the time I had known her, I had seen with my own eyes how her unspoken message could touch, and heal, and change lives. 

Her Message Launched

Mother Teresa’s understanding of the thirst of God was entirely simple, yet deep, powerful and engaging. She learned that God not only accepts us with all our misery, but that he longs for us, “thirsts” for us, with all the intensity of his divine heart, no matter who we are or what we have done.

But how can God “thirst” for us if there is no lack in God? While thirst can imply lack, it also has another sense. In Mother Teresa’s lexicon, thirst signifies deep, intense desire. Rather than indicating lack, the symbol of divine thirst points to the mystery of God’s freely chosen longing for man. Simply put, though nothing in God needs us, everything in God wants us -- deeply and intensely, as he shows throughout Scripture.

Mother Teresa’s insights reveal something important, even essential, in the depths of God’s being. Mother Teresa insists that the thirst of Christ reveals something not only about Jesus, but about God himself. Jesus’ thirsts points us toward a great mystery in the very bosom of the Godhead -- what Mother Teresa describes as “the depths of God's infinite longing to love and be loved.” As ardent a statement as this is, her insights are confirmed by no less a source than the Fathers of the Church. The great St. Augustine would write that “God thirsts to be thirsted for by man” (see Appendix Three for a collection of patristic quotes on the divine thirst). In our own day, Benedict XVI would affirm that “the thirst of Christ is a gateway into the mystery of God.”

The mystery of God’s thirst for us was the one great light Mother Teresa held high in the night, hers and ours. This was the banner she raised for the poor and suffering of Calcutta and beyond. It was as witness to this message that Jesus commissioned her, soon after the experience of the train, to “Be My light;” and this she would energetically do, in season and out of season. She would spend her whole life proclaiming the light of divine love, even when her words fell silent, her hands spoke more eloquently still.

Sharing the Darkness of the Poor

As difficult and painful as her dark night became, Mother Teresa never allowed herself to become “lost” in her darkness. She never rebelled against it, nor against the God who laid it on her shoulders, nor against the poor of Calcutta with whom and for whom she bore it. On the contrary, she gradually came to understand its deeper meaning, and even to willingly embrace it for the sake of her God -- who had borne that same agony for her sake, in Gethsemane.

Even while tending to the physical and material needs of the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Mother Teresa’s primary focus was their “salvation and sanctification,” their inner advancement toward divine union, as their highest dignity and long-term vocation. She was not sent simply to work for material betterment, a point even her admirers often miss. Calcutta’s poorest, living and dying on the streets, enjoyed neither sufficient material goods, nor the goodness of their fellow man. Since they were left with nothing and no one to mirror to them the face of God, Mother Teresa was sent to show them in his name, in concrete works of love, how beloved of God they were. For love’s sake, she herself would bear a portion of their interior pain. She would give of herself, in this life and the next, to “light the light of those in darkness on earth.” The more the truth of her victorious faith is known, the more she will be an inspiration to those who are learning to find their peace, to make their contribution, and to cling to their God, as she did, in the night.

Lessons in the Night

For all who “have eyes to see,” there is a great light hidden here. Beyond the obvious light of Mother Teresa’s charity, there in the heart of her night lies a deeper light still.

But how can light be born of darkness? This question is critical, for it is key to the process and the history of divine transformation. First, there is the creation story, in which the Almighty transformed the dark void into substance and light. There is the second creation story, where Adam and Eve are cast from a luminous Eden into a world of darkness and temptation. The Redeemer, light of the world, is heralded by a night-star at his birth. The Nicene Creed sings of him as “light from light, true God from true God.” Finally, in the Resurrection, the darkness of death is conquered by his brilliance emerging from the tomb.

Darkness need not be the opposite, the enemy of light. When seeded with God's grace, darkness becomes its catalyst. Night becomes womb to day. It is the power of love, of God's own nature as love, that works this alchemy. When embraced for others, when transformed by love, darkness indeed becomes light.

Paradoxically, by embracing her darkness for the sake of the poor, Mother Teresa fulfilled her call -- in her welcomed darkness she became God’s light. Her sacrifice shone with a light that transcends our logic. […]

The importance of Mother Teresa's example, even for those who bear much milder Calcuttas, is in showing how far faith and love can reach in this life -- even in the night, even buffeted by pain, with every wind against it. Her victory in the night is proof that the exercise of faith and love is ultimately our free choice, never beholden to circumstance, a decision accessible at all times. God makes it always possible to move beyond preoccupation with our own pain, and to reach out to assuage the pain of others. Rather than isolating us, we can choose to make of life’s burdens a sacred bridge into the pain of others. 

Turning the Darkness to Light

We are each called and equipped by God to not only survive our personal Calcutta, but to serve there -- to contribute to those around us whose individual Calcutta intersects our own, just as Mother Teresa did, if on a different scale. If she could face the worst of human suffering in such immense proportions, and do so despite bearing her own pain -- then there must be a way that we can do the same in the lesser Calcutta that is ours. We must never forget, distracted by the demi-problems of our routine existence, just how important our one life is in the plan of God, and the great amount of good we can yet contribute.

How important can our one small, unspectacular life be? Consider this: the good that each of us can accomplish, even with limited resources and restricted reach, not even a Mother Teresa could achieve. The family, friends and coworkers whom we alone can touch, with our unique and unrepeatable mix of gifts and qualities, not even Mother Teresa could reach. No one else on the planet, and no one else in history possesses the same network of acquaintances and the same combination of talents and gifts as each of us do.

There is no need, then, to travel to far-off lands to contribute to Mother Teresa’s mission, or to follow her example. Wherever we are, with whatever talents and relationships God has entrusted us, we are each called not to do what a Mother Teresa did, but to do as she did -- to love as she loved in the Calcutta of our own life. 

Mother Teresa's Secret

The inner fire that saw Mother Teresa through the night, will be her contribution for generations to come. Here is the wisdom of a Nobel Prize laureate and a saint; here is her recipe for happiness in the midst of want, for living for others despite one’s own needs, for hoping in the face of setbacks, for peace within while conflict and struggle reign without, for giving our time and our love even while our own health and supports are wrenched away. Mother Teresa has taught us the divine alchemy that turns our personal hardships into compassion for others, our lack of material goods into wealth of spirit, and, should it come to that, the loss of our standard of living into the chance to become what ease and abundance would never have allowed us to be.

Mother Teresa's lessons will prepare us, as no political plan or economic program could, to live through our trials with grace, and to turn them into blessing for others. If this simple, humanly un-extraordinary woman could have filled Calcutta's slums with such love and energy and ingenuity, then we can learn to do the same in our life, no matter what may come.

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On the Net: 

"Mother Teresa's Secret Fire": catalog.osv.com/Catalog.aspx?SimpleDisplay=true&ProductCode=T407