Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, also known as Mother Teresa. Her ministry to the "poorest of the poor," as she would call them, was well known during her life. Her ministry to the doubtful, the confused, the seeker, the one in darkness, the one who feels distant from God, began after her death, with the publication of Come Be My Light, which detailed her decades-long spiritual darkness, feelings of distance from God, which lasted until her death.
Her having accomplished so much on earth in near-darkness, without the benefit of the fruits of prayer that were enjoyed by almost all the saints, places her, in my opinion, among the very greatest of saints in the church. For many of the saints did what she did -- founded a religious order, served the poor, led a life of heroic virtue. Few, if any -- perhaps none -- did so without any fruit in prayer. Here is a meditation on her life, slightly abridged and adapted and updated from my book My Life with the Saints:
Many of us believe that is only us mortals who struggle with our prayer, who can find prayer dull or dry or boring, who wonder if God hears us, if God cares, if it's all worth the effort. How lovely it must be to be a saint, we think, and to find prayer always easy and sweet and consoling and useful. We're sure that all the saints had to do is close their eyes to be instantly rewarded with warm feelings of God's presence. But the example of Mother Teresa -- who struggled with great interior darkness for the latter half of her life -- shows us that, in the end, the saints really are like the rest of us, struggling in every way that we do, even where we would least suspect it: in the spiritual life. Sometimes they have to struggle even more.
Over time, with the help of her Jesuit spiritual director, Mother Teresa came to view this painful darkness, as detailed in the book Come Be My Light, as the "spiritual side" of her ministry, a way of completely identifying with Christ, even in his feelings of abandonment on the cross. "I have come to love the darkness," she wrote in one letter, "for I believe it is a part, a very, very small part, of Jesus's darkness and pain on earth." Now she, too, would experience what it meant to feel like the old, sick woman whom her mother had cared for years ago in Skopje. She would feel forgotten and unwanted. And in this she would be able to identify more with the poor in their suffering.
Mother Teresa struggled intensely with her spiritual life. And this makes what she accomplished even more extraordinary and her example more meaningful to me. Her ministry, based as it was on a singularly intimate encounter with Jesus that would gradually fade into silence, is a remarkable testimony of fidelity of the greatest kind.
Nothing so binds me to Mother Teresa as this facet of her life, and I have found, when telling this story to others, whether in articles, in homilies or on retreats, that nothing so deepens their appreciation of her holiness.
But I knew none of this when, as a Jesuit novice in 1988, I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Kingston, Jamaica. All I knew was that Mother Teresa's sisters worked hard, were cheerful with everyone in the hospice, and asked the Jesuit novices only to follow their example.
Our work at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Mother Teresa's center in Kingston, was to wash, dress and care for the men who lived in the hospice. Modesty prevented the sisters from showering and dressing the men (they did so for the women), so the sisters employed one elderly Jamaican man for the task. But since he was unable to wash the dozens of men in the hospice by himself, Bill, my fellow novice, and I were put to work.
Simple tasks, really, but also grim work to which I never grew accustomed. In the early morning Bill and I would be greeted by a phalanx of poor, elderly Jamaican men seated placidly on cheap plastic seats in the courtyard, awaiting their showers.
Leading them into the steamy bathroom, our first task was to help the men out of their clothes. More often than not, their pants were wet with urine or stained from where they had soiled themselves during the night. This made the otherwise straightforward act of undressing them an ordeal, as I struggled to pull the dirty clothes off them, while I knelt on the wet tiled floor in the bathroom. Next I guided them into one of the showers. Also a challenge: many of them were infirm and so needed to be led across the slippery tile floor. One man, named Ezekiel, was blind and so needed practically to be lifted into the shower.
Then I would reach around the men, turn on the water and help them wash themselves. Sometimes during their shower they would ask me to reach places that they couldn't reach, and I would use a rag to wash them. Ezekiel often used this time to blow his nose, using his finger. (I had to be fast on my feet to stay out of firing range.) After drying them off I pulled on their new clothes and guided them back to the men's dormitory.
By the end of the morning I was wiped out, but thankful that showertime was over, and happy to help the M.C.'s distribute bread and tea to the men and women. This was an opportunity to chat with everyone, and since the showers were over I was in a good mood. Bill and I could rest for a few minutes before turning our attention to other duties, the least appealing of which was clipping toenails. "Brother Jim, Brother Jim," some would shout when they saw me doing this for one of the men, "clip my nails, too!"
As much as I wanted to envision myself as a sort of Jesuit-style Mother Teresa, as much as I desired to find Christ in all the people, and as much as I tried to be mindful during my ministry, at the beginning of my time at the hospice, I found the work revolting. Bill seemed to take more easily to the work than I did, which added to my frustration and sense of failure. I felt that, as a Jesuit, these most Christian of tasks should somehow be easier for me. Why wasn't God helping me to feel more comfortable here? I wondered if I was cut out for working with the poor.
But often, just when I was about ready to throw in the towel, one of the sisters would smile and make a joke, or tell me what a great job I was doing, and how Mother would be proud of my work, and how Mother loved the Jesuits, and whether I knew that Mother liked Jesuits best of all for spiritual directors. And I knew that I couldn't let the sisters down. The sisters got me through the first few weeks, and after that I was gradually able to enter more fully into the work. (Though I never, ever liked clipping toenails.) In time, I grew to know the men at Our Lady Queen of Peace as individuals, not simply as bodies to be washed.
This was a great grace, which would deepen over the course of the novitiate: the understanding that "the poor" or "the sick" or "the homeless" were not categories but individuals. Malcolm Muggeridge, the English author, speaks about this same realization in his book, Something Beautiful for God. During the filming of a documentary in Calcutta at Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa's center in the city, Muggeridge moves through three stages in response to the sick and the dying. The first is horror at the sights, smells and sounds of the hospice. Second is compassion. And the third, something Muggeridge had never had experienced before, is the awareness that the lepers and the sick before him "were not pitiable, repulsive or forlorn, but rather dear and delightful; as it might be, friends of longstanding, brothers and sisters."
The sisters' cheerfulness, which I had originally assumed was an artful camouflage designed to hide disgust at their tasks, was revealed over time as both utterly genuine and wonderfully helpful to me and to the poor with whom they worked. And, as I would later discover, it found its roots in the spirituality of Mother Teresa. It was not a cheerfulness that masked the difficulties of the work -- for the sisters were serious about their tasks. They struggled daily in a difficult situation: working long hours in a hot climate with the neediest of persons using the simplest of tools. Rather, it was a cheerfulness that communicated the joy of their vocation and the joy of serving Christ.
It had a practical application, too. Their attitude was a gift to those poor who had known mostly misery and rejection in life. "We want to make them feel that they are loved," Mother Teresa told Muggeridge. "If we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed."
Plainly, the women of Our Lady Queen of Peace were happy to be Missionaries of Charity. And they were happy to be serving God in this way. "True holiness," Mother Teresa had written, "consists in doing God's will with a smile." That is a difficult statement for many to accept, since it's so close to the banal and empty "offer-it-up-for-God" spirituality. But Mother Teresa, whose interior life was full of darkness, put it into practice what she believed to great effect. So did her sisters.
And their joy was contagious. I had no trouble understanding why they attracted so many vocations. It reminded me of a comment by Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Jesuit superior general, who came from Rome to visit our Jesuit province, just a few months after I entered. During his presentation at the New England novitiate, one novice asked Father Kolvenbach the best way to increase and promote Jesuit vocations. His answer came without hesitation: "Live your own joyfully!"
Towards the end of my time in Kingston, I was grateful not just for having survived my ministry at Our Lady Queen of Peace, not just for meeting some wonderful people among the poor with whom we worked, and not only for never once getting sick, as I had feared. I was grateful most of all for the chance to come to know the Missionaries of Charity and encountering first-hand the remarkable spirituality of their order. In the midst of difficult work they were joyful. And this joy was a great example to me, a singular gift to the poor, and truly, in the words of Mother, "something beautiful for God."
James Martin is a Jesuit priest author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. He worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1988 as a Jesuit novice.
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