Thursday, September 27, 2007

First Things on Mother Teresa

Back in 2003, Carol Zaleski wrote about Bl. Mother Teresa's "dark night" for First Things.
Here excerpts: Fr. Kolodiejchuk sees Mother Teresa’s life as unfolding in four phases:

1. Her childhood and youth, when from the time of her First Communion at age five and a half she felt her heart captivated by the love of Jesus and of neighbor, and discovered her call to join the missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto. While it was difficult to leave her family, she found her time as a Loreto nun, teaching in the convent school in Calcutta, immensely rewarding. She was by all accounts a happy though not particularly brilliant nun (she is remembered, among other things, for having fumbled the candles at Benediction). The keynote of this period is youthful zeal and joy.
2. The Vow of 1942. At age thirty-two, at the end of her annual retreat, with the permission of her spiritual director, Mother Teresa made a vow to give herself utterly and unreservedly to Christ: “To give God anything that He may ask . . . not to refuse Him anything.”
The Call within a Call. On September 10, 1946, the day c
elebrated by the Missionaries of Charity as “Inspiration Day,” Mother Teresa was traveling by train from Calcutta to a retreat house in Darjeeling. During this trip, the realization came to her that Jesus was calling her to serve him radically in the poorest of the poor. Only in private letters to her spiritual director, Fr. Celeste Van Exem, S.J., and (under Fr. Van Exem’s cautious instruction) to Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, S.J., did she reveal that this call was more than just an inner prompting. Jesus appeared and spoke to her, in a series of interior locutions and visions. “Wouldst thou not help?” Jesus asked her. “How can I?” Mother Teresa responded, expressing her fear of incurring ridicule, loneliness, deprivation, and failure should she leave her happy life as a Loreto nun, exchange her habit for a rough sari, and take up the uncertain life Jesus was demanding of her. Repeatedly he asked her, “Wilt thou refuse? You have become my spouse for my love. You have come to India for me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far. Are you afraid now to take one more step for your spouse, for me, for souls?” And again: “I want Indian nuns, Missionaries of Charity, who would be my fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying, and the little children. . . .” The chief motivation for the Missionaries of Charity, as she would often say, was not to do social work, but to adore Christ in the littlest and weakest of his children, and to bring Christ the souls for which he thirsts.
The Dark Night. Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death. It is hard to know
what is more to be marveled at: that this twentieth-century commander of a worldwide apostolate and army of charity should have been a visionary contemplative at heart; or that she should have persisted in radiating invincible faith and love while suffering inwardly from the loss of spiritual consolation. In letters written during the 1950s and 1960s to Fr. Van Exem, Archbishop Périer, and to later spiritual directors, Fr. L. T. Picachy, S.J., and Fr. J. Neuner, S.J., she disclosed feelings of doubt, loneliness, and abandonment. God seemed absent, heaven empty, and bitterest of all, her own suffering seemed to count for nothing, “. . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” The dark night of Mother Teresa presents us with an even greater interpretive challenge than her visions and locutions. It means that the missionary foundress who called herself “God’s pencil” was not the God-intoxicated saint many of us had assumed her to be. We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. How else could this unremarkable woman, no different from the rest of us, bear to throw her lot in with the poorest of the poor, sharing their meager diet and rough clothing, wiping leprous sores and enduring the agonies of the dying, for so many years without respite, unless she were somehow lifted above it all, shielded by spiritual endorphins? Yet we have her own testimony that what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God’s presence. In the history of Christian theology and spirituality, there have been many accounts of divine darkness, with a host of different implications. It is an ancient doctrine, emphasized by apophatic theologians and mystics, that God dwells in inaccessible light, a light so searingly absolute that it cancels out all images and ideas we may form of Him, veiling the divine glory in a dark “cloud of unknowing.” This tradition owes much to the Christian Neoplatonist Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite and his liturgically inspired vision of ascent to the divine throne; as such, it says more about divine transcendence than about human desolation.

Note: I found this photograph while perusing the web for images of Mother Theresa. Here is the story of the photograph (left) written by the photographer, Peter Canclini.

I traveled to India in early 1993 with a group of Buddhist monks and a good friend who is a student of Tibetan Buddhism. I knew little of Buddhism but I was anxious for adventure and travel. In love with photography since I was first mesmerized by a developing print in high school, I was thrilled at the thought of being able to work in India. This vast and ancient land and its myriad of spiritual traditions have long fascinated me.

From Calcutta through Siliguri, and on up into the Himalayas we traveled. To Sonada Monastery at Darjeeling, then on to Kalimpong and into Sikkim. I separated from our Buddhist group at Rumtek Monastery, near Gangtok, and journeyed on to Peling by jeep. Along the way I photographed with my prism-mounted Rolleiflex and the new Canon Autofocus I purchased for the trip. Accustomed to manual cameras, I had never used autoexposure, let alone autofocus, which the Canon combined with excellent handling and quiet operation. I did not realize how great the camera was until I used it for a while. I soon became a convert.

Later in the trip, I returned to Calcutta, where our group had first landed. Sightseeing around the city I met a young woman who was traveling alone through India. She had a sudden change in her plans and asked if I could deliver some children's clothings to 'Mother House', the compound where Mother Teresa did most of her work. The Missionaries of Charity also operated a house for the dying in Calcutta, as well as a home for orphans. I made my way to 'Mother House'' and knocked on the alley entrance. When a sister answered, I gave her the box of children's clothing and turned back towards the teeming streets of the city.

A moment later a sister touched my sleeve. "Do you want to meet Mother?" she asked. I was stunned. I had never actually expected to the meet the famous Nun of the Calcutta slums. I felt unworthy; but I didn't want to miss such an opportunity. I found myself waiting anxiously on a second-floor balcony. Below, on the courtyard tiles, young sisters quietly washed their cotton saris by hand. The gentle sounds of rinsing and wringing in the open air and the soft murmuring of the sisters began to bring me a sense of calm and beauty. The dignity and peace of the place was like an island of tranquility amidst the chaos and cacophony of Calcutta.

At that moment, Mother Teresa appeared, smiling and surprisingly small! She addressed me in perfect English, "And where are you from?"

In the Bible we are told "by their fruits ye shall know them" and Mother Teresa was proof positive of this great truism. She was a woman whose joy and faith were plain to see. She seemed to radiate an energy and enthusiasm for the service of the Missionaries of Charity and the work of God. She was like a dynamo of love in action.

She spoke warmly, as if she had always known me. At one point she asked, "Are you Catholic?" "Err, uhh," I floundered, "I'm with Alcoholics Anonymous. . ." "Oh," she said. "That's very good. Now, don't you drink anymore, and if you get the desire to drink just send the money you would have spent and we'll give it to the poor!" Yes, Mother, I thought... Another humorous moment came when I asked her if she needed me to photograph for her in the slums of Calcutta. "Oh," she smiled ingenuously, "we have no need for photography; we have the reality!"

"I could have slept in a matchbox that night," as Mark Twain once said.

Meeting Mother Teresa was an amazing blessing in my life, and is a most precious memory. It is fitting that it was something I could never have planned (I discovered later that Mother Teresa and I share the same birthday, August 26th, which just seemed to add another layer of magic to the experience). When our meeting was over that day she said to me, "Now, Mass is at 6 AM; you will be here!" "Yes, Mother, I'll be here..."

I made this photograph the next morning as Mother administered the Eucharist at about 6:40 AM on March 15, 1993. I sincerely hope that this candid view into the daily life of the Missionaries of Charity may bring you some of the serenity that their works have brought to the world.

Thank you, and Bless you,
Peter Canclini

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