My Life with Mother Teresa by James Martin, SJ

 My Life with Mother Teresa by James Martin, SJ

All the passages below are taken from James Martin’s book “My Life with the Saints,” published in 2006.

You can do something I can’t do. I can do something you can’t do. Together let us do something beautiful for God.


I was a big fan, and so was envious of the people I knew who had met her. My father, for example, had shaken her hand.

When I was still in college, my dad found himself in an airport terminal in Japan on the return leg of a business trip. Patiently waiting for his flight home, he noticed a commotion: a crowd of people had gathered for what appeared to be a celebrity arrival. Everyone was in high spirits. Working his way through the crowd, my father suddenly found himself face-to-face with Mother Teresa. He reached out his hand and she grabbed it. “Dad met Mother Teresa!” my mother told me that night on the phone. “He said she was very tiny.”

When I next saw him I asked which hand she had touched, and he held it out, reverently. 

Later on, as a Jesuit, I would meet a surprising number of people who had met and even worked with her. Her home in Calcutta was a magnet for believers and nonbelievers alike, all desiring to meet the Saint of the Gutters. Those who met her talked about her obvious holiness, her straightforward attitude, and her dry wit. (Her typical response when given a donation from a wealthy benefactor was “Not enough!”) She also had a deserved reputation for stubbornness.

A fellow Jesuit told me a story illustrating this last trait. He was a specialist in public health who had gone to Calcutta to volunteer in her home for the sick. Mother, as everyone called her, took special interest in meeting with priests. During my friend’s first meeting with her, he took the opportunity to suggest how to improve the sanitary conditions of her hospices. Your sisters should arrange their medicines this way, not that way; they should treat the patients this way, not that way; they should do things this way, not that way.

Mother smiled and said, That’s not our way.

My friend persisted. It really is better, he said, to do things my way. After all, I have a PhD in public health. No, said Mother calmly, that is not our way.

Really, said my friend, his anger increasing at her intransigence, it would be much better. No, Mother repeated, that is not our way, Father.

My friend slammed his hand on the table in frustration. “You are so … unreasonable!”

He laughed at himself as he related the story. “You told a living saint that she was unreasonable?” said one novice. “That’s good for at least a few more days in purgatory!”

My one contact with Mother Teresa came years later, during my theology studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had published a short series of articles in America magazine entitled “How Can I Find God?” that included responses to that question from people of many faiths. A few months after the articles appeared, a publisher asked if I might be interested in turning the series into a book. If I did, I would have to ask many more people for responses.

I came up with a wish list and mailed letters to religious leaders, public figures, writers, and so on. In time, my Jesuit housemates grew accustomed to seeing envelopes arrive for me from all over the world. (“Why is someone at the White House writing to you?”) I was happy that about half of the people I wrote to responded, and I received essays from people I never dreamed would have the time to write: Elie Wiesel, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Robert Coles, Mary Higgins Clark, Kathleen Norris.

Even the rejections were interesting. John Updike typed on the back of a plain white postcard, “I think my reaction is that the question was too mighty to answer offhandedly and I don’t have time to answer it any other way.” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote this from his offices at the National Review: “Sorry I can’t cooperate, but I am just finishing a book that seeks to answer that question, and I am temperamentally incapable of the kind of condensation you are requesting.” Another favorite came from the astronomer Carl Sagan: “The question How can I find God? assumes the answer to the key undecided issue.”

Even the pope wrote back, or at least his “assessor” did, whoever that was. The response came on heavy cream stationery that bore the letterhead of the Secretariat of State (First Section, General Affairs):

His Holiness Pope John Paul II has received your letter and has asked me to thank you. He appreciates the sentiments which prompted you to write to him, but I regret that it will not be possible to comply with your request. 

Obviously a form letter, but it was fun imagining the pope saying to some monsignor, “Yes, tell that fellow I appreciate the sentiments which prompted him to write to me!”

But my favorite rejection came in a small white envelope with type that had clearly been produced by some ancient machine. The return address was Missionaries of Charity, 54A A. J. C. Bose Road, Calcutta 700016, India. The scholastic, or seminarian, sorting mail that day, a good friend named Tim, called up the stairs.

“Hey, Jim!” he shouted. “Did you write to Mother Teresa?”

I came tearing down the stairs and carefully opened the envelope, pulling out a half sheet of thin white paper. Inside the letter was a small white card. Tim waited as I read the letter aloud. “Dear Brother James,” it started.

After telling me that she had received my letter, she wrote:

God love you for your beautiful effort to lead people nearer to His truth and love. I will certainly keep this project in my prayers, that Jesus may use this book for the glory of God and the good of His people.

I regret to inform you, however, that I will be unable to contribute to the book as you requested.

Keep the joy of loving Jesus in your heart and share this joy with all you meet. Let us pray.

God bless you,

M Teresa, mc

“Wow,” said Tim. “What’s the card say?” I handed it over and he read it to me:

The fruit of SILENCE is Prayer

The fruit of PRAYER is Faith

1he fruit of FAITH is Love

The fruit of LOVE is Service

The fruit of SERVICE is Peace

Mother Teresa

I proudly showed the letter to everyone in my community. Another Jesuit said, “That’s as good as an essay. You should just print her letter in your book!”

That was as close as I ever got to one of my great heroes. But in a way I felt almost as close to her when I was in the novitiate and spent four months working with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s religious order, in Kingston, Jamaica.


During our first year as novices, we were asked to go on a “third world experiment.” (“Experiment” is Jesuit lingo for “experience.”) Around Christmas my classmate Bill and I were informed that we would be working in Jamaica, where generations of New England Jesuits had served in small parishes and had run two prestigious high schools in Kingston. The Jesuits were such a part of the island’s Catholic culture that the then archbishop of Kingston was himself a Jesuit (and a native-born Jamaican).

The impetus behind sending novices to the developing world was multilayered. First, it was an attempt to expose us to the life of the poor overseas and to offer us an opportunity to become more knowledgeable about the struggles of people in the developing world. This was a way of coming to understand the church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Second, it was a way of fostering reliance on God in an unfamiliar situation. Third, it would help us gain an understanding of a different country and culture. Finally, it was a way for us to encounter the works of the Society of Jesus worldwide, to expand our horizon of religious life beyond just the American way of proceeding—a chance, as my novice director explained, to be introduced to the “international Society of Jesus.”

An elderly Jesuit who had spent many years in “the missions” smiled slyly when I mentioned the last rationale.

“You know,” he said, “part of coming to know the international Society is discovering that Jesuits from other countries can be just as much of a pain in the ass as the American ones!”

But I wasn’t thinking about any of these things before I left for Jamaica; I was thinking about myself and what might happen to me. I was frightened about working in the third world. And while I now see clearly that the experience in Jamaica was transformative, reading my journals from the time removes some of the rosy glow of memory and reminds me how terrified I was.

This was to be expected. Not only was I a champion worrier, but the novices in the year ahead had also successfully filled my head with horror stories about their time in Kingston, stories that were partially true, partially designed to show how tough they were, and partially intended to freak me out.

One scholastic told of a parish in a neighborhood so violent and so driven by gang warfare that the gunfire at times kept some of the novices huddled for safety on the floor of the rectory. (True.) Another said that the main Jesuit community, located in a notorious Kingston slum (true, but it was relatively safe for the Jesuits), was surrounded by a high wall topped with broken glass (true also) and patrolled by armed guards (there were guards, but they weren’t armed). Another confided that since there were no pharmacies in the city (obviously untrue), he brought an entire shopping bag full of pharmacopoeia with him (true, but this said more about him than about the state of Jamaican medicine).

And though the occasional negative stories were outweighed by the positive ones (the Jamaican people were warm, the countryside stunning, the culture fascinating, the Jesuits welcoming), I was still worried. Most of my fears centered on illness. What if I got sick? Could I drink the water? Eat the food? One scholastic told me how he had contracted dengue fever during his novice experiment there. His description of the disease, an extremely painful mosquito-borne illness (from which he eventually recovered), was memorable.

“During the first week you’re afraid you’re going to die,” he said. “During the second week you’re afraid that you’re not.”

The night before my flight, I sat on the couch in the living room, vainly trying to distract myself by reading another biography about St. Ignatius. An elderly Jesuit named Joe strolled in with a cup of coffee and sat down in a rocking chair. Joe, who had held a variety of jobs during his long career, was now a sought-after spiritual director who resided at the novitiate with us. (Jesuits call these wise men, who live with the younger ones “spiritual fathers.”) I admired Joe greatly. He seemed about the freest man I knew. Few things seemed to trouble him, and, in his late seventies, he had a great zest for life and an open mind. Joe’s refrain when asked if he wanted to experience something new—to visit a new church for Sunday Mass, to work in a new ministry, to change the way we did things in the house, even to learn to cook a new dish—was always “Why not?” 

“Ready for Jamaica?” he said to me.

Out came all of my fears. My worries about living in the developing world, my concerns over running into violence, and, most of all, my fear of getting sick.

Joe listened patiently. I can still see him sitting across from me, pulling on his gray beard and rocking in his chair.

Finally he said, “Why not just allow yourself to get sick?”

Sometimes it takes just a few words to open your mind. And those were exactly the words I needed to hear. What Joe was telling me was that I needed to allow myself to be human. And sometimes humans get sick and have to deal with it as best they can. That night I recorded his words in my journal—underlining them in red and highlighting them in yellow so that I would be able to locate them easily in Jamaica. After that I wrote: “I really pray for that kind of acceptance of myself. And also for the ability to be myself, not always putting on a brave face before everyone, particularly when I am depressed, worried, confused, etc.”

Joe’s insight helped me leave for the four months in Kingston with something resembling peace. But that didn’t mean a smooth ride.

My fellow novice Bill and I lived with the community at a Jesuit high school in Kingston, St. George’s College. As we had been informed, there was indeed a tall stone fence ringing the school grounds, located in the middle of a dangerous area of the city. As we had been warned, our rooms were Spartan: a bed, a desk, plain wooden floors, and windows without screens. (The day I arrived, my ceiling was decorated with a very active wasps’ nest.) And as we had been told, sleeping at night was a challenge—what with the whine of mosquitoes, the noise from the nearby bars that blared reggae music, the shouting, and the very rare, but nevertheless worrisome, rounds of gunfire.

But there were plenty of good things that I hadn’t expected, which balanced things out. There were, for example, many younger Jesuits working in Kingston at the time. Our house included three “regents,” younger Jesuits working full-time before their theology studies: two Jamaicans, one American. A newly ordained priest lived with us as well. A few miles away, a young Canadian regent worked in a desperately poor neighborhood at a church called St. Peter Claver, named after the Jesuit called the “slave to the slaves,” a Spanish missionary who had worked with native-born slaves in Colombia. Another American regent worked at a small parish near the University of the West Indies, called St. Thomas Aquinas. These Jesuits, just five or six years ahead of me, listened to my worries, gently reassured me, and when my fears were obviously ridiculous, did me the great favor of getting me to laugh at myself.

Before Bill and I left the States, the novice director said that we were free to choose two kinds of ministry, but that one of them had to be with the Missionaries of Charity. So one of the first things that Bill and I did was visit the hospice run by Mother Teresa’s sisters.

To reach the hospice we first had to pass, on foot, through one of the poorest slums in the city, which began nearly at the front gate of the Jesuit high school.

This was my first encounter with the living conditions for hundreds of millions of people, with a world that would become more familiar the longer I worked as a Jesuit. Potholed streets wound their way past small concrete houses with rusty tin roofs. Mangy goats roamed around bleating, bony dogs lazed in the gutters, and the biggest pigs I had ever seen rooted around in stinking piles of garbage. Everywhere I looked were busy people: heavyset women selling fruit at stands, young men laughing and smoking (exactly what I didn’t know for sure, but because of my extensive experience in college, I could hazard a guess), and skinny children heading for their schools in neat white shirts and blue trousers or skirts. With such cramped living quarters, most of life seemed to take place on the street. That morning we passed a man brushing his teeth in the street. He expectorated loudly as Bill and I passed.

Somehow everybody knew we were “priests,” though we wore nothing distinctive (except our white skin). “Good morning, Fada!” they said politely.

The hospice of the Missionaries of Charity was a two-story concrete building painted a bright white and blue. Small letters painted on the wall announced its name and its patron: Our Lady Queen of Peace. As soon as we entered, I was bowled over by the smell, a combination of bleach, urine, excrement, food, milky tea, and disinfectant that instantly and permanently imprinted itself onto my memory.

We were greeted by a smiling Indian-born sister clad in the distinctive blue and white sari of Mother Teresa’s order. Seeing the habit had an immediate effect on me. It was like meeting Mother Teresa herself, and I found myself tongue-tied, as if I were in the presence of some special brand of holiness. (Even now, years after entering the Jesuits and a few years after ordination as a priest, there are still habits—Carmelite, Franciscan, Trappist that stop me in my tracks, reminding me so much of my heroes who wore them.)

The sisters’ mission was to care for the poor, sick, and dying in slums of Kingston. Each morning they set out to find people too sick to care for themselves. Many times they carried the sick back to the hospice, where they were bathed, clothed, and given food and a place to stay, often to die. The men slept in one wing, the women in another. It was a bright, pleasant place, with a spacious courtyard open to the warm Jamaican sun. Following the afternoon rains, the sick sat in the atrium and watched the sisters wash the soiled linens as the yellow lizards sunned themselves and caught roaches and water bugs.

The Missionaries of Charity were always in motion, even in the hottest weather. Up at dawn for Mass, then out to take care of people in the neighborhood, often helping them clean their small houses, then back to the hospice to prepare lunch for the guests, then work, and then more work, and then more work, and then dinner. But despite their punishing schedule the sisters always seemed full of joy. When you asked how they could be so cheerful, they responded with answers that would have seemed corny coming from anyone else. “We care for Christ in his distressing disguise,” one of the sisters told me one day, quoting Mother Teresa.

The sisters quoted Mother Teresa frequently. “Mother says …” they would say to explain why we did things in a certain fashion. Her standards and guidelines ran the house. Kathryn Spink notes in her excellent biography Mother Teresa: “Theologically and temperamentally Mother Teresa was a firm believer in the strict adherence to regulations, in details of discipline, tidiness in housekeeping, in religious dress, uniformity of forms of prayer and devotions. She liked details to be fixed and adhered to.” Like religious men and women in communities of old, a Missionary of Charity could move halfway across the world to another community and still feel at home. Mother was an unseen presence, hovering over all that the sisters did, ordering their time and their activities.

Far more influential than her instructions about, say, how to wash linens was her approach to caring for the Poorest of the Poor. (She would always capitalize that reference in her letters, as she would Jesus and God.) It was a deeply contemplative stance. Her sisters were to be “professionals in prayer” who sought to serve Christ by serving his poor. And they were not simply social workers. “It is the presence of Christ which guides us,” she explained. To a man who once saw her cleaning the wounds of a leper and said, “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” Mother Teresa replied, “Neither would I. But I would gladly do it for Christ.”

In a letter to me, Kathryn Spink emphasized “the absolute centrality” of the words of the Gospel of Matthew in Mother Teresa’s mission. “She took literally Jesus’ words: `Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.”‘ Ms. Spink continued:

From this arose the conviction that in touching the bodies of the poor, she and her sisters were actually touching the body of Christ. It is this mystical vision of Christ crying out for love in the broken bodies of the poor and simultaneously offering himself in the Eucharist as food in order that the poor might be fed that is at the root of everything Mother Teresa did and the manner in which she did it.

Working alongside the sisters helped me see that the spirituality of the Missionaries of Charity was not so far removed from that of the Jesuits. It was at once mystical and practical, active and contemplative, earthly and otherworldly. And just as the spirituality of the Jesuits was rooted in the life and times of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sisters’ spirituality was rooted in the example of the woman now called Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.


Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania, in 1910. Both her parents were devout. Her mother, Drana, used to care for an old woman living nearby who was ravaged by alcoholism and covered with sores. Drana washed and cooked for her. Years later, Mother Teresa would say that the woman suffered as much from her crushing loneliness as from her illnesses. Drana also counseled her daughter that charity should be done silently. “When you do good,” she said, “do it quietly, as if you were throwing a stone into the sea.”

A Jesuit priest’s talk at the local parish about the work of Catholic missionaries worldwide struck a chord in Agnes, who had dreamed of a religious vocation as early as age twelve. In October 1928, at the age of eighteen, she entered the novitiate of the Loreto Sisters in Dublin, Ireland. Three months later, Sr. Mary Teresa, as she was now called (choosing a religious name to honor St. Therese of Lisieux), set sail for India. She would spend the rest of her life there.

Her early years in India mirrored the lives of the other Loreto sisters: Sr. Teresa taught in a Catholic school run by the order in Calcutta and elsewhere. The mission of the Loreto Sisters focused on tackling the problems of poverty through education. And it was as a teacher that the young sister had her first experience of the living conditions of the local children and their families. “It is not possible to find worse poverty,” she wrote. In 1937, she pronounced her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and, as was the custom for Loreto sisters, was now called “Mother Teresa.” A few years later, Mother Teresa made a private vow, with the consent of her spiritual director, to give God anything he may ask and not to refuse him anything.

On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa began a long, dusty train ride to Darjeeling. Over the previous few months, she had grown exhausted from her work at the school and frequently fell ill. So her superiors sent her away for a short retreat and some relaxation. It was on this train ride that Mother Teresa experienced what she described as a “call within a call.” 

Though she refrained from speaking directly about the experience during her lifetime (believing that it would focus attention more on her and less on God), after her death, when her “cause” for canonization was begun, what happened to her on that train ride was finally discovered.

Her letters to her spiritual director and her local bishop reveal that she had experienced the rarest of graces, what spiritual writers call a “locution.” That is, she reported hearing words addressed to her from God. In a long letter to Ferdinand Perier, SJ, the archbishop of Calcutta, she describes the words she heard, ones that would change the course of her life: “Wouldst thou not help?” In her prayer, Christ asked her plainly to leave the convent and begin her work with the poor.

In response, Mother Teresa poured out her doubts and fears in prayer. She was already happy as a Loreto nun—how could she leave? She would be exposing herself to many sufferings and privations. She would be the “laughingstock of so many.” She would experience loneliness, ignominy, and uncertainty. But the voice she heard in prayer was nonetheless firm: “Wouldst thou refuse to do this for me?”

For the next several weeks, Mother Teresa enjoyed a deep intimacy with God in her prayer, what St. Ignatius would call “consolation.” After speaking with her Jesuit spiritual director, she decided to approach the archbishop to request his permission to depart from the convent and begin this new venture with the poor. With his approval, Mother Teresa wrote to the Mother General of the Loreto Sisters and, later, to Pope Pius XII, for permission to leave her order. In April of 1948 word arrived from Rome that Mother Teresa’s request had been granted.

Thus began her life of total service, familiar to believers and nonbelievers alike. But it was hardly an easy beginning. “To leave Loreto,” she wrote, “was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was much more difficult than to leave my family and country and enter religious life. Loreto, my spiritual training, my work there, meant everything to me.”

Added to the mental and emotional challenges were more practical ones. Before beginning her service to the poor, she had to undergo medical training with the Medical Mission Sisters. Next she had to search for a place to stay, finding temporary lodgings in a convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta. Once settled, she began teaching in the slums, dressed in a simple sari of blue and white, scratching letters in the mud with a stick before the poor children who squatted beside her.

In a short while, she located a small house in town, where she began attracting the first of her sisters. Many other helpers, doctors, nurses, and laypeople gathered around the new Missionaries of Charity to aid them in their work with the poor. Eventually, she founded Nirmal Hriday, “Place of the Immaculate Heart,” housed in a building that had originally served as a pilgrims’ rest home for Hindus visiting the Kali temple next door.

Despite her charitable work and her welcoming of people from all faiths, there was noticeable hostility directed toward this foreign Christian woman and her companions, who appeared to be pushing their way into Hindu territory. People threw stones at them and threatened them, and one man tried to kill Mother Teresa. But their hostility was met with love and, as always, more service. In her biography, Kathryn Spink recounts the story of a leader of a group of young Hindus who entered Nirmal Hriday to turn out Mother Teresa. “Having witnessed, however, the care with which the suffering, emaciated bodies of the poor were tended, he returned to his fellow protesters outside with the directive that he would evict the Sisters but only on one condition: namely that they persuade their mothers and sisters to undertake the same service.” 

The rest of her life would be characterized by nonstop activity and compassionate service to the poor: an endless procession of opening up new hospices, traveling around the world to meet with the members of her ever-expanding order, and helping found an order of brothers, and then priests, and then “coworkers” under the umbrella of the Missionaries of Charity.

In 1969, the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge produced a film about Mother Teresa that aired on BBC television entitled

Something Beautiful for God and later published a book of the same name. At the time of the documentary, Muggeridge was not a believer (under her influence he would be received into the church many years later) but was deeply attracted to the authenticity of Mother Teresa’s work. (In one of the book’s more charming passages, Mother Teresa, noting the dedication with which the film crew listens to the director, tells her sisters that they should listen to God with the same attentiveness.) The portrait of a believing woman by a nonbeliever brought Mother Teresa international acclaim and attention.

As Mother Teresa and her order became increasingly well known, honors and accolades were showered on her by governments, universities, religious organizations, and charitable groups around the world. She accepted all of these for the opportunity, typically in the acceptance speeches, to share her message: “It gives me a chance to speak of Christ to people who otherwise may not hear of him.” And she cannily used her fame to open doors for the establishment of new convents for her sisters and hospices for the poor around the world.

In 1979, after years of others promoting her candidacy, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Asked why she had decided to accept the award in person, she replied: “I am myself unworthy of the prize. I do not want it personally. But by this award the Norwegian people have recognized the existence of the poor. It is on their behalf that I have come.”

As was her custom at public ceremonies, Mother Teresa spoke extemporaneously, bringing no notes with her to the ceremony in Oslo. Clad in her blue and white sari and an old cardigan, the frail and bent old woman spoke at length about her lifetime of service, telling stories of the poor, detailing her opposition to abortion, and, throughout the speech, returning to the love of God: “Let us keep that joy of loving Jesus in our hearts,” she told the audience in the Aula Magna of the University of Oslo, “and share that joy with all we come in touch with. That radiating joy is real, for we have no reason not to be happy because we have Christ with us. Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and the smile we receive.”


Unlike her two namesakes, Therese of Lisieux and Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa is not generally known as an avid writer or great wordsmith. Still, the simplicity of her words takes nothing away from, and may indeed add to, the power of her message.

Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately it is very unfashionable to talk with them.

In the developed countries there is a poverty of intimacy, a poverty of spirit, of loneliness, of lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world than that one. 

God does not demand that I be successful. God demands that I be faithful.

In order to be a saint, you have to seriously want to be one.


Throughout her life, Mother Teresa regularly set aside her personal and physical needs, embracing the hardships that came with her ministry as a way of identifying with the hardships of Jesus. During her stay in Norway, it was with difficulty that her sisters convinced her to at least wear woolen socks as protection against the cold Scandinavian winter. And it was only while accompanying another sister on a visit to a physician in the United States that a doctor discovered that Mother Teresa suffered from a weakened heart and needed medical attention.

Occasionally she was tart in her disapproval of those who were not working as diligently as she. Early in the history of her order she wrote with evident frustration to some malingering sisters: “And yet Mother can work till all hours of the night, traveling by night and working by day. Is this not a humiliation for you that I at my age can take a regular meal and do a full day’s work—and you live with the name of the poor but enjoy a lazy life?”

Mother Teresa maintained this strenuous schedule even in the midst of failing health, until the end of her life. In 1997, stooped and ill from a hard life of work, she died at age eighty-seven. Before the funeral Mass, the body of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was carried through the streets of Calcutta by the same gun carriage that had borne the bodies of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, with tens of thousands of Indians lining the route. At her death she was almost universally hailed as a “living saint.” That a few detractors would accuse her of accepting money for her beloved poor from some unsavory political leaders and plutocrats did not trouble her admirers, who understood where all the money and all her efforts were directed: to the Poorest of the Poor.

Just six years later—record time—she was declared “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta” by one of her many admirers, Pope John Paul II.

Much of her story is familiar. But there was one facet of her life, revealed only after her death, that astonished even those who knew her well. And it is this hidden part of her life that makes her an even more compelling figure.

The great secret of her life was that shortly after her momentous train ride to Darjeeling, after a time of feeling intensely close to God, Mother Teresa experienced a spiritual darkness for either long stretches of her life or, according to some, the rest of her life.

Though the months after the train ride were filled with consolation, shortly thereafter and continuing until her death Mother Teresa began to describe an “interior darkness,” a feeling of distance from God. To one of her spiritual directors she wrote that God seemed absent, heaven empty, and, most difficult of all, her sufferings meaningless. Mother Teresa confided to Archbishop Perier, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”

When I first read about this, just a few years after her death, I was stunned. In an article in the Catholic magazine First Things entitled “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” the author, Carol Zaleski, drew on documents and letters compiled by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Missionary of Charity responsible for advancing the process of Mother Teresa’s canonization. These letters clearly show Mother Teresa struggling with what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night, that is, a protracted experience of distance from God and an extreme “dryness” in prayer. And for Mother Teresa, who had once felt God to be so close, this distance, this feeling of abandonment, was a source of confusion, bafflement, and pain. “As far as we know,” said Fr. Kolodiejchuk, “Mother Teresa remained in that state of `dark’ faith and total surrender till her death.”

One of Zaleski’s comments on these letters captured my own reaction: “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.”

It’s a fair bet to say that many assumed that the woman often referred to as a “living saint” spent her days blissfully aware of the presence of God. And so Mother Teresa’s arduous service to the poor was therefore easier than it would be for the rest of us—because she had the constant comfort and assurance from God that the rest of us lack. As a result, we might conclude that we are not meant to do that kind of work. Leave it to those like Mother Teresa, for whom it’s easier, for whom it comes more naturally. But, as it turned out, it was not any “easier” for Mother Teresa to work with the poor or to lead a Christian life than it is for any of us. It was harder than anyone could have imagined.

Many of us also believe that it is only we 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, we think, to be a saint, and to find prayer always easy and sweet and consoling. We’re sure that all the saints had to do was close their eyes to be instantly rewarded with warm feelings of God’s presence. But the example of Mother Teresa—to say nothing of that of a long line of saints, including Therese of Lisieux, who struggled with her own “dark night” during her final illness—shows us that, in the end, the saints really are like the rest of us and struggle 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 spiritual director, Mother Teresa came to view this painful darkness 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’ 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. In this she would be able to identify more with the poor in their suffering.

For the record, however, Kathryn Spink, her official biographer, wonders how pervasive this “dark night” was in Mother Teresa’s life. In a letter, Spink wrote: “One only had to be with Mother for a while to know that the joy you so rightly mention was not skin-deep. To watch how she grew in stature following prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and see how she was visibly energized by being among the people in whom she consistently saw Christ was to realize that she was being constantly confirmed in what God was doing through her.”

Though Spink expressed the highest respect for those responsible for Mother Teresa’s cause for canonization, she also pointed out the perils of taking letters and writings belonging to a particular context and creating something “more sustained” from them. So whether this experience continued for the remainder of her life or simply represented long chapters of her life is something only Mother Teresa could have known. Overall, however, her biographer was certain, she said, that Mother Teresa did face interior darkness. “The dark night of the soul is of course part of the spiritual journey and I have no doubt that she experienced it, particularly during the early years when she stepped out into a void, very much alone and on the receiving end of criticism from all kinds of quarters, but also later in her life.”

What remains clear is that Mother Teresa struggled intensely in 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, whether lengthy or lifelong, is a remarkable testimony of fidelity.

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 I was working with the Missionaries of Charity in Kingston. 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 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); 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 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 tie steamy bathroom, I first had 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, blowing snot through one nostril while closing the other with his finger. (I had to be fast on my feet to stay out of firing range.) After drying the men off, I pulled on their new clothes and guided them back to the men’s dormitory.

By morning’s end I was wiped out but thankful that shower time was over, and happy to help the sisters distribute bread and tea to the men and women. This was an opportunity to chat with everyone, and since the showers were completed 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 only added to my frustration and sense of failure. I felt that because I was a Jesuit, these most Christian of tasks should somehow be easier for me. Why wasn’t God helping me 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 did I know 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 my novitiate: the understanding that “the poor” and “the sick” and “the homeless” were not categories but individuals. Malcolm Muggeridge speaks about this same realization in his book Something Beautiful for God. During the filming of his documentary in Calcutta at Nirmal Hriday, Muggeridge moved through three stages in response to the sick and the dying. The first was horror at the sights, smells, and sounds of the hospice. Second was compassion. And the third, something Muggeridge never had experienced before, was 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 at first assumed was an artful camouflage for 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 TeresaIt 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 people 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 sisters 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 “offer it up for God” spirituality. But Mother Teresa, whose interior life was full of darkness, put 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 the Jesuit superior general, who visited our Jesuit province just a few months after I entered. During the Father General’s presentation at the New England novitiate, one novice tentatively asked him the best way to promote Jesuit vocations. His answer came without hesitation: “Live your own joyfully!”

Toward 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, and not just for never once getting sick, as I had feared I would. I was grateful most of all for the chance to come to know the Missionaries of Charity and to encounter firsthand the remarkable spirituality of their order. In the midst of difficult work, they were joyful. And their joy was a great example to me, a singular gift to the poor, and truly, in the words of Mother, “something beautiful for God.”[153-178]

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