Discouragement is the deep spiritual valley of our age. For Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Holy Spirit’s light came only at dawn in a long dark night of the soul.
I grew up a few miles north of Boston in an area known locally as the North Shore. Well, it’s called that in print anyway. In conversation, it comes out something like, “the Noath Shoah.” I never knew that until I moved to another part of the country where people inexplicably pronounce the letter “R.” Anyway, I’ve lived in so many places since that I’ve lost much of my Boston accent, but I can still translate it when I hear it.
There is an old North Shore saying, “Light finally dawns on Marblehead.” I’m not sure of its origin, but it makes logical sense. The seaside town of Marblehead is at the head of a deep harbor, so the dawn’s early light is seen there a few seconds later than in other North Shore coastal towns. It’s figurative meaning is that some reality that has been eluding us is now finally made clear.
Light finally dawned on Marblehead today when I set out to write about Pentecost and ended up writing about soon-to-be Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta. There is a connection that I had to spend some time ferreting out, and that’s when the light finally dawned. I learned something important about her, and in the process, about myself.
But first, I know I’m going to have a hard time dropping “Mother” from her name. “Blessed” or “Saint” Teresa both seem incomplete and already taken. So I guess that like Saint Padre Pio, she will be forever endowed with a title that has become a necessary part of her name. I am going to have to call her Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and it’s already catching on.
She will be canonized, God willing, on September 4, 2016, the eve of the date of her death in 1997. In life the person she was, the spirit she is, was eclipsed by the sorrowful mysteries of the poor to whom she devoted her life. The images of her presence among the poor, the disfigured, the utterly broken and rejected – even the despised – have always been part of the background landscape of my life as a priest, but to be honest I could never bring myself to linger on those scenes. They were just too painful. They always left me with a sense of inadequacy as a priest, afraid to look upon the broken too long lest I feel compelled to follow her lead.
I admired Mother Teresa’s presence at the peripheries of human suffering, but as a priest I admired it from too much of a safe distance. That troubles me today. I had to be compelled in priesthood to carry the cross of the outcast, a cross that brought me unwilling to the scene of that post-resurrection appearance to Simon Peter in the Gospel of John.
“Truly, truly I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)
I have experienced those ominous words of John’s Gospel in a literal and terrifying way, but I found companions and some inner peace along the way as well. I wrote of one a year ago in “My Turn: A Lesson From Damien, Leper Priest.” It was about how disappointment and discouragement have been part of my own dark night of the soul for twenty-two long years, and how Saint Damien of Molokai – whose feast day is celebrated on the day before this is posted – taught me what my priorities must be in a life among prisoners.
And you know from many posts that I found other companions and mentors in Saint Maximilian Kolbe and Saint Padre Pio who have shown me by example that my life bound over by earthly powers must be lived out at the foot of Cross. In prison, others have joined me there, many others, but I remain in the dark.
COME BE MY LIGHT
Now I present this new friend at the foot of the Cross in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, but I had to first shed all my assumptions about her. It’s a little intimidating that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her witness to the world’s poor. In life Mother Teresa was revered as a living saint. I just assumed that for her to be that person, to do the work that she did, Mother Teresa must have been given a gift of daily awareness of the light of supernatural grace that flowed within her and shined through her. Otherwise I thought, she would just sink into dark desolation just as I have been known to do with far less in the way of grace to count on.
And when I do sink into that desolation, I sometimes stay for days, weeks, months, at one point in my imprisonment before These Stone Walls began, even years. And if my mail is any indication, many of you have had that same experience. Please, do not come to These Stone Walls because misery loves company. It really doesn’t. Come here because together we can manage crosses of discouragement that alone might only elude us and crush our spirits. You can’t just go to Home Depot to buy a weed whacker to wipe out desolation. It’s best to have someone show you how to use it.
I was wrong about Mother Teresa, about my image of her basking in the reflected glow of the Holy Spirit. About a year after I started writing for These Stone Walls, I was given a copy of Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light (Doubleday 2007) and my presumptions about her life in grace were quickly dismantled.
Some of the shallow secular media made a big deal of this book, presenting it as the latest Catholic scandal that the great Living Saint among us had long bouts of doubt and desolation. But for me she became human again, and an icon not so much of living grace, but of grace hard won through great spiritual struggle. Like Saint Maximilian Kolbe, she became someone I could let in, and learn from.
Centuries of Catholic art tend to depict the saints among us with halos, in a state of ecstatic pose before the True Presence. Mother Teresa’s own writings convey her struggle to survive spiritually in the present absence. In that, I can relate. In that, I find much hope. That sense of absence is something I plan to take up again soon.
Through letters to her spiritual director, Come Be My Light is a guided tour of the interior life of this courageous woman whose heart “burned with the fire of charity” while at the same time experienced doubt and spiritual darkness in “a true dark night of the soul.” I began to do what she did, to pray not so much to be free of spiritual desolation, but to be free to serve even in the midst of it. Mother Teresa did that well. I get, at best, a C-minus, but I’m still reading the book!
A part of it reminds me so much of something Canadian Catholic writer Michael Brandon wrote about a year ago in “All Things Turn to Good” at his Freedom Through Truth blog. While writing of the news of the failure of the justice system to pursue justice for me, Michael quoted another Saint Teresa, Saint Teresa of Avila, who once wrote, “God, if this is how You treat Your friends, it’s no wonder that you have so few.” When our friend, Pornchai Moontri, read that quote, it made him laugh. He had been having a hard time with discouragement over my plight, but the quote put it into perspective for him.
Don’t read Come Be My Light in one sitting. Keep it on your night stand and read it prayerfully, a letter a day perhaps, or even reserved for moments in your own dark night. It has gotten me through many of my own. She is fast becoming the Patron Saint of “Get-off-your-priestly-arse-and-do-something-for-someone-instead-of-moping-about!”
There is a little side story to tell. While composing this post, I had left my copy of Come Be My Light in the prison library where I work, but I had only a Saturday afternoon to finish this post and get it into the mail. The library is closed on weekends so I had no way to retrieve the book. On Saturday morning, I remembered that Father Michael Gaitley had an entire section about the Marian consecration of Mother Teresa in his book, 33 days to Morning Glory.
But I had left that book in the library as well! When I mentioned that to Pornchai, he said, “Well, there’s at least ten of them right here in this unit.” Then it struck me. How is it even possible that out of sixty prisoners in this one prison cell block, ten of them have completed 33 Days to Morning Glory and entered into Marian Consecration? That’s one out of every six prisoners in our field of view. So all I had to do was walk to the cell next to mine and borrow the book. Duh!
When I did, I opened to the Table of Contents and was instantly reminded that three of my favorite saints comprise weeks two, three, and four of Father Gaitley’s 33 Days to Morning Glory, retreat. They are Saints Maximilian Kolbe, Mother Teresa, and John Paul II, and all are saints of the Twentieth Century.
I thought I had read this book cover to cover, but while looking at the Table of Contents to find the section on Mother Teresa, I unconsciously thumbed back two pages, and stopped on a name that jumped off the page at me. It was a short review of 33 Days by Father James McCurry, Minister Provincial of the Conventual Franciscans, the order to which Saint Maximilian Kolbe belonged and the vice postulator for his cause for sainthood. How could I not have seen this before?
A dozen years ago, Father James McCurry came to visit me in prison. I had never previously met him, and today I can’t really explain what brought him here except a vague memory that he was passing through and heard of me through a friend of a friend. In the prison visiting room, Father McCurry asked, “What do you know of Saint Maximilian Kolbe?” It was a question that would change my life, and then change the life of Pornchai Moontri, and then others as well. I wrote of this first encounter with a Patron Saint in “Suffering and Saint Maximilian Kolbe behind These Stone Walls.”
So in searching for a section on Mother Teresa, she pointed me back to an old friend. The interconnections between everyone in this story are mind-boggling. Father McCurry wrote that the essence of Marian consecration is…
“St. Maximilian Kolbe’s mystical intuition about the interior life of Mary and the Holy Spirit in the life of a consecrant; Blessed Mother Teresa’s experience of Mary drawing us into her heart, where Jesus keeps repeating, ‘I thirst’; and St. John Paul’s understanding that consecration to Mary brings us to the source of merciful love – the Divine Mercy poised to transform the world.”
That is when the light finally dawned on Marblehead! I realized that the world I am thrown into is in fact being transformed in spite of my protests about being here in the first place. Some around me – the poor, the outcasts, the discarded, the lepers, the criminals – are being transformed. How could it possibly have happened that one out of every six of these men around me in prison now lives a life consecrated to Jesus through Mary? How is it that the saints whose intercession I keep pursuing are already engaged in a work that has eluded me? Then I read the May 1st Sunday Gospel:
“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (John 14:25-28)
This brings to light what Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta learned in the dark. The Holy Spirit was her Advocate not in any obvious glory, but in desolation, and it was from there on the very edges of suffering humanity that she led countless souls to Christ, and witnessed to the world that the Lord hears the cry of the poor.
“It is beautiful to see the humility of Christ. This humility can be seen in the crib, in the exile in Egypt, in the hidden life, in the inability to make people understand him, in the desertion of his apostles, in the hatred of the Jews, and all the terrible suffering and death of his passion, and now in his permanent state of humility in the tabernacle, where he has rendered himself to such a small particle of bread that the priest can hold him with two fingers.” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta)
Other Pentecost Posts from These Stone Walls:
- Pentecost in the Year of the Priest
- Inherit the Wind: Pentecost and the Breath of God
- Pentecost, Priesthood, and Death in the Afternoon