Recently in a conversation with a friend, I was reminded of the words of Greek poet and philosopher, Nikos Kazantzakis: “Three kinds of souls, three prayers: (i) I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw me, lest I rot. (ii) Do not overdraw me, Lord. I shall break. (iii) Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break.”
These words reminded me of Mother Teresa’s life, total self-giving love to Jesus and her prophetic witness in the last century. She enjoyed close to 20 happy years at Loreto convent. On Sept 10, 1946, during her annual retreat, she experienced “a call within a call.” The following weeks and months unveiled a flood of mystical experiences that included interior visions and locutions, confirming what Our Lord wanted her to do – to satiate Jesus’ thirst for the poorest of the poor in India.
Any undertaking of saving souls for Jesus required tremendous sacrifices, but St Teresa’s lofty aspiration and desire was “the longing to give it all to Our Lord.” Her blind trust in Jesus was tested as she left the comforts of Loreto to found the Missionaries of Charity, and in the course of her journey, she experienced profound interior suffering, a lack of sensible consolation, spiritual dryness, and an apparent absence of God in her life, with a continual longing for Him.
Dying to self daily
Her labour in the slums brought her, for the most part, suffering. The work was demanding: walking long distances and begging for food while ensuring the young sisters continued with their studies. She continually reminded the Sisters that “we have to pay the price for souls.” In a letter to her spiritual director, she wrote, “the missionary has to die daily if she wants to bring souls to God.”
Challenges were aplenty but Mother Teresa was not disheartened. Rather, she made a conscious choice to “give Our Lord always all with a cheerful smile”in spite of everything. Yet, her private letters with her spiritual directors revealed the interior darkness into which she was plunged.
Having been so close to God, she felt that she had lost all sense of His presence. In her darkness, she experienced what it meant to be without God. Likening her darkness to hell, the consequence of the ultimate rejection of God’s love and mercy, her desire to save souls was fuelled even more. It took many years, but she finally embraced and accepted her interior darkness as part of her redemptive mission to bring more souls to Christ.
No bed of roses
No stranger to desolation, Mother Teresa admitted to her Jesuit confessor in Skopje, “Do you think my spiritual life is strewn with roses, a flower that I hardly ever find on my way? Quite the contrary, I have, as my companion, darkness. But I am happy – yes, happier than ever. And I would not, at any price, give up my sufferings. Do not, however, think I am only suffering. Pray, pray much for me – I really need His love.”
What kept her going, despite the deep interior darkness, if not her depth and intimacy of her relationship with God that allowed her to embrace suffering with much serenity and tenderness, and to drink it’s chalice to the last drop? For most of us, suffering embitters us and we turn away from it, but the lives of the apostles and saints show us a different way forward. “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Colossians 1:24).”
How can we bear our sufferings with love? The saint shared that it was in giving Jesus whatever He asked that she found her deepest and lasting joy, and in giving Him joy she found her own joy. “Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified person who forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please her God in all she does for souls. Cheerfulness is often a cloak, which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervour and generosity. A person who has this gift of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection.”
St Teresa’s entire life was a beautiful work of love and self-immolation, participating in the Passion of Christ. From her, the overdrawn bow in the hands of God that cares not if it breaks, I have learnt the paradox of love that “if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”
Mother Teresa (1910-1997) founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. She received many honours and awards including the 1962 Ramon Magsaysay Peace Prize and 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. She was canonised by Pope Francis on Sept 4, 2016, and her feast day is on Sept 5.