SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST: Sixth Word, Witness—Mother Teresa of Calcutta by Charles M. Murphy

Holy Hour Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ

Sixth Word, Witness—Mother Teresa of Calcutta by Charles M. Murphy

From Eucharistic Adoration

I thirst. (John 19:28)

Mother Teresa recalled that it was on a train journey to Darjeeling, on September 10, 1946, that she received a second vocation within religious life, “a vocation to give up even Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets to serve the poorest of the poor.”  In 1928 she had left her home in Albania to join the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland who, at her request, assigned her to teach in India.  She felt an overwhelming desire not just to teach the poor in school and then send them home but also to go live among them and experience herself the poverty in which they lived.  September 10 is observed as “Inspiration Day,” the true beginning of the Missionaries of Charity Mother Teresa was eventually allowed to found.

The mystical experience on the train placed her on Calvary with Jesus at the very moment he cried out, “I thirst.”  She explained it this way to the Missionaries of Charity:

“I thirst,” Jesus said on the cross when Jesus was deprived of every consolation, dying in absolute poverty, left alone, despised and broken in body and soul.  He spoke of his thirst – not for water – but for love, for sacrifice.

Jesus is God: therefore, his love, his thirst is infinite.  Our aim is to quench this infinite thirst of a God made man.  Just like the adoring angels in Heaven, ceaselessly sing the praises of God, so the Sisters, using the four vows of absolute poverty, chastity, obedience, and charity towards the poor, ceaselessly quench the thirsting God by their love and of the love of the souls they bring to him.

Mother Teresa once summarized her life this way: “By blood, I am an Albanian.  By citizenship, an Indian.  By faith I am a Roman Catholic nun.  I belong entirely to the heart of Jesus.”  I was present in Rome on October 19, 2005, when Mother Teresa was beatified by her friend Pope John Paul II.  Her cause for sainthood had been introduced only two years after her death.  The square of St. Peter’s was filled to overflowing with people, many of them the homeless whom Mother Teresa had befriended.  At that time, the Vatican had its own homeless shelter, thanks to Mother Teresa.  She had asked the Pope if she might establish one within the tiny area of the Vatican, and he assented, provided she could find a location.  She chose a site, but it was rejected by the bureaucracy; they said it blocked an emergency escape route from the Paul VI audience hall.  Not deterred, she had a plaque made and asked the Pope to bless it so she could place it at the site she had selected.  He did so, and the matter of the shelter’s location was closed.  It bears the name, Domus Mariae, House of Mary.

In his homily on the day of her beatification, Pope John Paul alluded to the dark nights of the soul that Mother Teresa endured during much of her life.  Yet, he said,

In her darkest hours she clung even more tenaciously to prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.  This harsh spiritual trial led her to identify herself more and more closely with those whom she served each day, feeling their pain and, at times, even their rejection.  She was fond of repeating that the greatest poverty is to be unwanted, to have no one to take care of you.

For many it was startling to learn in Mother Teresa’s posthumously published diaries that she lived much of her life in what she described as “terrible darkness.”  In one entry she writes, “If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of darkness.  I will continually be absent from Heaven, to light the light of those in the darkness on Earth.”  In a letter to Jesus she once confided, “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.  What do I labor for?  If there be no God – there can be no soul.  If there is no soul, then Jesus you are not true.  Heaven, what emptiness.”

As I reflected upon this prolonged depression that she expresses, my first reaction was that it was the result of her voluntary and prolonged exposure to so much human misery and suffering.  She realized, as she often said, that she could help a few, but this did not solve the problem of poverty and injustice.  “God does not expect us to be successful,” she once offered in explanation, “only to be faithful.”  Faithful, yes, but at what personal cost?

It was at this point that I decided to reread the spiritual journal of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux after whom Mother Teresa was named.  Her Story of a Soul, written in the last years of her short life, uses images that have their exact counterpart in Mother Teresa’s diaries.  I then realized a psychological explanation of Mother Teresa’s “darkness” was inadequate to grasp their spiritual purification that Saint Thérèse had propounded in almost identical language.

Like Mother Teresa, Saint Thérèse had great ambitions for her life.  She wanted to be a missionary, even within the confines of a cloister.  She felt dejected that she could not as a woman become a priest but felt comfort when she read in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that the greatest vocation is “love.”  “Yes, I have found my place in the church!  My vocation is love!”

Saint Thérèse also experienced huge sorrows.  Her mother died when she was four.  Her father was clinically depressed.  Her “second mother,” her older sister Pauline, left the family to become a Carmelite.  Her darkest entries in her journal come when she is suffering from tuberculosis, which would take her life.

Each in her own way, Teresa of Calcutta and Thérèse of Lisieux experienced the existential anguish of Jesus’s cry from the cross, “I thirst.”

During World Youth Days in 1997, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, “Doctor of the Church,” under the title of, “Doctor of Grace.”  I was puzzled how the author of a single book, which was not really a book but a series of jottings, could be declared a Doctor of the Church.  I was given an explanation by one who was involved in the process of conferring this title: in her life Thérèse had demonstrated that only grace could have personally saved her from complete breakdown under the overwhelming weight of what she was given to bear at such a young age.  She herself described grace as “an elevator” that lifted her up when she could not possibly do so herself.

In an entry in her journal just a short time before her death, Saint Thérèse wrote,

I feel that my mission is about to begin, my mission of making others love God as I love him, my mission of teaching the little way to souls.  If God answers my requests, my Heaven will be spent on Earth up until the end of the world.  Yes, I want to spend Heaven in doing good on Earth.

Many years later, Mother Teresa would say the same.

Proposing a shelter for the homeless in the Vatican was not an outlandish idea for Mother Teresa but part of her deepest conviction: that we must love the poor wherever we are.

You will find Calcutta all over the world if you have the eyes to see.  The streets of Calcutta lead to every man’s door.  I know that you may want to make a trip to Calcutta, but it is easy to love people far away.  It is not always easy to love people who live beside us.  What about the ones I dislike or look down upon?


Prayer

COMMUNITY PRAYER OF THE MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY

Dear Lord, the Great Healer, I kneel before you, since every perfect gift must come from you.  I pray: give skill to my hands, clear vision to my mind, kindness, and meekness to my heart.  Give me singleness of purpose, strength to lift up a part of the burden of my suffering fellowmen, and a realization of the privilege that is mine.  Take from my heart all guide and worldliness, that with the simple faith of a child, I may rely on you.  Amen.

Reflect also on these words of Mother Teresa:

Our works of love are nothing but works of peace.  Let us do them with greater love and efficiency – each one in her own or his own work in daily life: in your home, in your neighborhood.  It is always the same Christ who says: “I was thirsty – not for water but for peace that satiates the passionate thirst of passion for war.  I was naked – not for clothes, but for that beautiful dignify of men and women for their bodies.  I was homeless – not for a shelter made of bricks but for a heart that understands, that covers, that loves. (From the Beatification booklet, October 19, 2003)

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