What began as a tiny subversive flame in a single heart now rages across the world. First, though, there was a choice: remain in the comfort and familiarity of a religious life, or cast her lot into the teeming chaos of impoverished streets beyond.
The flame burned too hot to keep. She quietly shut the door on the Loretta convent, and never looked back.
Mother Teresa – a larger-than-real-life, mythic persona in the rear-view mirror of history. But, then, she was just a fragile, white-draped figure venturing into a world where no one welcomed her, into slums greeting her with suspicion and rejection, into decaying flesh and rotting sewage, into the moans of the dying left in the gutter. Into danger, like the four Missionary of Charity nuns recently killed inexplicably by ISIS in Yemen. Their crime – caring for the lost and least at a home for cast-off elderly.
Like those who now follow in her path, she was prepared to go down in the flames or light a bonfire to warm the masses. The outcome weighed in the balance as inconsequential compared to the call. Surely she loved the Lord before her unspeakable encounter on a train to Darjeeling, “the call within the call” to live among and serve the poorest of the poor. But that day scorched her every prior experience: indomitable, the heart of God for a suffering world, a flame that burns eternal.
Later, as people drew near the fire to warm themselves, they noted her radiance, surely the outward sign in equal measure to the joy, they assumed. she must feel in the Lord’s Presence.
But after she died, her spiritual directors published letters she begged them to destroy. The documents reveal decades of a tortured soul, bankrupt for decades of any “feelings” of the Beloved’s nearness. She prayed, and He stood afar. Where others assumed spiritual ecstasy, she experienced the void of felt abandonment.
Her spiritual directors defended the release of the records. They claimed her lack of any spiritual reward this side of heaven as even greater evidence of the supernatural work of her life.
I sit in the movie theater watching the portrayal of her life in The Letters. Strangely, I feel more like I am watching a tender friend than a big-screen, world-admired heroine.
In my mind I see a little boy holding a rose at the head of a procession of postulates and vibrantly dressed Kenyan orphans, dancing and singing. He lifts the rose to a priest, who holds it before the shining faces of young women. “Your lives are like this rose,” the priest says. He gives it to one of the women at the end of the row and asks her to pass it. He explains that their lives will be like the rose, continually passed from person to person. Like the rose, they will become ragged and spent. Their very lives will be their offering. Even so, they will spread hope and beauty to many.
They are the followers of Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity, the rescuers of my children. A baby nestled on my lap that day, his liquid brown eyes drinking love like desert sand from his new family. My arms at last cradling, and my heart falling head over heels.
Down through the decades, a flame fueled by her choice to follow no matter the cost, un-quenchable by any amount of physical, emotional, or spiritual pain, changed the world. Ragged and spent, she left this world for the next. I remain forever indebted in her trail of hope and beauty.