Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Photo by Manfredo Ferrari via Wikimedia Commons

I Thirst For You

On September 4, 2016, Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be proclaimed a saint. We talked about her life with Fr. Brian Kolodiejchiuk, the postulator of her cause for canonization, who spoke of the power of the fruit she bore and the intimacy of her faith.
Paola Bergamini

On September 10, 1946, Sister Teresa was on a train struggling up the mountain toward Darjeeling, at the foot of the Himalayas, on her way to the annual retreat of the sisters of Loreto. She was 36 years old and happy. Her life was full. Everyone loved her, from the students at the girls school where she taught in Calcutta, to the other sisters in her convent. Then, suddenly, she heard a voice that was at once inside her heart and outside of herself, telling her, “I thirst for you, for your love.”

It was Jesus’s voice. She had no doubt. On that train, Christ asked her to leave everything, even her order, to serve the poorest of the poor, to bring Him to them, in the darkest “holes” of the most degraded human existence. That day marked the birth of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who on September 4 will be proclaimed a saint.

Certain of her call. During that mystical encounter, Jesus, for whom she had left her family in Skopje, Macedonia at the age of 18 to enter the Congregation of the Sisters of Loreto (going first to Ireland and then to India), became a living presence for her. “It was a calling within the calling. Mother called it ‘the day of Inspiration,’” explained Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of her cause for canonization and a priest of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, one of the branches of the order for men, founded in 1984 by Mother Teresa. Fr. Brian, who will be one of the speakers at the event on Mother Teresa at the upcoming Meeting of Rimini, spoke with us about her life, but above all about the profound spirituality of this saint of our day. In the six months following the initial call, the dialogues between “the Spouse” and Teresa continued, also through a series of interior visions. Jesus revealed to her that she could quench His thirst by giving life to an order to bring Him and announce His love to the sick, the street children, and the dying among the poorest of the poor; Only for this. He added that all this would mean sacrifices, toil, and suffering for her. Teresa was sure that it was Jesus speaking to her. Years later she would say, “I am more certain of this call than of the fact that I am alive,” but she was afraid she would fail, that she would not be up to it. And the Voice, as she later called it, asked her, “Wilt thou refuse?” Fr. Brian explained, “In 1942, with the permission of her confessor, she had made a private vow to give God anything He might ask of her, to refuse Him nothing.” And now, He, loving her, was asking her for everything.

Mother Teresa only spoke of these experiences with her spiritual director, the Jesuit Fr. Celeste Van Exem, and then with the archbishop of Calcutta, Ferdinand Périer. “After her death, in gathering documents for her cause for beatification, the conversations with Jesus came to light. This was because she wanted Christ to be at the center: it was His work, and she was ‘a pencil in His hands.’”

Five fingers. Sister Teresa asked the two prelates for authorization to begin her mission, to leave the order of Loreto. Firm in her decision, she was also ready for total obedience. She prayed and continued to ask with tenacity, through letters and conversations. In 1948, she received authorization from the Holy See. The archbishop of Calcutta wrote, “I am deeply convinced that by withholding consent I would hamper the realization, through her, of the will of God.” In December of that same year, wearing a white sari with a blue border, with five rupees and a rosary in her pocket, she began her work in the worst parts of Calcutta. After a short time some young women began following her, among them former students. God’s plan began to take shape. On October 7, 1950, the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity was founded. As women joined, she would tell them that in order to be with the poor they had to remember Jesus’s five words, “You did it to Me.” Showing her hand, she would say, “A word for each finger.” Only this.

But Calcutta is not the only place with “black holes.” In a short time, the work of Mother Teresa moved beyond the borders of India and embraced the world, among AIDS sufferers in New York, the homeless in Rome, the poor of Africa and Latin America, the orphans of the wars in the Middle East. She even opened houses in countries still under communist dictatorship. The powerful of the earth bowed before this little wrinkle-faced sister to the point that, in 1970, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When she died on September 5, 1997, she had opened 594 houses in 120 nations. “Every foundation is another September 10, because it is His work,” she said. But the Voice had spoken to her of sacrifices, suffering, and toil. These were not only material, and anyway Providence always provided for those. The suffering was something deeper, in her relationship with Christ. It was the darkness, revealed after her death with the publication of her writings, in which she described the spiritual desert she experienced. Fr. Brian explained, “For six months after the day of the inspiration, she experienced a period of very strong union with Jesus. Then, the desert. For fifty years, except for a brief interval in 1958, He, her first and only Love, no longer spoke to her. Mother Teresa no longer felt loved. She felt rejected, abandoned by God, and was even tempted to doubt. But at the same time she felt a very strong desire for God. She did not understand the reason for this suffering. She did not understand right away that God was asking her for more.” More than what she was already doing? “Yes. She was struck by Jesus’ invocation, ‘I thirst,’ which for her meant ‘I thirst for love and for souls.’ It is the paradox of the Christian God who needs the love of women and men, who becomes flesh to encounter them and save them and who in exchange receives the cross. Mother Teresa quenched this thirst of Jesus by loving and serving Him in the disfigured forms of the poorest. In loving them, she loved Him.” And wasn’t that enough? “No, we are accustomed to thinking about Jesus’s physical sufferings, not His spiritual ones, His feeling abandoned, rejected, the fear of what He had to face. He sweated blood and cried, ‘My God, My God, why have you abandoned Me?’ Thanks also to the help of her confessor, Mother Teresa understood that Jesus was asking her to share His spiritual suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross.” Was this the meaning of the darkness? “Just as many saints have received the signs of the Passion in their flesh, so Mother Teresa received in her soul the spiritual suffering of Jesus. When she came to this understanding, she wrote, ‘I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. […] today really I felt a deep joy–that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony–but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes–more than ever I will be at His disposal.’”

God gives His saints. For as long as she was physically able, she was the first to enter the chapel at four in the morning. Prayer that at times was almost “mechanical” and Eucharistic adoration were her anchors, the things that kept her bound to God and enabled her to live joyously notwithstanding the interior torment. And then there was the suffering of the poor. “I thirst for you and for souls,” the Voice had told her. “For her this meant ‘being consumed for the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor.’ In this she experienced a darkness that I would call ‘apostolic.’ Poverty is not only material. The saint of Calcutta sensed in the Western world a spiritual poverty, that is, the feeling of being unloved, unwanted, undesired. It is an existential darkness. This is the new ‘black hole.’ In the darkness, Mother Teresa experienced this void. She could share this profound suffering with Jesus.” It is said that in every epoch, God gives us His saints. “Maybe it is more apt to say that the saints experience the pain of God in the epoch in which they live. They bear it for us. It is the experience of mystics.”

Published in Traces magazine, July 2016