We will look this week at the darkness of Mother Teresa. To do this I will be reflecting on her book Come Be My Light, and hope you will join along in reading and reflecting on this influential witness to the power of identifying with the poor.
Today I look at her piety and will reflect on the first three chapters, chapters that reveal her vocational calling, her taking of vows and “the vow,” and the establishment of what I am calling her “piety.” I don’t think you can comprehend her darkness until you understand what drove this little woman of Calcutta.
I’ll mention burn out below, but am interested in what some of you do to prevent burn out? And, what does burn out look like for those dedicated to ministries like those of M. Teresa? Do you see a life totally dedicated as hers was having a tendency toward burnout?
M. Teresa joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) called the Loreto Sisters and expressed over and over that her mission was to “save souls” or to bring Christ to souls and souls to Christ.
Already in 1937 (she was 27 years old), and just months before she took her vows, she said this to a Yugoslavian priest, her former confessor: “Do not think that my spiritual life is strewn with roses — that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion ‘darkness.’ And when the night becomes very thick — and it seems to me as if I will end up in hell — then I simply offer myself to Jesus” (20).
Here is what I see involved in M. Teresa’s darkness: her piety somehow must be involved. I would characterize it as radical self-denial, rigorous questioning introspection, perfection, radical discipline and three cardinal themes: service, sacrifice, and suffering.
She made a vow in April of 1942 that I think shaped her life and her darkness: “I made a vow to God, binding under [pain of] of mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything'” (28). This vow to surrender all to God, regardless of what was being asked to be surrendered, led M. Teresa to a life that began the day and shaped the day and did not end until her strength was gone to give everything to God. Everything.
No matter how many other things might be involved, M. Teresa set herself up for a kind of burn-out from the very beginning of her apostolate to the poorest of the poor. I don’t have enough information to say this was the whole. But what I see is a woman’s piety that was driven by self-giving, self-sacrifice, and the need to enter into suffering in order to participate in the “thirst of Jesus”, the thirst Jesus had for the poor and for others to come to him.
M. Teresa lived in constant awareness not to let her “reverend I” become central.
M. Teresa said her sisters were to “be faithful in little practices of love, of little sacrifices” and she combined this with “responding immediately to the demands of the present moment” (34).
M. Teresa had a mystical encounter with Jesus on 10 Sept 1946 that led her from the convent in Calcutta to found the Missionaries of Charity, her apostolate to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta. This encounter with Jesus is where she heard “Come Be My Light,” the title of the book. This vision involved the thirst of Jesus for the poor; it involved his questioning of her “Will you refuse me?” and it involved calling her to identify completely with the poor and to go to the “holes of the poor” (44).
She confided much of this vision with her spiritual director, Father Van Exem, and it can be found in this book at pp. 47-52. (Very important pages I think.)