Mother Teresa—whom most of us know as the “Saint of Calcutta,” icon of compassion for the poorest of the poor, and one of the greatest spiritual leaders in modern history—died in 1997. She was beatified (declared a saint) by the Roman Catholic Church in 2003.
It won’t surprise you to know that her life story is remarkable: Born in 1910 in Skopje, Albania, she felt desire to be a missionary at age twelve, and discerned a calling to become a nun at age eighteen. Then at age thirty-six, she received her famous “call within a call” to begin the now world-renowned “Mission of Charity” in Calcutta, India. Over a period of months, she heard the voice of Jesus Christ urgently asking her “to give up all and follow Him into the slums.” She advocated for her superiors’ formal approval of that work for two years before she was granted permission to begin the new mission. (Their approval was granted—wisely, I’d argue—not in response to the impressiveness of her passion, but rather in view of her steady faithfulness to her commitments and her ability to outline, very practically, how the mission effort would be carried out.)
Regarding the details of the above events, and of the ensuing events of Mother Teresa’s extraordinary life—suffice it to say that there are far more than I can here mention. They are well worth reading about.
What I do want to mention are some details of Mother’s Teresa’s life that have received less press but are of great import for her lasting value as an incarnational theologian. What I mean by “incarnational theologian” is a person who preaches by living, so to speak: a person who strikingly declares the gospel by “incarnating” or embodying it. Mother Teresa was such a person, steadily offering rich commentary upon the nature of God and faith by virtue of how she lived her life.
Mother Teresa once said of herself: “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 darkness on earth."
Her self-portrait as a “saint of darkness” functions on several different fronts: in her mission to the world’s places of darkest suffering; in her own personal spiritual darkness, which was a burden she bore for many years; and in the ways in which she eventually came to see her mission and her spiritual “darkness” as intertwined. Thus, Mother Teresa’s identity as a “saint of darkness” is my starting point for a three-part post series considering her legacy as an incarnational theologian.
This series will specifically attend to how Mother Teresa’s legacy speaks to the Christian’s founding spiritual gifts of faith, hope, and love (cf. I Corinthians 13), taking each virtue in turn as a manner of structuring the posts. Her ardent love for Christ was her ministry’s orienting energy, so it offers a natural point of initiation (post 1). Attending to the hope that fueled her work serves as a bridge between considering the “madness” of her love for Christ and the similar “foolishness” of her labors to serve him in what appears to be the most hopeless of situations (post 2). Last, examining her faith occasions a look into the painful struggle that plagued her spiritual life, which was the greatest challenge she faced in staying true to her calling; and it also offers the opportunity to bring together the various threads of these posts to propose a kind of orienting “thesis” for her legacy as an incarnational theologian (post 3).
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In 1942, Mother Teresa made a private vow: “to give God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’” No one except her confessor knew about this vow, and he blessed her undertaking it because he perceived it as birthed from a singular sort of spiritual maturity he saw in her. She later explained her reason for this vow: “If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? . . . I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me. To possess God we must allow Him to possess our soul.”
Four years later, she experienced her mystical encounter with Christ, whom she continually heard calling to her: “Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light.” Mother Teresa heard that call in the context of Calvary, underscored by Jesus’s cry from the Cross: “I thirst.” In that cry, born out of his physical destitution, she discerned Christ’s spiritual connection with the sufferings of the poor. She simultaneously heard therein God’s thirst for each person: “Jesus wants me to tell you,” she would tell her followers, “. . . [that] He longs for you. He misses you when you don’t come close. He thirsts for you. . . . Until you know deep inside that Jesus thirsts for you—you can’t begin to know who He wants to be for you. Or who He wants you to be for Him.”
Again and again, Mother Teresa’s testimonies profess this sort of fervent connection with God in Christ. There is a beauty to it reminiscent of the raptures of lovers enthralled by one another’s presence: characterized by the ecstatic sense of one’s whole self merging with the other’s in the loving union…by a longing for the attentions of and intimacy with the beloved…by a vision informed by the delighted understanding of oneself as the occasion of desire in the other.
And yet there is also a disconcerting feature of her expressions of love, for Mother Teresa steadily heard in Christ’s voice the call to “victimization,” to utter self-emptying. “How I long to enter [the holes of the poor],” she heard Christ saying. “Come be their victim. In your immolation—in your love for Me—they will see Me—know Me—want Me.”
Such language is tricky, not least because—particularly as survivors of slavery and abuse can tell us—a call to self-sacrifice can be, and tragically often has been, put to wicked use by those who profit from it. Less nefariously, but also importantly, defining love as utter selflessness further begs questions of what it is that God truly asks of us: Are we to be miserable in our service to God’s good purposes? How are we to identify the comforts we cling to that are in need of painful purgation? What is the place of freedom, of joy, in a life that takes seriously the darkness of the cross and the cries of despair issuing from the world’s desolate places?
For the sake of manageability, I must reserve even a few meager blog-post-style answers to these questions for the upcoming posts which will focus upon Mother Teresa’s hope and faith. For now, it is worth briefly noting a bit more specifically what this language meant for Mother Teresa’s understanding of love for God, which will hint at potential answers to the above questions.
As is borne out in a number of her letters, Mother Teresa framed her call to selflessness in terms of a classical Christian understanding of sinful bondage to the “self”: that is, she understood her (and all persons’) sinful state as that of enslavement to a will that resists divine direction toward true freedom and joy. For Mother Teresa, then, the “immolation” (sacrificial burning) of her willful desires to resist God’s purposes was required to free her from that enslavement.
This understanding hardly resolves the ambiguity of Mother Teresa’s associating her devotion to God with a call to victimization. But it does suggest that her drive toward complete self-offering to God’s will is categorically different from a drive towards submission to the will of a fellow human, for she found her own freedom conjoining with God’s direction for her, even in the midst of much pain:
“All is very dark,” she wrote to her confessor upon leaving the convent to begin her work as a Missionary of Charity, “—but I go of my free choice with the blessing of obedience. Please pray for me that I may have the courage to complete my sacrifice as He has given me the inspiration and grace to begin.”
Similarly, she also found her truest joy in the midst of her costly vocation. She was regularly noticed for her exuberant expression of it. “Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervor and generosity,” she once remarked. “A person who has this gift of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver and He takes close to His heart the religious He loves.”
As for the broader messages emanating from Mother Teresa’s life regarding the proper place of happiness and misery, of painful purgation and fulfilled desire, along the cruciform path of Christian discipleship…stay tuned for the next posts.
 Mother Teresa to Malcolm Muggeridge, quoted in Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 86.
 For that purpose, I have lately enjoyed listening to the audiobook Mother Teresa: In Her Own Words (Mission Audio, 2011) and reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2007).
 Mother M. Teresa, M.C., to Father Joseph Neuner, S. J., March 6, 1962.
 In taking this starting point, I take a cue from Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk who understands Mother Teresa’s identifying herself as a “saint of darkness” as a sort of “mission statement” that provides a “key to the understanding of her spiritual life, and indeed of her whole life” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 1).
 Quoted in Kolodiejchuk, 28.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 42.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 33.
Cover photo: By Ariel Quiroz - https://www.flickr.com/photos/vamparaiso/21044406266, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51052072
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