Excerpt’s from “Mother Teresa's Secret Fire”
What Forged Her Soul Was an Intimate Encounter With Divine Thirst
by Father Joseph Langford, MC
(Together with Mother Teresa, Father Langford is a co-founder of the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity.)
The Train to Darjeeling: Another Reading
On the morning of Sept. 10, Sister Teresa Bojaxhiu left Calcutta’s Howrah Station, bound for Siliguri, in the northern plains of West Bengal. She would disembark in Siliguri and board what was affectionately called the "toy train," so nicknamed for its tiny dimensions, and from there continue on the last leg of her journey. . . .
As the train ascended into the clean, cool mountain air, Sister Teresa would have looked out her window onto lush thickening forests. Trains were slow in that day, not because the engines were weak, but because the track was unreliable. A trip of several hours could turn into days, as late-summer heat could buckle rails and add hours to the journey. But, when moving, a passenger’s mind could ride the rhythm of the train’s progress and easily move into prayer.
Somewhere on this ordinary journey, in the heat, in the gathering shadows, in the noisy, crowded car, something extraordinary happened. At some unknown point along the way, there in the depths of Mother Teresa’s soul, the heavens opened.
For decades, all she would tell her Sisters of that life-changing moment was that she had received a “call within a call,” a divine mandate to leave the convent and to go out to serve the poor in the slums. But something incomparably greater and more momentous had transpired as well. We now know, thanks to early hints in her letters and conversations, and her own later admissions, that she had been graced with an overwhelming experience of God -- an experience of such power and depth, of such intense “light and love,” as she would later describe it, that by the time her train pulled into the station at Darjeeling, she was no longer the same. Though no one knew it at the time, Sister Teresa had just become Mother Teresa.
For the still young nun, barely 36 years old, another journey was beginning; an inner journey with her God that would turn every aspect of her life upside down. The grace of the train would not only transform her relationship to God, but to everyone and everything around her. Within eight short days, the grace of this moment would carry her and her newfound inner fire back down the same mountainside, and into a new life. From the heights of the Himalayas she would bring a profoundly new sense of her God back into the sweltering, pestilent slums of Calcutta -- and onto a world stage, bearing in her heart a light and love beyond her, and our, imagining.
From then on, Mother Teresa would simply refer to September 10th as “Inspiration Day,” an experience she considered so intimate and ineffable that she resisted speaking of it, save in the most general terms. Her silence would prevail until the last few years of her life, when she at last was moved to lift the veil covering this sacred moment.
Putting It All Together
As I worked on our constitutions in the Bronx, I began to ask myself if there might be a connection between Mother Teresa's experience on the train and Jesus’ words, “I thirst.” Could they both be part of the same grace; could it be that Mother Teresa’s encounter on the train was, at its core, an encounter with Jesus’ thirst? If that were the case, the words on the wall would simply be her way of telling us, without training the spotlight on herself, yet in a way we would not forget, the essence of what had happened that grace-filled day on the train.
As I prayed and thought over it in those months, I became more persuaded that the grace of the train had been, at least in part, Mother Teresa’s own overpowering experience of Jesus’ thirst. The only thing left to complete my quest was to seek her confirmation.
On her next visit to New York, in early 1984, I finally had both reason and opportunity to ask her about the experience of the train. A few days into her visit, when I was alone with her in the front garden outside our house in the Bronx, I told her of what had been my long search to better understand her “inspiration,” and my desire to describe it accurately in our community’s constitutions. I explained to her that, for me, the only thing that made sense of her placing “I thirst” in her chapels, was that it grew out of her own experience of the thirst of Jesus -- and most importantly, that her encounter with the divine thirst had been the heart and essence of September 10th. . . .
I waited in silence for an answer. She lowered her head for a moment, then looked up and said, “Yes, it is true.” Then after a pause, she added, “And one day you must tell the others . . .”
Here, finally, was the core of Mother Teresa’s secret. In the end, it had not been some dry command to “work for the poor” that had made Mother Teresa who she was. What had forged Mother Teresa’s soul and fueled her work had been an intimate encounter with the divine thirst – for her, for the poor, and for us all. . . .
In the most indirect and humble of ways, not unlike the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa had wished to exalt the goodness of the God she had met on the train, and the divine message that, after changing her life, held the power to change our own. She had always known, as I later realized, that her message was meant for us all – for the neediest and furthest away first of all. And the message of Jesus’ thirst, of his longing to love us, silently conveyed in her works of love as much as by her few and gentle words, was bearing fruit all around her and all around the world. Already, in the time I had known her, I had seen with my own eyes how her unspoken message could touch, and heal, and change lives.
Her Message Launched
Mother Teresa’s understanding of the thirst of God was entirely simple, yet deep, powerful and engaging. She learned that God not only accepts us with all our misery, but that he longs for us, “thirsts” for us, with all the intensity of his divine heart, no matter who we are or what we have done.
But how can God “thirst” for us if there is no lack in God? While thirst can imply lack, it also has another sense. In Mother Teresa’s lexicon, thirst signifies deep, intense desire. Rather than indicating lack, the symbol of divine thirst points to the mystery of God’s freely chosen longing for man. Simply put, though nothing in God needs us, everything in God wants us -- deeply and intensely, as he shows throughout Scripture.
Mother Teresa’s insights reveal something important, even essential, in the depths of God’s being. Mother Teresa insists that the thirst of Christ reveals something not only about Jesus, but about God himself. Jesus’ thirst points us toward a great mystery in the very bosom of the Godhead -- what Mother Teresa describes as “the depths of God's infinite longing to love and be loved.” As ardent a statement as this is, her insights are confirmed by no less a source than the Fathers of the Church. The great St. Augustine would write that “God thirsts to be thirsted for by man.” In our own day, Benedict XVI would affirm that “the thirst of Christ is a gateway into the mystery of God.”
The mystery of God’s thirst for us was the one great light Mother Teresa held high in the night, hers and ours. . . .
Sharing the Darkness of the Poor
As difficult and painful as her dark night became, Mother Teresa never allowed herself to become “lost” in her darkness. She never rebelled against it, nor against the God who laid it on her shoulders, nor against the poor of Calcutta with whom and for whom she bore it. On the contrary, she gradually came to understand its deeper meaning, and even to willingly embrace it for the sake of her God -- who had borne that same agony for her sake, in Gethsemane.
Even while tending to the physical and material needs of the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Mother Teresa’s primary focus was their “salvation and sanctification,” their inner advancement toward divine union, as their highest dignity and long-term vocation. She was not sent simply to work for material betterment, a point even her admirers often miss. Calcutta’s poorest, living and dying on the streets, enjoyed neither sufficient material goods, nor the goodness of their fellow man. Since they were left with nothing and no one to mirror to them the face of God, Mother Teresa was sent to show them in his name, in concrete works of love, how beloved of God they were. For love’s sake, she herself would bear a portion of their interior pain. She would give of herself, in this life and the next, to “light the light of those in darkness on earth.” The more the truth of her victorious faith is known, the more she will be an inspiration to those who are learning to find their peace, to make their contribution, and to cling to their God, as she did, in the night. . . .
Lessons in the Night
Darkness need not be the opposite, the enemy of light. When seeded with God's grace, darkness becomes its catalyst. Night becomes womb to day. It is the power of love, of God's own nature as love, that works this alchemy. When embraced for others, when transformed by love, darkness indeed becomes light. . . .
Turning the Darkness to Light
We are each called and equipped by God to not only survive our personal Calcutta, but to serve there -- to contribute to those around us whose individual Calcutta intersects our own, just as Mother Teresa did, if on a different scale. If she could face the worst of human suffering in such immense proportions, and do so despite bearing her own pain -- then there must be a way that we can do the same in the lesser Calcutta that is ours. We must never forget, distracted by the demi-problems of our routine existence, just how important our one life is in the plan of God, and the great amount of good we can yet contribute.
How important can our one small, unspectacular life be? Consider this: the good that each of us can accomplish, even with limited resources and restricted reach, not even a Mother Teresa could achieve. The family, friends and coworkers whom we alone can touch, with our unique and unrepeatable mix of gifts and qualities, not even Mother Teresa could reach. No one else on the planet, and no one else in history possesses the same network of acquaintances and the same combination of talents and gifts as each of us do.
There is no need, then, to travel to far-off lands to contribute to Mother Teresa’s mission, or to follow her example. Wherever we are, with whatever talents and relationships God has entrusted us, we are each called not to do what a Mother Teresa did, but to do as she did -- to love as she loved in the Calcutta of our own life.