The Letters was recently released to audiences nation-wide. The movie documents the life, convictions, and inner turmoil of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, the woman we have come to know and love as Mother Teresa. Born on August 26, 1910, Gonxha left her home at the age of eighteen to join the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. In this place, Mother Teresa grew in her faith, taught young girls, and eventually became headmistress.
The movie fast tracks through her life with a series of flashbacks referenced during the conversations and considerations for determining whether or not she would be considered a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church after her death in September 1997. The narrator and researcher is quite clear about what he wants the viewers to know and understand about Mother Theresa. Of key importance was the first miracle attributed to her. In 1998, an Indian woman, Monica Besta, wearing a locket with an image of Mother Teresa prayed and was cured of a tumor. This was one of two miracles required to affirm sainthood.
This miracle occurred many years after Mother Teresa “saw the light,” a vision of Christ so to speak, urging her to leave the comfort and security of her convent, and go serve the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta, India. Having been firm in her conviction that this life and ministry change was “the Lord’s will, not mine,” she asked for and received permission from Pope Pius XII to pursue her ministry to the poor.
The movie presents the political and cultural backdrop in which Mother Teresa was called to work. By the time she answered her call to serve the poor, India had been under British power for 280 years and once India gained her independence, there was a weariness and distrust of letting anyone (certainly any “white” person) come and rule over them again. Upon her arrival in the slums, it was evident—at least from the movie—that she was not welcomed by several of the Hindus in the community. Some community residents concluded that not only was she untrustworthy, but there was also fear that she would try to convert them and their children to the Christian faith. To their resistance, Mother Teresa arrived with an “abundance of love in her arms and in her soul.”
From day one, she found the work more difficult than anything she had ever imagined. She assured her new neighbors that all she wanted to do was teach the children how to read and write, while helping others in any way that she could. That’s what she did, but instead of being filled with joy like so many of us who faithfully minister from more comfortable places, feelings of doubt and loneliness quickly set in. She felt that God had abandoned her. As I reflected on these thoughts at this particular season, my mind easily wandered to the ponderings of the Virgin Mary. Having received a Word from the angel Gabriel that she would conceive a child birthed of the Holy Spirit, and this child would be the one to save his people from their sins, she accepted the vision and call. “I am the Lord’s servant…May it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38).”
When the time had come for the child to born, there was barely a place for his family to stay. Had God forgotten?
Although she was tempted to return to convent life, Mother Teresa continued faithfully in her work. She expanded her teaching ministry and began offering medical care for the sick, and hospice services for the dying. She obtained a building to care for the terminally ill because she didn’t want people dying on the streets. She thought everyone should have the opportunity to die with dignity, knowing that they are known and loved. As she ministered, several of her former students began to join in her work. For them, she continued to model a life of obedience and humility. The “greatest suffering is to feel alone, unloved, and unwanted.” She worked tirelessly so others would not feel this way, but apparently she often did.
As I viewed her testimony, my mind again reverted back to the scriptures. On the day he was betrayed, our suffering Savior Jesus was in a garden petitioning his Father to allow the cup of sin and death to pass from him. Is there another way to remain faithful to this call on my life? He took his friends along to pray with him, but they kept falling asleep on the job. There he knelt alone and isolated (Matthew 26:36-45, Mark 14:32-41, and John 22:39-46). And as the suffering and humble servant was lifted up, he too asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matt. 27:46)?” Yes this sister of ours, Mother Teresa, understood suffering and abandonment and she is in quite good company.
This movie revealed that Mother Teresa was focused, patient, and submissive. She was clear about the work she was called to, fervent in prayer, and she understood the instructions, hierarchy, and protocol of the Vatican. When appropriate, she formally made her requests (even when what she asked for was not “normal”) and she waited patiently with the anticipation of responding in obedience to whatever response she received. As she grew in popularity, she continued to draw attention to the issues of those she was serving in Calcutta and the world’s poor. I believe God blessed her obedience and her humility.
The collection of her letters by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, covering a period of five decades of life and ministry, reveal the intimacy of her wilderness or what some would refer to as “the dark night of the soul.” In her weakness and in her humanity, we learn from her. She was acquainted with suffering, and we too often forget that this is the mark of our faith. She understood and embraced the discipline of lamentation.
As I watched scenes from her life, I understood that we can still learn from her today. Mother Teresa lived through and ministered during decades of political and religious unrest. India was politically unstable, and the Hindus and Muslims were violently attacking each other. Several nations possessed nuclear weapons, and then there was the internal politics of the church to navigate. She gave up her privilege and became nothing in the ways of the world. Her belief that God loved the poor outside of the convent walls as much as he loved the privileged inside the walls made her compassionate. She literally moved from her place of privilege and into the neighborhood. By humbling herself in this way, she gained hundreds of thousands of admires across the globe.
Upon her death, this Nobel Peace Prize winner, wanted her letters destroyed; however, the Catholic Church believed that her work and her “dark” letters were the very artifacts that defined her, made her worthy of sainthood, and could actually help somebody.
I know this movie has helped and convicted me of my witness.