Mother Teresa of Kolkata: A “Pencil in the Hands of God”

This week my wife and I went to a new movie about the life of Mother Teresa, The Letters. It’s surprising how little publicity it has received, but if you are in any place it is available, do go and see it, or watch it online at some point. It is well worth your time. I spent my first four years in India in the city of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), and had the wonderful opportunity to meet Mother Teresa twice, once while living there and once a few years after with my wife and very young first daughter.

The movie, while a general bio of her life and calling to the poorest of the poor, particularly focuses on a series of letters she wrote over many years to her spiritual leaders, Father Van Exem and Archbishop of Kolkata Perier. These letters exposed the deep travails of her spiritual life, her loneliness and sense of being abandoned by God. Mother Teresa never intended these letters to be made public, desiring instead that they would be burned. Yet both men saved the letters, only making them public a few years ago as the process for her sainthood in the Church went on.

Portrayed in a moving yet understated way by British actress Juliet Stevenson, the life of Mother Teresa as “a pencil in the Hands of God” (a line in the movie from a statement she made I believe to journalist Malcolm Muggeridge) is presented in her strong sense of trust and courage.  A couple of the reviews I read faulted the movie for it being a too-glowing portrayal, but the very focus is on her struggles with loneliness and doubt. The strong trust she had in God and His love for the poor is in seeming contrast to her sense of darkness and dryness of soul. Yet there is an integration beautifully shown in the movie, as indeed there was in her life.

The Letters is based on a book that came out in 2007, titled Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”. I read this in 2010, and for those readers interested it is a powerful glimpse into Mother Teresa’s spiritual journey. When the book came out there was a flurry of commentary by some on how could such a woman with such a seemingly deep faith and love for God and the poor struggle so deeply with doubt? Yet in her very struggles, the deep identification with how so many people feel abandoned in their lives became incredibly real.

Mother Teresa’s trust was not in how she felt about God, but in the mystery of His love expressed in the Cross. Two of the most important mystics of the Church that she revered were from Spain many centuries ago, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both experienced and wrote of the “dark night of the soul”, not the end of faith but a very painful and real part of it.

The first time I met her was in 1985 in Kolkata during my four years living there. I was with two other colleagues from YWAM, the mission I still serve with, and as she came in to the room to meet us I was immediately drawn to her eyes. Such a piercing blue,  yet the most love-filled I had ever known before or since. Mother Teresa startled us by knowing not only about YWAM, but also that we were celebrating our 25th year. She proceeded to take one of my friend’s hands, and spelled out with his fingers attributes of God’s love. We had seen that love in the work of her sisters in the various ministries in the city.

The next time I met her was in 1994 with my wife, several week old daughter, and several other colleagues. (see the photo above, and a bit more hair on me and a mustache that is long gone). Mother Teresa when in Kolkata  would always meet guests who came to morning mass, and we had come that morning not knowing if we would be able to see her. She came right over to us, and took our very young daughter, Carin, in her arms, blessing her in prayer. Carin had been born seven weeks early in Pune, and was still so small and fragile. After praying for her, Mother Teresa said that she had so many hundreds of babies, and wished that she had parents to love them all the way we loved our daughter.

There is so much I could write about Mother Teresa. I encourage you to see the movie, and even read the book it is based on. She died in 1997, the same week as Princess Diana, and is buried in her beloved city of Kolkata. Her work of the Missionaries of Charity carries on all over the world, blessing and loving the poorest of the poor. A few years ago she did become a saint of the Catholic Church, something she would have never dreamed of or sought in her life.

In these times when so many seek attention and promote themselves or their own agendas , Mother Teresa’s desire to be a “pencil in God’s hands” rings out so powerfully. Here is what she said about the possibility of becoming a saint one day, “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.”

Fitting words for this Advent season, or for any season.



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