October 2007 - Volume 12, Issue 3
The day began in the crush of rush hour in Washington, DC. My job, as priest secretary, was to make sure Cardinal Hickey, then the Archbishop of Washington, arrived on time for his first event, at 7:30 a.m. It wasn't unusual to be stuck in traffic but, this morning, I was a little more nervous than usual. You see, we were on our way to a convent on Wheeler Road in Southeast Washington to offer Mass for the Missionaries of Charity.
"GOD GIVES THE WORLD GREAT SOULS LIKE MOTHER TERESA because He loves us," writes Bishop Lori (who met Mother Teresa during her 1996 visit to Washington, DC). "Through them, He warns us against presumption (assuming God's forgiveness and grace even as we do everything in our power to block the gifts He wishes to give us); He also sends us men and woman outstanding in holiness to teach us the greatness of His love."
We got there in the nick of time. The Cardinal and I came bustling into the convent, arms loaded with vestments and a briefcase, and minds still preoccupied by our encounters with so many other motorists. We were the very image of distraction while, in the darkened chapel of this inner-city convent, was the very image of prayerful contemplation. About a dozen Sisters were at prayer long before we arrived. Among them was Mother Teresa herself, a diminutive figure, hardly visible, in the back of the chapel. I admit I felt a tinge of envy. She seemed to be so at peace, so absorbed in her prayer, while I, like Martha in the Gospel, was "anxious and upset over many things." Truly, I thought, she has "chosen the better part" (see Luke 10:38 ff).
Little did I know the monumental struggles of her spiritual life! A new book, published ten years after her death, describes the doubts that plagued her mind and heart, coupled with her untold hours of prayer seemingly without consolation. Since its publication, more than a few people have expressed surprise over these "revelations." Some have even cast doubt on her authenticity and holiness: Was she after all merely a humanitarian with a religious veneer? Given her own struggles, can we take seriously all she said about the centrality of prayer and the Eucharist in our lives? How could she speak with such assurance about the things of God to her Sisters and to the all the world?
In fact, the experience and reflections of great masters of the spiritual life seem to indicate that Mother Teresa's struggles in the spiritual life are a convincing sign of heroic holiness. The doubts that afflicted her inmost soul were not the doubts of a casual believer who is actually unschooled in the ways of faith, hope, and charity - and is thus easily swayed by gravitational pull of culture and temptation. Nor are they the doubts of the willful who readily substitute their own opinions for Church teaching. And her lack of consolation at prayer, her sense of the "absence" of God, cannot be equated with the dryness of those who go to Mass rarely and pray infrequently - only to report that they "don't get anything out of it." Still less was hers the experience of those who have a hard time believing and praying because they are unrepentant of their sins, in spite of the guilt they experience in the depth of their hearts.
By all accounts, Mother Teresa's difficulties with belief and prayer were of an entirely different order.
Referencing Proverbs and Sirach, Hebrews 12:6 says that God chastises or disciplines those whom He loves. It's one of those sayings in the Bible that many people have a hard time understanding. Saint Teresa of Avila was one of them. This holy woman and Doctor of the Church had her own monumental spiritual struggles. She once quipped, "If this is how God treats His friends, no wonder He has so few of them!"
And she has a point. After all, people like Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux responded with wholehearted enthusiasm to the vocation of consecrated life. They were utterly sincere and deeply prayerful. Why wouldn't God simply welcome their prayerful spirit and shower them with assurances of their faith and the consolation of His presence? And, while we're on the subject, why would it have to be so hard for Blessed Mother Teresa, whose life of prayer and worldwide charity symbolized for millions what is best about religion and about humanity?
Perhaps the key to these questions is suggested by the title of Malcolm Muggeridge's book on Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God. Although Muggeridge was not writing solely about the ways of the spiritual life, he perceived that God had something great in mind for Mother Teresa, something that reflected the beauty of His love. Mother Teresa, he knew, was to be a living and beautiful image of Christ's charity, not only for the present generation but generations yet to be born.
A most visible sign of divine charity is the utterly generous service to the poorest of the poor which thousands of Missionaries of Charity carry accomplish all over the world, including here in Bridgeport. But in His Providential love, God had in mind a still more beautiful image of the charity of His Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Hence, the genuine spiritual suffering which Mother Teresa, like others before her, suffered.
Saint Paul calls our attention to great souls whom God fashioned into living images of His unchanging love. For example, he speaks of Abraham, whom God promised would become "the father of many nations." At the time Abraham became aware of this divine promise, he had very little assurance it would come true. Saint Paul says that "[Abraham] believed, hoping against hope . . . " that this promise would be fulfilled (see Romans 4:18).
The author of Hebrews devotes the entire 11th Chapter to great souls throughout salvation history who continued to believe in God's promises even when their fulfillment was not in their grasp. The list includes not only Abraham but also his wife, Sarah, and many of the towering figures of the Old Testament. Their faith was the prelude to utter trust of God's only Son who, in the dark hour of His utter abandonment on the Cross, cried out to His Father, "Into your hands, I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
Those who believe when the usual motives for believing abandon them, those who hope against hope, and those who continue to love God - even when He seems to have abandoned them - are truly following in the footsteps of Jesus! They are on the way to become not only stalwart disciples but indeed the "friends of God" because they are sharing in a very deep and mysterious way Jesus' sufferings. And while they experience such darkness, in fact their souls are becoming luminous with the beauty of Jesus "who did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at" but instead delved into the depths of human alienation from God epitomized by His death on the Cross (see Philippians 2:6-11).
Well, it's been years since first I saw Blessed Mother Teresa, with an old sweater over her habit, crumpled in the corner of a small chapel, yet carrying on a herculean spiritual struggle. And I'm still dashing about from place to place, fighting the traffic (as we all do) on the Merritt Parkway, I-95, and I-84. Now as a successor to the Apostles, I am, as Saint Paul's self-description would have it, "a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike!" (1 Corinthians 4:9) As such, I still feel more than a tinge of envy for those who pursue quieter lives, devoted mostly to prayer and study.
How little I have learned!
God gives the world great souls like Mother Teresa because He loves us. Through them, He warns us against presumption (assuming God's forgiveness and grace even as we do everything in our power to block the gifts He wishes to give us); He also sends us men and woman outstanding in holiness to teach us the greatness of His love. If we pay close attention to the masters of the spiritual life, we will not try to "domesticate" the God of infinite majesty and glory, but will always cultivate the Spirit's gift of "wonder and awe," even as grow in friendship with Him.
In the meantime, when I pray, God in His mercy confirms my faith, buttresses my hope, and consoles me with many signs of His love. He knows how much His little ones can bear!
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