Sunday, September 5, 2010

Mother Teresa and the Divine Thirst

Today, September 5, 2010 is the day that the Mother Teresa stamp officially is released.  It is the anniversary of her death in 1997.  It will happen today, Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010, 3:15 p.m. at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.  See the USPS notice.  A Mass at 2:00 p.m. with the Missionaries of Charity at the National Shrine will be televised by EWTN at 2:00 p.m.


Yesterday, I read an excerpt from a book by Father Joseph Lanford, MC, who co-founded the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity with Mother Teresa.  The book is entitled "Mother Teresa's Secret Fire". 

Here is the beginning of that excerpt.  Follow the link at the bottom to read the rest at Zenit where it is being hosted. 

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.

The tiny train’s steam powered engine climbed along a narrow, two-foot gauge track up to Darjeeling, snuggled five thousand feet high in the foothills of the Himalayas. We can surmise something of Mother Teresa’s journey from an earlier account of a similar trip to Darjeeling, recorded by a visiting Englishman:

[The fact that] here the meter gauge system ends and the two foot gauge of the Darjeeling-Himalayan railway begins, confirms what these things hint at. One steps into a railway carriage which might easily be mistaken for a toy…With a noisy fuss, out of all proportion to its size, the engine gives a jerk and starts. Sometimes we cross our own track after completing the circuit of a cone, at others we zigzag backwards and forwards; but always we climb…

Inspiration Day

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. If this were true, I did not want to leave it out of our constitutions, but if it were not, I did not want to continue being in error.

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…”

At last I had the confirmation I was seeking, and the answer to the questions sown in my soul years before in a Roman bookstore. 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.

More than a confirmation, her words that day were a mandate. This was not to be the end of my quest, nor of delving into the words on the chapel wall. It was, instead, another beginning. I had to somehow “tell the others;” and while I felt entirely inadequate to the task, I needed to find some way to share her words, not only with her Sisters, but with a wider public.

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’ thirsts 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” (see Appendix Three for a collection of patristic quotes on the divine thirst). 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. This was the banner she raised for the poor and suffering of Calcutta and beyond. It was as witness to this message that Jesus commissioned her, soon after the experience of the train, to “Be My light;” and this she would energetically do, in season and out of season. She would spend her whole life proclaiming the light of divine love, even when her words fell silent, her hands spoke more eloquently still.

Continue reading the rest of this amazing excerpt from Mother Teresa's Secret Firt at Zenit.

Zenit also has an interview with Father Joseph Lanford, MC

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