This September, it will be 10 years since Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta went home to her beloved Father. To mark this milestone, Our Sunday Visitor will publish a book about Mother Teresa's spirituality, "Secret Fire," written by Missionaries of Charity Father Joseph Langford. It is the spirituality that God revealed to her on the fated train trip from Calcutta to Darjeeling that caused her to give up her life of teaching privileged girls to care for the sick and the poor of Calcutta.
Her experience on the train was something Mother Teresa would rarely talk about. Among those close to her, it was a sub_ject that they knew shouldn't be broached.
But the message God gave her that day is written on the wall beside a crucifix in every Missionaries of Charity convent. It is simple. "I thirst."
In today's Gospel for Palm Sunday, Catholics around the world will hear the pas_sion of Jesus Christ read. Although we won't hear the words until this Good Friday, two of the last words of Christ were "I thirst." It is in this phrase that God revealed a beau_tiful and powerful message to a simple Albanian nun who would captivate the world with her love for the poor and for Christ. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.
Here we gathered together excerpts from the forthcoming book "Secret Fire" by Father Langford to share with you a message fitting for your Lenten journey.
All that makes up the mys_tery and attraction of Mother Teresa began one late-summer day in the foothills of West Bengal. It was 1946, and talk of India's independence was in the air.
On the morning of Sept. 10, Sister Teresa Bojaxhiu, barely 36 years old, was traveling by train to her annual retreat in the hill country of Darjeeling.
At some point on this journey, she had an unexpected and overwhelming experience of God, of such power and depth, of such intense light and love, she would later recall, that her life was changed forever. And not only hers: This day would change the lives of countless others near and far.
At the core of her experience was a message, communicated to her from the heart of God, that would give reason and birth to her work for the poor. She would cherish this sacred mes_sage and carry it with her the rest of her life, not only for the sake of the poor of Calcutta, but for us all.
That message that changed her life and is capable of transforming ours is basic yet awesome.
Simply put, it is this: Mother Teresa was shown that God not only accepts us in our misery, but longs for us, thirsts for us, with all the infinite intensity of his heart -- no matter who or how we are, no matter what we are doing or have done. In Mother Teresa's own words, God showed her "the depths of his infinite longing to love and be loved" by us.
God yearns for us. He yearns to love us, and he yearns to be loved by us, not just eventually in heaven, but here and now, exactly as we are. We need not change in order to be loved by him, for it is only his loved that will change us.
Had we been on the train to Darjeeling with Mother Teresa, this is what we would have learned: God yearns, he longs, he thirsts for us. For all of us. For you. Always. Day and night. Infinitely. With no conditions.
And more amazing still is that the more we are in need, the greater our poverty of soul or surroundings, the greater even our sins and moral failings, all the greater is God's yearning for us. He well knows that we all need more love than we deserve.
Throughout history, from Eden to Calvary, God has loved us most when we have deserved it least. Here, indeed, is the "good news" of the Gospel: The infi_nite God, Creator of all, who needs nothing and no one, loves us beyond the weight that words can bear. This message may be news to our ears and hearts, but it has always been there, hidden between the pages of the Old Testament and woven into every line of the Gospel.
How has it remained hidden? Perhaps because when we look at God, too often it is our own reflection we see. We unwit_tingly reduce God to our own dimensions, fashioning him in our own image and likeness.
We end up trying to measure and weigh God's immeasurable love by holding up to him the standard of our own little love, scrutinizing him through the puny lens of our human ego and seeing but a divinely endowed version of ourselves. And so we settle for a more predictable God, more manageable, famil_iar, understandable and, of course, limited.
But God is the wholly Other. His love so infinitely exceeds any_thing that "eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2:9). The mystery of God's love for us is no longer God's if it is no longer mystery: unfathomable, awe_some, all-consuming.
Fittingly, it was Jesus who communicated this mystery to Mother Teresa -- as it was Jesus who first revealed it 2,000 years ago in the Gospel. While he could have saved us in a thou_sand other ways, God in Jesus freely chose the manger, the scourging, the cross.
But why, to reveal an unheard of love, would God have chosen the sym_bol of thirst? Is it so hard to understand?
Here is something infinitely rich, yet infinitely simple. As the burning desert waits for water, so God waits for our love. As a thirsty man longs for water, so God longs for us. As a thirsty man in the desert will give anything in exchange for water, so God gives all he has and all he is for us -- exchanging his divinity for our humanity, his life for our deaths, his paradise for our pain.
Here was the great secret of God's heart revealed on the cross in Jesus' words, "I thirst" (Jn 19:28). He entrusted it to Mother Teresa 2,000 years later, so that, in an age grown cold, she might remind us of his yearning and so reawaken our own.
In the life of Mother Teresa, these words were more than just a message. She herself experi_enced the thirst of Jesus -- not just once on the train to Darjeeling, but daily, as a living, transforming reality; one that opened wide the heart of God for her, uncovering the unimag_ined magnitude of his love in every present moment.
As St. Paul wished for the Ephesians, Mother Teresa wished for us that meditating on the thirst of God for us we might at long last "may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the full_ness of God" (Eph 3:18-19).
The message of God's thirst opened wide not only his heart, but hers as well -- opening her heart to God hidden within her and those around her, especially the needy. It was the mystery of God's longing for us at our low_est, of his yearning for us at our most miserable, that moved Mother Teresa from the security of her convent into the streets and slums of Calcutta and beyond.
It was this message that inspired her, formed her, changed her from the trembling young novice too nervous to light the candles into the woman who widely left her mark -- and God's -- on our world.
of the heart
When people would ask how they could help her nuns or her mission, Mother Teresa would often point out the hidden Calcuttas all around them -- in their own homes and families, in the blind man down the street, in the unforgiven aunt, in the rooms and halls of the retirement home around the corner, hidden Calcuttas that await our generosity.
There was no need to go all the way to India, or even across town, to live the charism of Mother Teresa. Nor was there need to send a check -- as if to compensate for having neither the courage nor the resources to serve in foreign lands.
God did not send us a check in our need, but gave himself, without measure -- as any of us can, anytime, anywhere. We need only begin, as Mother Teresa would say, even in the smallest, most seemingly insignificant ways.
Blessed Mother Teresa offered a succinct and beautiful way to encapsulate the message of Jesus Christ. She often spelled out using the fingers of one hand: "You did it to me." Keying off the Lord's words from Matthew 25, she teaches the importance of loving and caring for the least among us.
As she told the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, "Jesus died on the cross because that is what it took for him to do good to us -- to save us from our selfishness in sin. He gave up everything to do the Father's will -- to show us that we too must be willing to give up everything to do God's will -- to love one another as He loves each of us. If we are not willing to give whatever it takes to do good to one another, sin is still in us. That is why we too must give to each other until it hurts."
Father Joseph Langford's book, "Secret Fire," will be released by Our Sunday Visitor in September.
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