By John Norton
It's been over a year since the release of Mother Teresa's private letters prompted a flurry of media attention to her supposed "crisis of faith," as the headline of Time magazine's coverage then famously read.
The letters (published as "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light," Doubleday, $22.95) had contained a surprising revelation. Though already known -- and recognized with a Nobel Peace Prize -- as one of the world's most famous "humanitarian" saints, caring for the sick, poor, orphans and dying through more than 600 centers in more than 100 countries, Mother Teresa was suddenly discovered to have been perhaps one of the greatest mystics in the history of the Church. She had lived for decades suffering what St. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic, dubbed the "dark night of the soul."
The news surprised even many of those who had worked closely with her.
A new book by the priest who was one of the first people to talk to Mother Teresa about the mystical experience that prompted her to start her order, the Missionaries of Charity, lifts the veil on what he calls "Mother Teresa's Secret Fire" (OSV, $19.95), her little-known core of beliefs and experiences that explain both her life and her message.
Partly revelatory, partly guided meditation, the book explores Mother Teresa's unrelenting focus on Christ's words on the Cross, "I thirst." The book's author, Father Joseph Langford, whom Mother Teresa tapped to start her order's branch of priests in 1984, says those words are the key to Mother Teresa's transformation from a 36-year-old Loreto sister into what even secular media came to know as a "living saint."
Jim Towey, a close associate of Mother Teresa, calls the book "the first in-depth study of what made her tick." He spent time as a full-time volunteer in one of Mother Teresa's homes for people with AIDS and served as her legal counsel in the United States for 12 years before serving as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives from 2002 to May 2006. He is currently president of Saint Vincent College, a small Catholic school in Pennsylvania. Following are excerpts of an interview.
Jim Towey: For a lot of us that were close to Mother, we would see books come out and they were all nice. But they weren't written by people you would say were real insiders. There are biographies, which is a different category. But Mother didn't talk about herself. That's why I think this is the first book written by an inside person that is actually helping take Mother's message and apply it to our lives.
Our Sunday Visitor: Did anything in the book surprise you?
Towey: I now see Mother in two different ways. One is I almost see her as a mystic. Father Joseph's account and explanation of her conversations with Jesus that went on for a good length of time, and then [Jesus'] abrupt withdrawal, really places her in the company of a lot of the Church's most revered saints. I'd never thought of Mother as a mystic. But it's impossible to read this book and not explore that question.
But, also, he takes her words and applies them. He bridges Calcutta to here, in the States. We all don't live in Calcutta, and the danger is that you can dismiss Mother as this great humanitarian figure that did all these heroic things but it's irrelevant to my daily life. And that's why I love this book because it's really just the first in-depth study of what made her tick and it explains her message --doesn't just provide it. There are many books that have Mother's words in them, and I love reading what Mother has to say, but you want to know who was the person behind those words. What made her tick? That's what "Secret Fire" tells us.
OSV: You say the book builds a bridge between us and Calcutta; how?
Towey: It makes Mother's message of what motivated her to love and to give as she did and that's the message that applies to me here. Because there are many Calcuttas here in America, starting with my own heart.
I feel like when "Come be My Light" came out, it led to a lot of misunderstanding about Mother. I mean, it was a wonderful book and it put Mother's words out there, but it didn't offer any insight into her own spiritual journey or what motivated her to write what she wrote. It didn't explain anything and it confused a lot of people. I would go all over the country and hear from people, "Did Mother lose faith in God? Was she a Christian?" you know, questions that just stunned me. And I realized that Time magazine and others had done a lot to confuse people. This book sets the record straight.
OSV: Mother Teresa was one of the best-known women in the world. Why do you think she was misunderstood?
Towey: She would talk about her faith and the Lord, but she would not talk about herself. It drove you crazy sometimes. [Laughs] That's why when "Come be My Light" came out it surprised the heck out of me. To hear that she had had all this darkness, because I only knew how cheerful Mother always was. And all she talked about was the Lord with such certainty that you would have never thought that she was ever given to doubt, or ask questions. I mean, it seemed like [Jesus] was sitting right next to her. So why I love this book is it begins to reveal the mystery of the woman herself.
OSV: The book includes guided meditations; the author tries to get the reader to enter into the message in a way that is more than just intellectual.
Towey: That's exactly right. I mean, some people can read a book and find it interesting but I think the purpose of "Secret Fire" is to transform people's lives. People love Mother and if they really love Mother they'll want to know why she did what she did
We all know what she did. We all know what she said. But there isn't a lot about is why. And that's what I think Secret Fire unlocks.
OSV: After having read this book, do you look back on your 12 years with her any differently?
Towey: We all knew that she had this transformative experience on the train. And in fact, Father Joseph was probably one of only a handful of people who could ever get her to talk about it. I didn't know any of this stuff. I knew in general that she had come back from a retreat, that Sept. 10, 1946 she was on a train [to] Darjeeling and God called her. But what Father Joseph provides is the whole account -- from her own lips and, in fact, from Mother's own hand. That letter [about the experience to her nuns, reprinted in the book] is incredible.
So it wasn't that I didn't have knowledge in general, it's the detail he provides that I didn't have. And it's fascinating.
It does explain a lot more about why in Memphis she woke up that morning in 1989 with a high fever, had been sick most of the night, and there she was in the Memphis Coliseum at a Mass with 10,000 people. Afterwards then-Bishop [Daniel] Buechlein [now archbishop of Indianapolis] invited her to meet some of the benefactors of the diocese there. And Mother said fine, but if I'm going to do that, I want to meet anyone that wants to meet me. I stood with her there in the basement of the Mid-south Coliseum for over an hour and a half. ... [She was] sick as a dog. I remember feeling her hand and feeling how hot it was. I've thought of that day I cannot tell you how many times, but the book explains a little better to me why she did these things. She was in incredible pain, what motivated her? I've thought back on so many stories of things I saw Mother do; now I just understand better the depths of why she loved so ferociously. Now it just kind of deepens my understanding of Mother, so she's not just some kind of superhero; it actually fleshes out her humanness in a beautiful way. In some ways she was chosen by God and given these revelations of an incredible nature to help people like us.
OSV: What misunderstanding of Mother Teresa bothers you most?
Towey: Well, certainly somehow that she had doubted the presence of God. That somehow she passed away not sure what was on the other side. That's such a bad reading of what faith constitutes. Faith requires questions and the Lord withdrew his sensible presence to deepen her seeking and trust.
Any parent that's ever been in the bedroom of their child, in the dark watching your child sleep, the child cannot see you there, but you're there, you know? And the child is sleeping secure.
And it was that way with Mother. She clearly had a lot of darkness around her and "Come be My Light" was a real eye-opener on that. But this "Secret Fire" just is the perfect complement to this, because it explains why she wrote in her letters what she wrote. And that's why this book to me is a breakthrough book.
John Norton is OSV editor.
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