Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. By Mother Teresa with Brian Kolodiejchuk, Image, 2009.
“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.”
–Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Mother Teresa is a saint of modern times, known for dedicating her life to the poorest of the poor. She is also a largely misunderstood figure. Many of her admirers think of her as a big round yellow smiley face in a white habit with blue trim, and her few critics have leveled all sorts of allegations against her works and character. The criticisms will be ignored here, as they largely are in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, since Mother Teresa’s own words and thoughts are her best possible defense, except perhaps for the words of the people whose lives she has improved. The picture of the subject matter in this book will not shatter the opinions of Mother Teresa’s fans one whit, but it will help them learn a more complex and nuanced perspective of a remarkable woman who improved the world little by little.
This book is a biography, made richer and more accessible by the heavy use of quotes from her own personal writings, including a great deal of her personal reflections, expressed in her letters to her spiritual advisor. Mother Teresa’s thoughts and feelings are clear, purely and passionately expressed. One can feel the emotion in them, as well as the excitement that comes from living a life that helps others and leads others to happiness.
Early in the book, we learn about Mother Teresa before she earned the title of “Mother,” and see her early years starting out in her apostolate:
“If you could know how happy I am, as Jesus’ little spouse. No one, not even those who are enjoying some happiness which in the world seems perfect, could I envy, because I am enjoying my complete happiness, even when I suffer something for my beloved Spouse.” (p. 18).
Several years ago when this book was first published, there was a minor media splash, in which Mother Teresa’s periods of “spiritual darkness” were revealed and presented in some media circles as evidence of agnosticism or even atheism. A careful reading of the book indicates that this is not the case– a sense of feeling distanced from God is a very different matter from disbelief. Kolodiejchuk notes that Mother Teresa’s spiritual life was not always a matter of sweetness and light, but the “darkness” she felt was a classic pathway in many holy people’s spiritual development.
“Interior darkness is nothing new in the tradition of Catholic mysticism. In fact, it has been a common phenomenon among the numerous saints throughout Church history who have experienced what the Spanish Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross termed the ‘dark night.’ The spiritual master aptly employed this term to designate the painful purifications one undergoes before reaching union with God. They are accomplished in two phases: the ‘night of the senses’ and the ‘night of the spirit’. In the first night one is freed from attachment to sensory satisfactions and drawn into the prayer of contemplation. While God communicates His light and love, the soul, imperfect as it is, is incapable of receiving them, and experiences them as darkness, pain, dryness, and emptiness. Although the emptiness and absence of God are only apparent, they are a great source of suffering. Yet, if this state is the ‘night of the senses’ and not the result of mediocrity, laziness, or illness, one continues performing one’s duties faithfully and generously, without despondency, self-concern, or emotional disturbance. Though 'consolations are no longer felt, there is a notable longing for God, and an increase of love, humility, patience, and other virtues.’ ” (p. 22).
After reading this book, it is clear that Mother Teresa consistently acted through the power of her faith. As the biography covers the development of her charity work, she learns about the great joy that can come through compassion for those in need of help, and finding ways to alleviate terrible situations. Mother Teresa realized through experience that she was most needed where poverty and illness were the most dire. God was calling her to go where she was needed most.
“On Sundays, she used to visit the poor in the slums. This apostolate, which she herself chose, left a deep impression on her:
Every Sunday I visit the poor in Calcutta’s slums. I cannot help them, because I do not have anything, but I go to give them joy. Last time about twenty little ones were eagerly expecting their ‘Ma’. When they saw me, they ran to meet me, even skipping on one foot. I entered. In that ‘para’– that is how a group of houses is called here– twelve families were living. Every family has only one room, two meters long and a meter and a half wide. The door is so narrow that I hardly could enter, and the ceiling is so low that I could not stand upright… Now I do not wonder that my poor little ones love their school so much, and that so many of them suffer from tuberculosis. The poor mother [of the family she visited] did not utter even a word of complaint about her poverty. It was very painful for me, but at the same time I was very happy when I saw that they are happy because I visit them. Finally the mother said to me: ‘Oh, Ma, come again! Your smile brought sun into this house!’
To her friends back home in Skopje, she disclosed the prayer she whispered in her heart while returning to the convent: ‘O God, how easily I make them happy! Give me strength to be always the light of their lives and so lead them to You!’ She could not imagine that less than a decade later her prayer would be answered: she would dedicate not just her free time, but her entire life to the poor, becoming a beacon for them through her love and compassion.” (p. 27).
Reading about Mother Teresa’s life may create a moral inferiority complex in many people. After all, most people cannot (or at least do not) devote so much of their time and their energy into helping those in need. But the point of reading a book like this is not to learn about a standard of sanctity and holiness that the average individual cannot possibly achieve, but the life of Mother Teresa is meant to shine as a guiding beacon to help people find their way through the challenges of life, inspiring them to do what they can to make the world a better place.
“Mother Teresa’s help, guidance and intercession are for everyone, especially those who find themselves in darkness for whatever reason. As she had pledged, she would be ‘absent from heaven’ to bring them light.
Having taken to heart Christ’s words ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’ and made them a reality in her life, she invites us to travel along the same path:
‘And today God keeps on loving the world. He keeps on sending you and me to prove that He loves the world, that He still has that compassion for the world. It is we who have to be His love, His compassion in the world of today. But to be able to love we must have faith, for faith in action is love, and love in action is service.’
Mother Teresa’s life shows us that holiness can be reached by simple means. Starting by loving the unloved, the unwanted, the lonely closest to us, in our own homes, in our communities and neighborhoods, we can follow her example of loving until it hurts, of always doing a little more than we feel ready to do.” (p. 338).
There is a “Peanuts” comic strip where Linus declares that, “We’re studying the epistles of Paul in Sunday school… I must admit it makes me feel a little guilty. I always feel like I’m reading someone else’s mail!” Linus’s
sentiments are the only slight shadow cast upon the book. Reading this book can provoke feelings similar to Linus’s. Mother Teresa asked that her spiritual reflections be kept secret or destroyed, but they were released with the belief that their contents could help people. Hopefully Come Be My Light can be of comfort and encouragement for many readers.
This book was received from Blogging for Books for review.