St. Teresa of Kolkata was canonized on September 4; her feast day came one day later. Mother Teresa died of heart complications on September 5, 1997, and the Church has now transformed that day of mourning into the joyous annual commemoration of her birthday into Heaven. This Saturday will mark another important anniversary in Mother’s life, albeit one that will garner less media attention. September 10 marks the seventieth anniversary of what the Missionaries of Charity call “Inspiration Day.”
On September 10, 1946, God surprised the Loreto sister during a train ride to Darjeeling with a personal call to quench his thirst for souls. She was to care for the poorest of the poor and show divine love to those whom the world had abandoned. Mother Teresa later described this experience as a “call within a call.” Its power would sustain her in the patient waiting for ecclesial recognition for her new mission.
Fr. Joseph Langford, co-founder of the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity, details the transformative impact of the Darjeeling train ride in his 2008 book Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire. His work gives systematic expression to the spiritual depths of the woman who shone in the world with radiant joy, while suffering prolonged spiritual aridity. In God’s providence, she enjoyed a special solidarity with Christ upon the cross and with the abandoned, lonely, and unloved poor the world was ready to dispose of as refuse. Langford also shows that St. Teresa’s utterly personal vocation came from a God who thirsts for all to join the Albanian nun in divine union.
Mother Teresa never upheld a cookie-cutter vision of sanctity whereby all saints need pass through the Missionaries of Charity. Her project—or, as she would stubbornly correct reporters, God’s project—was not a plan for self-aggrandizement. Her exterior accomplishments were rooted in a profound interior life. She never would have enjoyed the strength to petition the pope for a new religious order had she not first learned self-mastery and holy indifference through the hidden spiritual combat of prayer, asceticism, and humble charity, in the confines of her Loreto convent.
Even after receiving from the Lord privileged insight into her exhaustingly active mission, St. Teresa never neglected her interior cultivation. She intensified her prayer and ensured that the sisters eager to tend the sick and dying would first sit at the feet of their Master in daily hours of Eucharistic adoration. The primacy she gave to the interior life explains her insistence that her sisters were not social workers, but contemplatives in the midst of the world. Mother was never slave to an NGO’s five- or ten-year plan. She was an enamored bride eager to follow her Divine Spouse. The greatest challenges to fulfilling her mission would not arise from uncooperative government officials or the scarcity of material resources; rather, her most trying battles would be waged daily against the seductions of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Those of us who aspire to transform the public square with some fraction of St. Teresa’s success would do well to imitate first her unyielding attention to divine communion and spiritual discernment of the signs of the times. Mother’s openness to the transcendent strengthened her to confront personally the most humanly revolting expressions of physical penury without reducing the blight of poverty to materialistic sociological categories.
Mother Teresa frequently chastised the West for its spiritual poverty. She observed with concern the high rates of drug use among the affluent. She highlighted the dignity of the slum dwellers who would share the little food they had with needy neighbors and who were capable of thanking Mother for the simplest of charitable gestures. In contrast, many materially wealthy westerners medicated their inner indigence. A priest of the noble Habsburg family once remarked to me that he often worked with people who were so poor that all they have is money.
Mother Teresa’s love for the physically poor never produced in her a hatred for the materially rich. She graciously collaborated with the wealthy in pursuing her ambitious charitable projects. She maintained an ongoing relationship with Hillary Clinton, rejoicing in their common promotion of adoption, while ceaselessly encouraging the First Lady to abandon her abortion agenda. Mother Teresa rejoiced in assisting society’s elites to channel their finances and influence toward good causes. Monetary support, however, never compromised St. Teresa’s convictions. She untiringly reiterated that abortion was the chief destroyer of peace and never allowed the forces of ideological colonization to deceive struggling third-world women into finding liberation through murder.
Although doomed to media obscurity, this weekend’s Inspiration Day is a fit culmination to a week of Mother Teresa festivities. The humble “pencil of God” was always quick to remind admirers that her exterior achievements were divine initiatives—a truth on full display on Inspiration Day. The celebration is also a helpful encouragement to those who admired St. Teresa at her canonization, but found her accomplishments inimitable and her sanctity unattainable.
Mother Teresa, too, experienced difficulties, uncertainties, and struggles. She was born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, not St. Teresa. Sister Teresa swept the floors, cleaned the dishes, and prayed in the silence of her convents. A prayerful and ascetical interior life of fidelity to the Lord’s promptings at each season of life enabled St. Teresa of Kolkata—and can enable us—to do something beautiful for God.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.