Mother Teresa and a Preferential Option for the Poor

April 5, 2011 in General, News

Excerpts from a talk given during a course of public lectures on Mother Teresa, March-April, 2011 at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.

Mother Teresa and a Preferential Option for the Poor in Theological Reflection

Gerard Whelan SJ

One does not tend to associate Mother Teresa with what has come to be known as a preferential option for the poor in theology. No one questions the heroic commitment of Mother Teresa to the poor, but the term “preferential option for the poor” tended to be associated with liberation theologians who would emphasize that identifying with the poor should proceed to action to try to redress the causes of poverty, not least issues of social injustice. Recently, however, new aspects of the life of Mother Teresa have begun to emerge and new reflections are occurring about the significance of her life and witness that may be beginning to bridge this apparent divide.

Above all, the book by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk MC, Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, the Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, published in 2007, helped many to reflect in a new way about Mother Teresa. This book quotes her own spiritual writings to reveal that Mother Teresa experienced a terrible suffering and a terrible “darkness” in prayer through all the years of her leading her Missionaries of Charity in their impressive work. At first this book was met with some poorly informed reactions in the world press asserting that Mother Teresa did not believe in what she was doing.

More recently, however, even among those who have an understanding of how many great mystics have passed through a “dark night of the soul” there are particular characteristics of Mother Teresa’s experience that continue to surprise. Mother Teresa came to understand her darkness as “the spiritual side of my work” and is unique in the way that she seems to have experienced a darkness that she understood as a solidarity with the poor and with Christ who continues to be crucified in the poor. It seems to me that this theme of spiritual solidarity with the poor introduces an aspect of Mother Teresa’s life that brings her closer to liberation theologians and other theologians who link a concern for the poor with efforts to influence social structures.

So it is that I pursue these links in what follows.

The legacy of Blessed Mother Teresa

In reflecting on the legacy of Mother Teresa I begin by referring the work of Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk both in the lecture he delivered as one of the talks in our series of public lectures. I use this source to register some of the major events in Mother Teresa’s spiritual journey.

Mother Teresa was born on 26th August 1910 and was baptized as Gonxha Agnes. She had two older siblings and her parents were Nicola and Frana Bojaxhiu. The family lived in the city of Scopje, Albania. Fr. Brian first speaks of the deep influence exercised on Mother Teresa by the faith of her mother. Next, he traces how Mother Teresa was an active member of a parish run by Jesuits at the parish. Here she became inspired by the story of the recently canonized St. Thérèse de Lisieux and this encouraged her to think of becoming a nun and a missionary:

In her teen years, Mother Teresa came under the influence of her future patron saint, St. Thérèse (beatified in 1923, canonized in 1925, and declared co-patroness of the missions in 1927). In this religious milieu, she discerned her missionary vocation and left home in September of 1928 with the desire “of saving many souls.” Her early magnanimity is also expressed in her desire for martyrdom that she shared with her confessor and advisor in Skopje, Fr. Jambreković.

At the age of 18 Gonxha applied to the Irish Loreto sisters who had a mission in Calcutta , was accepted by them and took the religious name Teresa in honor of Thérèse de Lisieux who was so much her inspiration. She was sent to Calcutta and for almost twenty years lived life as a joyful and hardworking, if unremarkable, Loreto sister. Nevertheless, as Mother Teresa moved into her thirties Fr. Brian traces how her spiritual life moved forward to be that of a mystic. He traces two major, though “hidden,” moments in her spiritual life that would culminate in an eventual founding of the Missionaries of Charity at the age of 38. Regarding the first, he states:

Mother Teresa reached a key point in her spiritual development in 1942: She was so advanced on the path of holiness that she made a private vow – the first secret – with the permission of her confessor: “I wanted to give God something very beautiful” and “without reserve”: “I made a vow to God, binding under [pain of] mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’”

Regarding the second “hidden aspect” in these years Fr. Brian continues:

Four years later, what we now refer to as the second hidden aspect of Mother Teresa’s interior life took place. In the years 1946–1947, after revealing to her that He wanted her to establish a new religious community – Missionaries of Charity – dedicated to the service of the poorest of the poor, Jesus  referred to her private vow:  “In all my prayers and Holy Communions He is continually asking ‘Wilt thou refuse?’.” At this time, she received a series of locutions, visions and (most probably) had moments of ecstasy. Her confessor Fr Van Exem wrote of her “continual, deep and violent union with God.” Years later she remembered that while in Asansol (where she was residing during the first half of 1947), “there as if Our Lord just gave Himself to me – to the full. The sweetness and consolation & union of those 6 months – passed but too soon.”

It is an understatement on the part of Mother Teresa to assert that these moments of sweetness, consolation, and union passed “but too soon.” The astonishing reality is that as soon as, so to speak, she hit the streets with her newly founded group of Missionaries of Charity in 1949 a darkness descended on her prayer life that would remain for fifty years. We can only guess at the kind of suffering implied in statements such as the following:

There is so much contradiction in my soul. – Such deep longing for God – so deep that it is painful – a suffering continual – and yet not wanted by God – repulsed – empty – no faith – no love – no zeal. – Souls hold no attraction – Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. – Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.

Fr. Brian explains that this was an experience of darkness in prayer similar to those described by many of the great mystics. However, the suffering involved in this strange grace was compounded for Mother Teresa by the fact that she did not understand what was happening to her. Fr. Brian explains that it would take eleven years before she would find a spiritual director who could help her understand this experience for what it was. This spiritual director was the Jesuit Fr. Joseph Neuner to whom Mother Teresa would remain forever grateful. Fr. Neuner, a theologian of some prominence who taught in the Jesuit-run seminary of Poona, not only recognized that Mother Teresa was passing through a dark night but also recognized that it had characteristics unlike those of the other mystics. In a deceptively simple phrase, Fr. Neuner explained to Mother Teresa that her spiritual suffering was, in fact, “the spiritual side of her work.” Mother Teresa expressed her gratitude for this insight:

– I can’t express in words – the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me – For the first time in this 11 years – I have come to love the darkness – for I believe now that it is a part a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a “spiritual side of ‘your work’ as you wrote – Today really I felt a deep joy – that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony – but that He wants to go through it in me – More than ever I surrender myself to Him – Yes – more than ever I will be at His disposal.

We do well to note the significance of the phrase “a spiritual side of your work.” By contrast with other mystics, Mother Teresa’s dark night had a direct connection with the sense of abandonment experienced by the poorest of the poor. She expresses her insight into this fact as follows:

How cold – how empty – how painful is my heart – Holy Communion – Holy Mass – all the Holy Things of Spiritual life – of the life of Christ in me – are all so empty – so cold – so unwanted. The physical situation of my poor left in the streets unwanted, unloved unclaimed – are the true picture of my own spiritual life, of my love for Jesus, and yet this terrible pain has never made me desire to have it different – What more I want it to be like this for as long as He wants it.

In this last text we recognize Mother Teresa adding to a more direct account of her feelings a theological understanding of the meaning of the suffering through which she was passing. Fr. Brian takes care to explain this theology. Mother Teresa, with the help of Fr. Neuner, comes to recognize the mysterious identification that Christ makes with the poor in his work to redeem human kind. In some mysterious way, Christ continues to be crucified in the poor. Furthermore, in another mysterious way, Mother Teresa was now sharing in the crucifixion in a spiritual manner. While this dark night seems never to have lifted for Mother Teresa, we know, that she learnt to accept it with a kind of consolation that runs deeper than feelings. What is more, she was clear about the Christian belief that after crucifixion comes resurrection. She was convinced that this suffering was not an end in itself but was related to the act of redemption whereby Christ will eventually bring an end to all suffering.  So it is that Mother Teresa will write to her young recruits in the Missionaries of Charity:

Try . . . to increase your knowledge of this Mystery of Redemption.—This knowledge will lead you to love—and love will make you share through your sacrifices in the Passion of Christ. My dear children—without our suffering, our work would just be social work, very good and helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus Christ, not part of the redemption.—Jesus wanted to help us by sharing our life, our loneliness, our agony and death. All that He has taken upon Himself, and has carried it in the darkest night. Only by being one with us He has redeemed us. We are allowed to do the same: All the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution must be redeemed, and we must have our share in it.—Pray thus when you find it hard—I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them—to take upon me something of their suffering. —Yes, my dear children— let us share the sufferings—of our poor—for only by being one with them—we can redeem them, that is, bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.

Finally, Fr. Brian explains this theology of redemption with reference to a number of other Catholic thinkers both spiritual theologians and systematic theologians.

A fundamental Catholic principle is that in the redemption, Jesus substituted for us, stood in our place, sharing and suffering our interior estrangement from God, vicariously experiencing the darkness  of the state of sin, renouncing the experience of the Father’s love.

Fr. Brian further explains that Mother Teresa’s notion of unifying herself with Jesus and of bringing the poor to also know and love him employed a metaphor of “thirst.” He asserts:

To understand Fr. Neuner’s insight and its influence on Mother Teresa, we need to realize that for Mother Teresa the thirst of Jesus is the unifying element of her vocation and her religious charism, her spirituality and mission. From the cross Jesus cried out, “I thirst.” This intense, “painful thirst” of Jesus (as Mother Teresa sometimes called it) had a tremendous impact on her heart, a heart so in love with Him. From the beginning of her new mission, Mother Teresa understood Jesus’ thirst as a thirst for love and as a thirst for souls. She would quench Jesus’ thirst for love by her passionate love for him, her intense desire to return love for love. Secondly, she would quench Jesus’ thirst for souls by, as she expressed it, “laboring at the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor.” Mother Teresa in this way joined, “I thirst,” (Jn. 19:28) which reflects her calling to satiate Jesus’ thirst and “you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40), which reflects the means of doing it. Jesus’ words to Mother Teresa: “They don’t know Me, so they don’t want Me,” were a reminder of His longing for the poorest of the poor and an invitation to continue making Him known. She quenched Jesus’ thirst for love by her own love and by bringing others to love Jesus as well.

Mother Teresa and a Preferential Option for the Poor

[Here we skip where the text discusses how, impressive as is the theology of Mother Teresa, it lacks an aspect of stressing the importance of following up one’s solidarity with the poor with joining in a struggle for social justice. It supports the argument in favour of a wider understanding of a “preferential option for the poor” by quoting Church documents. Next, drawing on his experience of being pastor of a parish in a poor part of Nairobi, Kenya, the speaker turns to the question of how also those who seek social justice need to dig deep into spiritual resources in order to maintain this kind of living in solidarity with the poor. The speaker point to the obvious fact that, usually, those who try to live this kind of life will need to deal with a sense that they seldom actually succeed in helping to bring the kind of social changes they seek. Why then keep trying? The speaker now turns to a talk given by a Dominican, Albert Nolan, that addresses this question. Nolan is known as a liberation theologian from South Africa who was especially active in opposing Apartheid in the 1980’s.]

Albert Nolan and a Liberation Spirituality

Albert Nolan speaks of four stages that a spirituality of an option for the poor must go through: compassion; a desire for structural change; humility; and solidarity.

Concerning the first stage, compassion, Nolan states:

Two things help this growth and development of compassion. The first is what we now come to call exposure. The more we are exposed to the sufferings of the poor, the deeper and more lasting does our compassion become. . . Also, my Christianity, my faith, enables me to deepen my compassion by seeing the face of Christ in those who are suffering, remembering that whatever we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do to him.

Clearly, this account of the stage of compassion commitment to the poor can be deepend by Mother Teresa’s witness of action in helping the poor and, above all, of identifying with Christ suffering in the poor.

Next, however, Nolan proceeds to a describe the step of developing an awareness of the need for social justice. Of his four steps, this is the one that is most different from anything we find in the writings of Mother Teresa. Nolan states:

Now the second stage begins with the gradual discovery that poverty is a structural problem. That is, poverty in the world today is not simply misfortune, bad luck, inevitable, due to laziness or ignorance, or just lack of development. Poverty, in the world today, is the direct result of political and economic policies. . . It immediately leads to indignation or, more bluntly, anger. . . My suggestion that we need to share God’s anger means not hatred, but rather, as we say so often, not a hatred of the sinner but a hatred of sin. . . as soon as we realize that the problem of the poverty in the world is a structural problem, a political problem, then we want to work for social change.

Nolan’s third stage of a spirituality of opting for the poor demonstrates that he himself had experienced years of working for and with the poor in the South Africa of the Apartheid years. He speaks of the stage of humility:

We come now to the third stage which develops with the discovery that the poor must and will save themselves, and that they don’t really need you or me. Spiritually, it’s the stage where one comes to grips with humility in one’s service to the poor. . . We discover that the poor are God’s chosen instruments and not me. . . This can become an experience of God acting and of God’s presence in the poor, not merely as an object of compassion, not merely seeing the face of Christ in their sufferings, but discovering in the poor, God saving me, God saving us, God acting and speaking to us today.

While, Nolan’s point on humility is different from the writings of Mother Teresa by dint of having included the social justice concern of step 2, nevertheless in what he states about recognizing Christ saving us in and through the poor has echoes of the kind of mysterious and radical solidarity with the poor that we find in Mother Teresa’s writings.

Similarly, when Nolan moves to his fourth stage of opting for the poor, solidarity, we can find a kind of mystical relating to the theme of Christ in the poor and the relevance of this for the salvation of the world that relates easily to the writings of Mother Teresa. At this stage, Nolan deepens his theme of humility by reflecting on how both the poor and ourselves who opt for them are sinners and that salvation comes as forgiveness and healing:

I think the real beginning of this stage of our spiritual development (solidarity) is the disappointment and disillusionment that we experience when we discover that the poor are not what we romantically thought they were. . . Real solidarity begins when we discover that we all have faults and weaknesses. They may be different faults and weaknesses according to our different social backgrounds and conditions and we may have very different roles to play, but we all have chosen to be on the same side against oppression. . . This experience, and it is an experience of solidarity with God’s own cause of justice . . . It is a way of coming to terms with ourselves in relationship to other people, with our illusions, our feelings of superiority, with our guilt, our romanticism, which then opens us up to God, to others, to God’s cause of justice and freedom.

Exploring further theological themes

[Here we skip a more theological discussion of themes present in the spiritual writings of both Mother Teresa and Albert Nolan: original sin, and how Christ redeems us. We conclude with a discussion of the Australian theologian Neil Ormerod who works on these many of these themes in systematic theology. The text below turns to reflect that even the theological theme of the day of judgment at the end of time can be enriched by our appreciation of the role of the poor in history]

Finally, this widening of our theological vision to include both an option for the poor and a social and historical dimension is particularly evident when Neil Ormerod proceeds from questions of Christ’s redeeming us from the Cross to the question of Christ returning for a second time at the end of the world. On this theme, Ormerod, quotes Matthew 25: 34-40 which includes the line “whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did for me.” We can note, in fact, that Mother Teresa quoted this line often. Let us turn now to read what Ormerod makes of this same passage:

What this passage reveals (Mt 25: 34-40) is Jesus’ complete sense of solidarity with the poor, the dispossessed, the weak, and the vulnerable in human history. Human history, from the perspective of the powerful, the rich, and the strong, will be turned on its head. They will no longer be able to “call the shots” or “take control of the situation.” Rather, they will be brought low . . . How will human history be judged on such criteria? How does human history look to indigenous peoples who have been dispossessed of their land and their culture, through colonization and economic exploitation? How does it look to the millions of poor in Africa, stricken by AIDS, who do not have access to expensive drugs and other treatments? How does it look to slum dwellers in the sprawling cities of third world countries who must eke a living out of the garbage of the rich elites of those countries? Will they be as generous to us in their assessment of human history as we have been to them in the living of that history? The parable of Dives and Lazarus hangs over the whole of human history (Luke 16:19-31).


So it is that I now conclude my tentative reflections on how to incorporate the legacy of Mother Teresa into the wider world of theology today. I have proposed that it is the topic of a theology of redemption that can provide our best bridge between the new insights—let me say the revelation of God—offered through Mother Teresa and what is already going forward in post-Vatican II theology. I have offered an analysis of Mother Teresa’s remarkable and complex manner of relating to Christ in and through the poorest of the poor. I have noted an absence of reference to social justice in her writings and have tried to understand this by reference to aspects of her family upbringing and pre-Vatican II theological formation. Finally, however, I have tried to explore how her legacy in fact constitutes a revelation from God about how to proceed in expressing our Christianity by means of a preferential option for the poor—an option that in some respects incorporates the gifts of the legacy of Mother Teresa and in some respects expands upon it.

Finally If the Day of Judgment may not be good news for all of us, let us look to Blessed Mother Teresa to imitate—and perhaps to expand upon—while we still can and let us pray for the mercy of God through her intercession. Blessed Mother Teresa, pray for us!