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“Put Your Hand in His Hand, and Walk Alone with Him”
Jesus, for You and for souls! —Mother Teresa
“Put your hand in His [Jesus’] hand, and walk alone with Him. Walk ahead, because if you look back you will go back.” These parting words from her mother were engraved on the heart of eighteen-year-old Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, the future Mother Teresa, as she left her home in Skopje to commence her life as a missionary. On September 26, 1928, she journeyed to Ireland to join the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Loreto Sisters), a noncloistered congregation of women religious primarily dedicated to education. She had applied to go to the missions in Bengal. Such a venture demanded abundant faith and courage, for she and her family knew well that “at that time, when missionaries went to the missions, they never returned.”
Young though she was, Gonxha had taken six years to decide on her vocation. She had been raised in a family that fostered piety and devotion, and in a fervent parish community that also contributed to her religious upbringing. In this setting, Mother Teresa would later reveal, she first felt called to consecrate her life to God:
I was only twelve years old then. It was then that I first knew I had a vocation to the poor ...in 1922. I wanted to be a missionary, I wanted to go out and give the life of Christ to the people in the missionary countries....At the beginning, between twelve and eighteen I didn’t want to become a nun. We were a very happy family. But when I was eighteen, I decided to leave my home and become a nun, and since then, this forty years, I’ve never doubted even for a second that I’ve done the right thing; it was the will of God. It was His choice.
Thus her decision was not a whim of her youthful years but rather a considered choice, the fruit of her profound relationship with Jesus. Many years later she would disclose, “From childhood the Heart of Jesus has been my first love.” She made her determination clear in the application letter to the superior of the Loreto nuns:
Reverend Mother Superior, Be so kind to hear my sincere desire. I want to join your Society, so that one day I may become a missionary sister, and work for Jesus who died for us all.
I have completed the fifth class of high school; of languages I know Albanian, which is my mother tongue and Serbian*, I know a little French, English I do not know at all, but I hope in the good God that He will help me to learn the little I need and so I am beginning immediately these [days] to practice it. I don’t have any special conditions, I only want to be in the missions, and for everything else I surrender myself completely to the good God’s disposal.
An exceptional grace she had received on the day of her first Holy Communion had fueled her desire to take this daring step into the unknown: “From the age of 5½ years,—when first I received Him [Jesus]—the love for souls has been within.—It grew with the years—until I came to India—with the hope of saving many souls.”
Sailing across the Mediterranean Sea, the zealous young missionary wrote to her loved ones at home: “Pray for your missionary, that Jesus may help her to save as many immortal souls as possible from the darkness of unbelief.” Her hope to bring light to those in darkness would be fulfilled, but in a way she could not have anticipated as she traveled to her chosen mission land.
While at sea, in moments of solitude and silence, as joy and pain mingled in her heart, Sister Teresa (named after Thérèse of Lisieux when she joined the Loreto order)* collected her sentiments in a poem:
I’m leaving my dear house And my beloved land To steamy Bengal go I To a distant shore.
I’m leaving my old friends Forsaking family and home My heart draws me onward To serve my Christ.
Goodbye, O mother dear May God be with you all A Higher Power compels me Toward torrid India.
The ship moves slowly ahead Cleaving the ocean waves, As my eyes take one last look At Europe’s dear shores.
Bravely standing on the deck Joyful, peaceful of mien, Christ’s happy little one, His new bridetobe.
In her hand a cross of iron On which the Savior hangs, While her eager soul offers there Its painful sacrifice.
“Oh God, accept this sacrifice As a sign of my love, Help, please, Thy creature To glorify Thy name!
In return, I only ask of Thee, O most kind Father of us all:
Let me save at least one soul— One you already know.”
Fine and pure as summer dew Her soft warm tears begin to flow, Sealing and sanctifying now Her painful sacrifice.
On January 6, 1929, after a five-week journey, Sister Teresa arrived in Calcutta. In a letter she sent back home, she shared with her readers her arrival to the city that would become inseparably linked with her name:
On January 6th, in the morning, we sailed from the sea to the river Ganges, also called the “Holy River.” Travelling by this route we could take a good look at our new homeland Bengal. The nature is marvellous. In some places there are beautiful small houses but for the rest, only huts lined up under the trees. Seeing all this we desired that we might, as soon as possible, enter among them. We came to know that here are very few Catholics. When our ship landed on the shore we sang in our souls the “Te Deum.” Our Indian sisters waited for us there, with whom, with indescribable happiness, we stepped for the first time on Bengal’s soil.
In the convent chapel, we first thanked our dear Saviour for this great grace that He had so safely brought us to the goal for which we had been longing. Here we will remain one week and then we are leaving for Darjeeling, where we will remain during our novitiate. Pray much for us that we may be good and courageous missionaries.
Shortly after her arrival in Calcutta, Sister Teresa was sent to Darjeeling to continue her formation. In May she began the novitiate, a two-year period of initiation into the religious life that precedes the first profession of vows. The first year concentrated on spiritual formation of the candidate, emphasizing prayer and the spirituality of the order, while the second year emphasized the mission of the institute and offered some training in its apostolic works. Having completed her formation, she made her first profession of vows on May 25, 1931, 11 promising to live a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to devote herself with particular care to the instruction of youth. This was an occasion of immense joy, as her longing to consecrate herself to God became a reality. She confided to a friend:
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.
Following her profession of vows, Sister Teresa was assigned to the Loreto community in Calcutta and appointed to teach at St. Mary’s Bengali Medium School for girls. The young nun embarked eagerly on her new mission, one that she would retain (with only one six-month interruption) until 1948, the year she left Loreto to establish the Missionaries of Charity. In a letter to her local Catholic magazine back home she showed how this mission of service, with all its hardships, was a source of genuine joy for her, as it provided the opportunity to imitate Jesus and live in union with Him:
The heat of India is simply burning. When I walk around, it seems to me that fire is under my feet from which even my whole body is burning. When it is hardest, I console myself with the thought that souls are saved in this way and that dear Jesus has suffered much more for them. . . . The life of a missionary is not strewn with roses, in fact more with thorns; but with it all, it is a life full of happiness and joy when she thinks that she is doing the same work which Jesus was doing when He was on earth, and that she is fulfilling Jesus’ commandment: “Go and teach all nations!”
Many Things “for Jesus and for Souls”
After nine years in Loreto, Sister Teresa was approaching a very important moment in her life—she was about to make her profession of perpetual vows. Her superiors and her companions had by now become acquainted with her prayerfulness, compassion, charity, and zeal; they also appreciated her great sense of humor and natural talent for organization and leadership. In all her endeavors she consistently showed unusual presence of mind, common sense, and courage, such as when she chased away a bull on the road in order to protect her girls and when she scared off thieves who broke into the convent one night.
Yet neither her sisters nor her pupils fully realized the remarkable spiritual depths that this hardworking and cheerful nun had reached in the midst of her daily activities. Her profound union with Jesus, the source of her spiritual and apostolic fecundity, was only shared with her confessors. She likewise rarely alluded to her sufferings, while the joy she radiated around her effectively hid her trials. In a letter to Jesuit Father Franjo Jambrekovic´,15 her former confessor in Skopje, she revealed the secret of God’s powerful action in her soul:
Dear Father in Jesus, Hearty thank you for your letter—I really did not expect it—I am sorry for not writing to you before.
I just received the letter from Reverend Mother General where she gives me the permission to make my final vows. It will be on 24th May 1937. What a great grace! I really cannot thank God enough for all that He has done for me. His for all eternity! Now I rejoice with my whole heart that I have joyfully carried my cross with Jesus.
There were sufferings—there were moments when my eyes were filled with tears—but thanks be to God for everything. Jesus and I have been friends up to now, pray that He may give me the grace of perseverance. This month I am starting my three months tertianship. There will be enough and plenty there [to offer] for Jesus and for souls—but I am so happy. Before crosses used to frighten me—I used to get goose bumps at the thought of suffering—but now I embrace suffering even before it actually comes, and like this Jesus and I live in love.
Do not think that my spiritual life is strewn with roses—that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion “darkness.” And when the night becomes very thick—and it seems to me as if I will end up in hell—then I simply offer myself to Jesus. If He wants me to go there—I am ready—but only under the condition that it really makes Him happy. I need much grace, much of Christ’s strength to persevere in trust, in that blind love which leads only to Jesus Crucified. But I am happy—yes happier than ever. And I would not wish at any price to give up my sufferings. But do not, however, think that I am only suffering. Ah no— I am laughing more than I am suffering—so that some have concluded that I am Jesus’ spoiled bride, who lives with Jesus in Nazareth—far away from Calvary… Pray, pray much for me—I really need His love.
I am sorry for chattering so much—but I myself do not know how [this happened]—Jesus surely wanted this—to make you pray a little more for your missionary. . . . Mama is writing very regularly—truly she is giving me the strength to suffer joyfully. My departure was indeed the beginning of her supernatural life. When she goes to Jesus, surely He will receive her with great joy. My brother and sister are still together—they are having a beautiful life together.
You are surely very busy to think of letter writing. But one thing I beg of you: pray always for me. For that you do not need special time—because our work is our prayer. . . A few days ago I had a good laugh—when some incidents from Letnica came to my mind. Really, how proud I was then. I am not humble even now—but at least I desire to become—and humiliations are my sweetest sweets. . . . I must go—India is as scorching as is hell—but its souls are beautiful and precious because the Blood of Christ has bedewed them.
I cordially greet you and beg for your blessing and prayers.
Yours in Jesus, Sister M. Teresa, IBVM [Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary]
This letter to her confessor back in Skopje is the first instance in her correspondence where Sister Teresa refers to “darkness.” It is difficult to grasp precisely what “darkness” meant for her at this time, but in the future the term would come to signify profound interior suffering, lack of sensible consolation, spiritual dryness, an apparent absence of God from her life, and, at the same time, a painful longing for Him.
Her brief description makes clear that most of the time she was not enjoying the light and consolation of God’s sensible presence but rather striving to live by faith, surrendering with love and confidence to God’s good pleasure. She had so progressed in that love that she could rise above the fear of suffering: “now I embrace the suffering even before it comes, and like this Jesus and I live in love.”
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.
Having passed through the first night, one may then be led by God into the “night of the spirit,” to be purged from the deepest roots of one’s imperfections. A state of extreme aridity accompanies this purification, and one feels rejected and abandoned by God. The experience can become so intense that one feels as if heading toward eternal perdition. It is even more excruciating because one wants only God and loves Him greatly but is unable to recognize one’s love for Him. The virtues of faith, hope, and charity are severely tried. Prayer is difficult, almost impossible; spiritual counsel practically of no avail; and various exterior trials may add to this pain. By means of this painful purification, the disciple is led to total detachment from all created things and to a lofty degree of union with Christ, becoming a fit instrument in His hands and serving Him purely and disinterestedly.
It is not surprising that Sister Teresa, already such an exceptional soul, would be purified in the “crucible” of these mystical sufferings. Choosing to face this deep pain with trust, surrender, and unwavering desire to please God, while demonstrating an outstanding fidelity to her religious duties, she was already setting the pattern for her response to the even more demanding interior trial that was to come.
His for All Eternity
After three months of fervent prayer and reflection in tertianship, the long awaited date she had mentioned to Father Jambrekovic´ arrived. On May 24, 1937, with a happy and grateful heart, Sister Teresa approached the altar of God to pronounce her final “Yes,” committing herself to Jesus in spousal love for the rest of her life. The ceremony took place in the convent chapel in Darjeeling, with Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, S.J. as celebrant. Following Loreto custom she was now called “Mother Teresa.” Other than her obvious joy on the occasion of her final profession, there was nothing so out of the ordinary about her as to attract the attention of the archbishop or anyone else. Thankfully, some of her interior dispositions survived in another letter written to Father Jambrekovic´:
Dear Father in Jesus, The Christmas feasts are approaching—by the time this letter reaches you—we all will be enjoying the joy of Baby Jesus. That is why I am sending you my heartfelt wishes. May dear God grant that you accomplish much for Him and for souls. Pray for the same also for your missionary.
Surely you know that I have made my final vows. I was thinking also about you on that day; if you would know how happy I was that I could, of my own free will, ignite my own sacrifice. Now His and that for all eternity! You surely cannot imagine former Gond¯a, now as the spouse of Jesus. But He has been always so infinitely good towards me—as if He wanted to insure the possession of my heart for Himself. Once again, I sincerely thank you for all that you have done for me.
Sister Gabriela is here. She works beautifully for Jesus—the most important is that she knows how to suffer and at the same time how to laugh. That is the most important—to suffer and to laugh. She is helping me a lot—in many ways—otherwise alone I would surely fail somewhere. She is ever ready to help me and I am so bad that I make use of her goodness.
Sister Bernard is making her vows on 23rd January 1938. Thanks be to God now again everything is all right—Jesus has surely chosen her for something special, since He has given her so much suffering. And she is a real hero, bearing up everything courageously with a smile. . . .
If we want Bengal for Christ we have to pay with many sacrifices.—Now I really rejoice when something does not go as I wish—because I see that He wants our trust—that is why in the loss let us praise God as if we have got everything.
Maybe Mama has written to you. She is now with my brother. They are so happy. One thing only they are missing— and that is their Gond¯a. But thanks be to God that Mama again has the church nearby and that she can speak Albanian. How happy she is about it. My sister has become the prefect of the Sodality of Our Lady for the high school girls. I hope that she will do much for Jesus.
Surely you want some news also about me. One thing, pray much for me—I need prayer now more than ever. I want to be only all for Jesus—truly and not only by name and dress. Many times this goes upside-down—so my most reverend “I” gets the most important place. Always the same proud Gond¯a. Only one thing is different—my love for Jesus—I would give everything, even life itself, for Him. It sounds nice but in reality it is not so easy. And just that I want, that it not be easy. Do you remember once you told me in Skopje: “Gond¯a, you want to drink the chalice to the last drop.” I do not know if at that time, I thought as I do now, but now yes, and that joyfully even without a tear. . . . It does not go so easily when a person has to be on one’s feet from morning till evening. But still, everything is for Jesus; so like that everything is beautiful, even though it is difficult.
I am terribly sleepy this evening, so please forgive me for writing like this—but if I do not finish this evening, tomorrow will be too late. Please cordially greet Fr. Vizjak—today I have sent him some books.
Pray much for me always. Faithfully in Jesus
S. M. Teresa IBVM
Since Mother Teresa longed for complete union with Christ, who suffered on the Cross, she—His little bride—could not do otherwise than be united to Him in His suffering. If she could not remove His pain, then she would be there, on the Cross as it were, with Him. Choosing to share the lot of her Beloved, she welcomed the crosses that accompanied her constant self-giving.
The daily challenge of striving to overcome her faults was also a part of Mother Teresa’s cross. She confided to her former confessor her struggle to conquer pride; yet, though unaware of it, she had already emerged victorious from many battles. While she lamented “the same proud Gonxha,” others were impressed by her humility. Sister Gabriela, one of her childhood friends from Skopje, and now her companion in Loreto, wrote to Father Jambrekovic´ on the same day:
I think that Jesus loves Sister Teresa very much. We are in the same house. I notice that every day she tries to please Jesus in everything. She is very busy, but she does not spare herself. She is very humble. It cost her dearly to achieve that, but I think that God has chosen her for great things. Admittedly, her deeds are entirely simple, but the perfection with which she does them, is just what Jesus asks of us.
Mother Teresa was indeed striving to “drink the chalice to the last drop” in living her commitment “to be only all for Jesus.” As another sister from her community affirmed: “She was very, very much in love with Almighty God.”29
“I Go to Give Them Joy”
After her final vows, Mother Teresa returned to her duties at St. Mary’s with her characteristic enthusiasm. She went back to teaching and to the ordinary daily activities of a Loreto nun. One of her companions remarked of her: “She was a very hard worker. Very. Up to time on this, up to time on that. She never wanted to shirk anything, she was always ready.”
“Put Your Hand in His Hand, and Walk Alone with Him”
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.”31 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!”33 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.