In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton relates an encounter with his friend and fellow Columbia University student, Bob Lax. Merton had recently converted to Catholicism and told Lax he wanted to be a good Catholic. Lax shook his head. “What you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
True, but easier said than done – evidence of which might be Fr. Merton himself – assuming he really wanted to be a saint.
Better is Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu’s way: abandonment to the will of God. That’s why she’s Saint Mother Teresa. It’s not what you say, but what you do.
Her life, with its successes and struggles, is the subject of a new docudrama directed by David Naglieri, Mother Teresa: No Greater Love, which will premiere with screenings by Fathom Events on October 3rd and 4th: click here to see if tickets are available in your area.
The documentary includes archival footage, interviews with those who knew Mother well, and profiles of the Missionaries of Charity carrying on Mother’s work. The dramatic sections are few: mostly brief reenactments of key moments in Mother’s life.
The film recapitulates the well-known story of Mother’s response to Christ’s call that she go into the streets of Calcutta to care for the poorest of the poor. And we see how global the order of nuns she founded has become.
They remain in Calcutta – now Kolkata – but they are also in places as diverse as Brazil and the Bronx.
For instance, as Mr. Naglieri’s film begins, we see her sisters providing flip-flops for barefooted refugees fleeing Venezuela. And, obviously, food, water, and shelter as well. In every place, the message of love is the same, although the way it is delivered may differ.
Indeed, the film’s greatest virtue is these glimpses of the worldwide work of the Missionaries of Charity. It’s so very simple: go to those in need; give them what they need. This is not a political philosophy but the admonition of Matthew 25:40: “And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
Poverty is everywhere. And it’s tempting to blame government, society, the system. Or, as Christopher Hitchens did – in a reprehensible book and as devil’s advocate in Mother’s canonization proceedings – to blame Mother for not doing what it was never her intention to do: build hospitals and pass out contraceptives.
Among the many interviewees in the film is Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, Ph.D. who was the advocate for Mother Teresa in the canonization and now is director of the Mother Teresa Center (offices in Kolkata, San Diego, and Rome).
Father Kolodiejchuk shows pages from the diary Mother kept in which she carried on a dialogue with Christ. There was urgency in the Lord’s words, and they spurred Mother to overcome the skepticism of her superiors.
The film’s many interviews are interspersed with profiles Missionaries of Charity carrying on Mother’s work. For instance, Sr. M. Constantine, an African, whom Mother sent to Amazonia. Sister Constantine’s narration of her own story shows two things: the Missionaries of Charity give up most material connections to the world; and they go forth, as Mother instructed, to “Bring [the poor] to Jesus,” made possible in part because of the sisters’ dedication to learning, manifest in facility for languages. Sister Constantine clearly speaks at least three.
The Missionaries embrace the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit prisoners, and bury the dead. Mother adapted the Evangelical Counsels – poverty, chastity, obedience – with a fourth: “give wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
I was deeply moved by an image (below) from the film: Sr. M. Constantine and her four companions are heading down to the river and on to their next destination. Lord, I thought, how you do inspire such courage and sacrifice!
That scene transitions into the work of the Missionaries on 145th Street in the Bronx. There, Sister Bernice addresses the people with evangelical rhetoric you might hear from their neighbors at the Abyssinian Baptist Church down on 136thStreet. Again: facility with language. Speaking to people in ways they’ll understand.
Bernice puts her hands on people’s shoulders counseling them, praying with them and for them. She wipes away their tears.
Mother Teresa nearly had to do that for the liberals present when she made her Nobel Prize acceptance speech and condemned abortion. (That speech is today’s TCT Notable item.)
Not only was she unafraid of violence and enmity, but she was also not frightened by poverty, illness, or death – not by their sights or stench. To watch Mother Teresa: No Greater Love is to grasp why she had dark nights of the soul. She labored for half a century and, though she saved and enlightened many lives, she did not end poverty or indifference, giving us a perfect application of Matthew’s report of Christ’s words: “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
Jim Wahlberg, brother of actor Mark, a former criminal whose encounter with Mother changed his life, says it as well as anybody in the film: “She went through years and years of feeling abandoned by God – that He was not there; that she did not feel His presence. . . .But every day she got up and did His bidding.”
The film ends with the estimable Patrick E. Kelly, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus (sponsors of the film), saying: “if we can see the world more as Mother Teresa did, the world would be a radically different and, I think, better place.”
I don’t deny it, but I think we worry too much about the “world.” As I think Mother showed, it’s the person right in front of us who matters – someone hungry for love.
You may also enjoy:
Ines A. Murzaku’s Mother Teresa’s Vocation at 100
Mary Poplin’s Mother Teresa’s Sainthood: Wisdom Beyond the Secular