Friday Book Pick: Mother Teresa: In the Shadow of Our Lady by Joseph Langford, MC
“Nun” and “celebrity” are two words that don’t usually go together. Mother Teresa of Calcutta might be the one exception.The saint of Calcutta, with her wrinkled face, her piercing eyes, and her diminutive frame swathed in white and blue, became an unlikely celebrity—premortem.
At first glance, it could seem that St. Mother Teresa’s fame was the result of her interesting and inspiring work with the very poor. She also could be famous for founding a worldwide community of women whose life is to serve the poorest of the poor, or because she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
Mother Teresa was “discovered” by a journalist (who happened to be an atheist but converted to Catholicism before his death) and soon became a household name, a figure recognized at a glance, internationally. Can you think of any other woman in the same category as Mother Teresa? I can’t. Not even one.
It is interesting to realize that, although not featured on the nightly news, there are innumerable other people doing good works in the world, serving the poor, sacrificing themselves for the good of others. And not only that, month-by-month, there are new martyrdoms happening the world over. Practically none of these people are famous or ever will become famous—not even “Church famous” (through beatification or canonization). Unlike man, God shows preference for the unknown, the little, the obscure, the “fringe,” as †Father Benedict would say, or the “periphery,” as Pope Francis would say. For God’s chosen ones, “famous” is the exception, not the rule. So when one of God’s own becomes not just a saint but also a celebrity, it must be because God wants it. He has made an exception.
Perhaps allowing the spotlight to fall on Mother Teresa was God’s way of endorsing a counter-feminism, one that proclaims, “To serve is to reign” and honors the title “Mother.” Or maybe Mother Teresa is God’s offer of a counter-model to the Western “supermodel.” Could God have allowed Mother Teresa to receive worldwide recognition and notoriety as way to magnify the Gospel through a woman of His choosing?
In the marvelous little book, Mother Teresa: In the Shadow of Our Lady, Fr. Joseph Langford holds up Mother Teresa, our “celebrity nun,” as a living image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He says that, “The key element in Mother Teresa’s inner life was the person and presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.” Since the author had the benefit of knowing Mother Teresa and observing her closely, he writes from his own experience with her. More than just devotion to Our Lady, he reveals Mother Teresa’s dependence on Our Lady. He says, “If we want to understand Mother Teresa, to imitate her and follow in her footsteps on the path to holiness, intimacy with Our Lady is not something peripheral or secondary.” Fr. Langford notes three steps of intimacy with our Lady, of “entering our Mother’s embrace.” The three steps are encounter, listening, and consecration.
ENCOUNTER: Mother Teresa taught her sisters not only to pray to Our Lady but to live in her company. Mother Teresa was almost never without a rosary in hand, even when she obviously wasn’t praying it. The Rosary in hand was a symbol for Mother Teresa of her hand in Our Lady’s hand, their shared life—her ongoing encounter with Our Lady. LISTENING: Although it was revealed after her death that Mother Teresa did experience visions and locutions, and did in fact hear the voice of Our Blessed Mother speaking in her soul, even without such special and unusual phenomenon which lasted for only a season of Mother’s life, it is possible to live in a posture of listening and docility to Our Lady. Mother Teresa lived and modeled this, “Listening to Our Lady requires deep faith in her involvement in my life, in her concrete plan for me.”
CONSECRATION: For Mary to be free to act in our lives, we must give her the gift of our willing permission. This, Fr. Langford explains, is the goal of consecration: allowing Mary the freedom to act in our lives and the freedom to conform us into a better dwelling place for the Lord—an Ark of the Covenant—as she was, to carry Him to others as Mary did, as Mother Teresa did.
Many of us have various customs and practices that we observe daily, such as praying the Rosary or the Angelus. But Mother Teresa promoted among her followers something deeper than simply commitments to prayer. Mother says in her rule, “Let us not think that we are working along with [Our Lady] if we only say a few prayers in her honor. We must live habitually with her.” Speaking to her sisters, she elaborated on how to do this, “Often during the day, let us raise our heart to her and ask her how she would do this or that now if she were in our place—and above all how to love God as she loved Him, that we too may love Him with her heart.”
Much has been made of the long years of darkness suffered by Mother Teresa. It was Our Lady who taught Mother to see in the dark and to keep going forward in spite of it and to become a “fountain of God’s life and light” for others in darknesses of their own. God allowed a brilliant light to shine upon Mother Teresa, and I suspect God made her famous for many reasons, not least of which is to provide an example for us to learn to uncover the light, which at times comes to us cloaked in darkness, and to live as she did, in the shadow of Our Lady.
Mother Clare, CFR