Clad like her spiritual daughters in a simple blue-and-white sari, this diminutive yet undeniably charismatic nun traveled to more than a hundred countries with a message of faith, hope, and unrelenting love. With humility, Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, sought out the poorest and loneliest, those who endured both physical and spiritual poverty. In each of their faces she saw her beloved Spouse, “Jesus in distressing disguise.” Though she was “Mother” to thousands, she did not always feel the love and joy she espoused; rather, she chose it, and in so doing she embodied the kind of faith that speaks hope and courage to those who likewise struggle. For those who wander in darkness, Saint Teresa of Calcutta is a true patron of joy yet to be discovered.
Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu on August 27, 1910, to a family of Albanian descent, she left her family at eighteen to become a novice in the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, an Irish missionary order of nuns dedicated to educating children in India. In 1948, she received her “call within a call” to start her own order dedicated to tending the needs of the poorest and most marginalized of Calcutta. This represented no small sacrifice on her part, for she was a natural teacher. But in 1952 she and some of her former students opened their first home for the dying, and the following year the Missionaries of Charity opened their first orphanage.
For more than fifty years, Mother Teresa traveled the world in order to meet the needs of the physically and spiritually impoverished alike. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979; in June 1997 she received the Congressional Medal of Honor. And yet, in her lifetime she garnered alternately great recognition and heavy criticism alike for her unflinching truths. Time and time again, she shed her particular brand of light on polarizing subjects, at once enticing the disillusioned and offending those determined to stumble on in darkness. They could argue with her views, but there was no denying the love with which she spoke—a heart completely and unrelentingly faithful to her beloved Spouse.
When she died on September 5, 1997, more than fifteen thousand attended her funeral. On October 19, 2003, she was beatified by her good friend Pope John Paul II. And yet, when her private letters were published in 2007 in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the world caught a glimpse of a woman who had spent decades in the shadows, unable to feel God’s presence. “If ever I become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness,’” she wrote. “I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
On September 4, 2016, this indefatigable handmaid of the Lord was declared a saint. Today her Missionaries of Charity, both the professed Sisters and the more than 5,000 members of the lay order, reach 740 homes in Calcutta and 145 centers around the world.
As you gather around the supper table each evening, light the Advent candles and remember the words of Saint Teresa . . . and the self-giving love of the Savior who was also not afraid to humble himself, to be born in that poor little stable in Bethlehem. As you pray, consider what to offer the Lord as a gift to him during this Christmas season. Reflect upon the words of Saint Teresa, and consider how you might love more deeply, surrender more completely, and let go of the things you do not need so there is more room to receive from the Lord all he wishes for you to have.