Kathryn Spink
Author and Translator



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The dark night of the soul

 

"Your Grace,

... Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show himself - for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.".... "Ask Our Lord to give me courage." So wrote Mother Teresa to Ferdinand Périer, Archbishop of Calcutta on 18th March 1953.

And in January 1955, again to the Archbishop:

"I don’t know but there is such a deep loneliness in my heart that I cannot even express it... How long will Our Lord stay away?"

 

Father Van Exem, spiritual director to Mother Teresa at the time of the crucial 1946 retreat and for many years thereafter, described Mother Teresa as someone who had "an intense inner life".

Until after her death in 1997 and indeed until the cause for her canonisation was begun, the range and nature of that inner life was known only to a very few people. However, among the documentation to which those preparing the cause had access were some of the very private letters that Mother Teresa had written to Father Van Exem. They related to her inspiration days, departure from Loreto and the early years of the founding of her new congregation.

While in February 1991 I waited in Calcutta for the outcome of Mother Teresa’s prayer about whether or not to grant permission for me to write her biography, I went to visit Father Van Exem in what was essentially a retirement home for elderly clergy. By then he was an old man with white hair and a long white beard but his eyes still twinkled and he still recalled with self-deprecating humour how when he had first been asked to become Mother Teresa’s spiritual director he had retorted that he had not come all the way from his native Belgium to Calcutta to be "busy with nuns".

He told me how Mother Teresa had repeatedly come on bended knee to him and to a succession of Archbishops to destroy the private letters she had written. When finally Father Van Exem returned two large boxes to her, he had done so on condition that she must not destroy anything that really belonged to the Missionaries of Charity. He had never asked her what she did but assumed that she would not have kept very much. Certain documents written to him and to Archbishop Périer remained in the care of the Archbishop of Calcutta. These documents shed greater light on the mystical experiences surrounding her "call within a call" to leave Loreto and go out into the slums.

It would seem that despite her emphatic statement that she had never had a vision, at that time (1946) and for several months afterwards she experienced a period of union with God during which she heard a series of interior locutions in which Jesus called her to carry him into the "holes" of the poor, to bring the light of faith to those living in darkness, and so bring joy to the suffering heart of Jesus and satiate his thirst for love and souls. She also "saw" a series of progressively intensifying scenes of an immense crowd of all kinds of people in great sorrow and suffering, eventually covered in darkness. The letters further disclosed the degree of Mother Teresa’s commitment to give God whatever he asked of her, regardless of the suffering entailed.

In 1942 while she was still a Loreto nun, like Thérèse of Lisieux, she had made a private vow not to refuse God anything. Her writings following the "call within a call" revealed her feelings of inadequacy, her humility and her very understandable fear: her fear of eating, sleeping, dressing, and living as the Indians did and of becoming an object of ridicule. Later letters showed that when she no longer felt the proximity of God in the same way that she had for that privileged period in 1946 and 1947, she suffered from spiritual dryness, the profound pain of God’s apparent absence despite her great thirst for him, and a lack of sensible consolation.  The pain of separation was all the more acute precisely because of the exceptional intimacy she had previously experienced. This "darkness" would be the subject of a number of letters to successive spiritual directors and priests, which would be made universally public with the publication of "Come be my Light" in 2007 by the postulator for her cause for canonisation.

"I want God with all the powers of my soul - and yet between us there is a terrible separation."... "My soul is not one with You - and yet when alone in the streets - I talk to You for hours - of my longing for You. How intimate are those words - and yet so empty, for they leave me far from You."

For those versed in the writings of the Christian mystics Mother Teresa’s experience of perceived alienation from God, darkness, and inner despair is recognizable as "the dark night of the soul"; her doubt, as a symptom of intense longing for God, as part of the via negativa, an experience of divine presence through humanly perceived absence. This was something experienced by St John of the Cross. La noche oscura del alma, "The Dark Night of the Soul" is the title given to a 16th-century poem by the Spanish poet and Discalced Carmelite mystic, priest, and Doctor of the Church. Thérèse of Lisieux, the "Little Flower" whose name Mother Teresa had chosen to take on entering her religious life, passed through something similar, as did the Doctor of the Church, Spanish Carmelite reformer and mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, not to mention a number of other saints.

Somewhat surprisingly, given how conversant Mother Teresa and those around her must have been with the mystical experiences, particularly of Thérèse of Lisieux, the letters suggest that it was not until around 1961 that a Jesuit priest, Father Joseph Neuner, appears to have convinced her that her craving for God was a sign of proximity and that her darkness was a share in Christ’s Passion. (I can only surmise that Mother Teresa’s humility prevented her from believing that she belonged in the exalted company of the great mystics).

I should perhaps acknowledge that from a personal point of view I find it saddening that what I know both from Father Van Exem and from Cardinal Picachy of Calcutta Mother Teresa wanted desperately to be kept secret should be so publically exposed. To use Mother Teresa’s own words (in a letter to Father Picachy, dated September 3 1959) referring to her inability to explain the inspiration for her new congregation: "When you make it public, it loses its sanctity."

HOWEVER offset against this there is always the Christian imperative to make the life and message of the gospel known. Father Van Exem himself wrote to me in 1991 of the justification for writing about her life: "Mother and her Sisters have no time to sit down and write books. And so, if God’s work is to be known, with St Paul we should ask: ’How can it be known if it is not announced?’" The publication of the letters could add depth to people’s understanding not just of Mother Teresa but of the nature of holiness itself. Furthermore, there had been times when Mother Teresa had insisted, albeit in relation to far less intimate statements, that her words were not her own and it was not for her to authorize or prohibit their use. There was a sense in which she had considered herself the "property" of others when it came to witnessing to God’s love for them.

There was also the fact that the revelation of Mother Teresa’s moments of doubt and weakness confirmed her claim that she was human and imperfect like everyone else. In her apparent solitude she had, it seems, forgotten the assurance of the Jesus of her interior locutions at the time of the "call within a call" that although she would suffer much, he would always be with her.

Her human foibles could allow others to hope. The revelations would inspire others beset with doubts, and feeling alienated from God to continue in faith.  The reason for the creation of "saints" in the Roman Catholic Church is to identify those who set an example for and are a source of encouragement to others.  Holiness, Mother Teresa herself insisted, is not the luxury of the few but a simple duty for you and for me.

"Sanctity is simply the acceptance of the will of God with a big smile. It is just accepting him as he comes into our life, accepting his taking from us whatever he wants, making use of us as he wants, putting us where he wants without our being consulted. We like to be consulted but he must be able to break us into pieces and let every little piece be his, empty without him." 

Simple then!

The voice of Mother Teresa’s interior locutions had pleaded:

"My own spouse", "My own little one." "Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come be my light." Not many, I would suggest, experience this kind of privileged intimacy with Jesus; but many more have known a sense of alienation from God, suffering of a spiritual kind and the distressing conviction that their prayers remain unanswered. And the fact that Mother Teresa experienced all these things and yet managed to persevere may serve as an inspiration to others.

So how, despite her inner torment, did she persevere? For this was what Mother Teresa did.

Of my free choice My God and out of love for You I desire to remain and do whatever be Your Holy Will in my regard ....  My God give me courage now - this moment - to persevere in following Your call, she wrote in a journal in 1949. She persevered, smiling as she did so. 

And the work grew and flourished. As early as June 1949 she confided to Archbishop Périer:

The more the work is spreading the more clear it becomes  {it is } His will....Though there has been plenty of suffering and tears, there has not been one moment of regret. I am happy to do God’s will.

By the year 1984 four million leprosy patients had been treated through the mobile leprosy clinics. She could report the provision of weekly dry rations to 106,271 people and cooked food to 51,580 through the relief centres; the admission of 13, 246 to the homes for the dying destitute and the successful discharging of 8, 627 of those who might otherwise have been left to die; the reception of 6,000 children into the 103 Shishu Bhavans by that year, 1984.... By the time of her death on 5th September 1997 there were 3,842 Missionary of Charity Sisters serving in 120 countries and a further 377 Missionary of Charity Brothers serving in some 19 countries.

Mother Teresa herself loved to cite such statistics as irrefutable evidence of God’s achievements in spite of human ineptitude. So behind her was the extraordinary intimacy she had had with Jesus, of which at some level she must still have been aware, and before her there was always the obvious fruit, the rapidly extending work, which far exceeded the likely outcome of her personal effort or human capabilities.  The insistence that it was God’s work and not hers remained consistent throughout her life as a Missionary of Charity. "Pray that we do not spoil God’s work", was a constant appeal.

We come back to her insistence that: "My secret is quite simple. I pray." For her prayer was something that could be undertaken, to use her expression "all the twenty-four hours". As a passenger in a car she would immediately get out her rosary and start to pray (in a way that could be quite unnerving!).  She would interrupt the telling of the beads to pass some totally unrelated comment and then return to them without apparently pausing for breath.

Without prayer I could not work for even half an hour. I get my strength from God through prayer. You can pray while you work. Work does not stop prayer and prayer does not stop work. It requires only that small raising of the heart and mind to him: ’I love you God. I trust you. I believe in you. I need you now." Small things like that are wonderful prayers. The poor are also our prayer. They carry God in them.

I remember once in Delhi seeing her arrive at the Sisters’ home for abandoned children there. It was quite late in the day. She had been up since 5am and the interim hours had been packed with activity. She was manifestly physically exhausted but was due an hour or so later to receive the gift of an ambulance from Prime Minister Rajib Gandhi at an elaborate public ceremony. She went into the chapel and reappeared half an hour later completely transformed, several inches taller and full of energy and vigour to greet the crowds awaiting her outside.  This was not, I suggest, the experience of one who did not feel the proximity of God.   Nor was her repeated assurance of her Sisters and Co-Workers that: "God is love. He loves each one of us."

 Knowledge of the unconditional love of God was always there to sustain:

 "We read something beautiful in the Scriptures" she quoted from Isaiah (43:1-4): "I have called you by your name, you are mine. Water will not drown you, fire will not burn you, I will give up nations for you, you are precious to me. I love you. Even if a mother could forget her child, I will not forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand.’ (Isaiah 49:15-16] This is God speaking to you and to me, to that leper man and that alcoholic woman, to the person with a mental handicap and to the little child: ’You are precious to me. I love you.’"

It was because God loved the world so much that he gave his Son to die for the world, she wrote to her Sisters, and Jesus said, ’I have loved you as the Father has loved me. Love one another as I have loved you.’ The giving was from the Father, the giving was from the Son, and now the giving is from us: ’Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers you did it to me.’ Remember the words of St Matthew’s Gospel: ’I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless, with those who hunger not just for bread but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; with those who are naked not of clothing, but of that compassion that very few people give to those they do not know; with those who are homeless not just for a shelter made of stone but with the homelessness that comes from having no one to call your own.

Mother Teresa was not an intellectual. She was not one who came to know God through clear images and careful thought. Hers was an understanding of the heart, the heart not as seat of the emotions but as the place of direct knowledge, the heart as referred to by St Paul when he wrote to the Ephesians: "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be opened that you may know the hope to which he has called you."  Her heart-wisdom had a way of homing straight in on the crux of the matter. Once when a group of seminarians were earnestly discussing what conversion was, she quietly remarked, "Conversion is the changing of the heart through love". The debate was over.  But she was not known for her theological insights or for doctrine. In relation to other people she maintained: "By the way they live their lives you will know whether or not they belong to God."  And we look to her, I suggest, largely for the way in which she lived the heart of the Gospel.

Because she was not given to talking about herself or writing about herself other than to those in spiritual authority over her, apart from observing the way in which she lived her life, we can only really look at what she said or wrote to others. "All our words will be useless unless they come from within," she maintained. Her words are invariably simple and yet profound because they are born of her interior life. They come from within, from the depths where suffering is also life-giving and they bring light, I believe, precisely because they are born of "darkness", they are filled with the divine because of her personal emptiness, so I would like just to share with you some of her sayings/writings relating to the seeing and hearing of God, from which her inner life may be inferred:

Jesus said, blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Try to be more in tune with God and more open to him, so that you will be able to see his face. We need to have an open heart to be able to see God in others.

God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. See how nature, the trees, the flowers, the grass grow in perfect silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.  If we really want to pray we must first learn to listen, for in the silence of the heart God speaks.

Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence he will listen to us. There he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice.

When the time comes and we cannot pray, it is very simple - let Jesus pray in us to the Father in the silence of our hearts. If we cannot speak, he will speak. If we cannot pray, he will pray. So let us give him our inability and our nothingness. Prayer does not consist of many words but of the fervour of a heart turned towards God.

Every work of love, no matter how small, brings a person face to face with God.

In the poor, Mother Teresa, acknowledged, she perceived God’s presence vividly. There she felt him to be alive and real.

Despite God’s perceived failure to respond to her thirst for renewed intimacy, Mother Teresa remained confident of his love and of what his will was. She knew that while she felt inner emptiness and darkness when she spoke of Jesus, she still communicated spiritual joy to others. She knew too that the light clearly apparent in the work was mysteriously related to her own darkness. She knew that the seed has to die in order to produce fruit. Without the intense inner life, the hugely expanding service to the poor could not have come about. She knew moreover that Christ on the cross had cried out, "My God, my God why have you abandoned me?" And moments later, "Father into your hands I commend my spirit." It was not unusual, in Christian spirituality, for God when he wanted to unite a soul very closely to himself, to allow that person to feel abandoned by him, in the same way that Jesus also felt abandoned on the cross. Interior darkness was, Mother Teresa came in time to realise and accept, a way of entering into the mystery of the cross of Christ.

Far from losing her faith, she came to recognize that her inner thirst, apparently unassuaged, was a form of communion not only with the poor but also with the crucified Christ. "The closer you come to Jesus, the better you will know his thirst," she wrote to her Sisters. In emphasizing the degree of material poverty for which Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity opted, sometimes the spiritual poverty they experienced was not taken into sufficient account. Ultimately, however, Mother Teresa discovered her spiritual poverty, her darkness, to be communion: communion with the "I thirst" of the abandoned, rejected, suffering Christ on the cross and communion with the "I thirst" of the abandoned, rejected, hungry, homeless poor.

And in communion she learned to suffer joyfully. In the context of what was revealed in the posthumously published letters, Mother Teresa’s words to her Sisters and Co-workers on suffering gain special meaning, rooted as they are in her personal experience:

"The following of Christ is inseparable from the Cross of Calvary: Suffering in itself is nothing, but suffering shared with Christ’s Passion is a wonderful gift; Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together is joy.

Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to forget the joy of the risen Christ; Joy is often the mantle that hides a life of self-sacrifice; Keep the joy of loving Jesus in your heart and share this joy with all you meet."

Essentially the message is that great love and great suffering are the natural gateways to spiritual transformation and growth.... and even to joy, to that joy which Mother Teresa radiated and which as a young girl in Skopje her local priest had told her was the litmus test for whether or not a course of action was in conformity with the will of God!

I would like to close with two thoughts, both of them Mother Teresa’s:

"When it is hard, remember we are not called to be successful but to be faithful."

"Don’t search for God in far lands - he is not there. He is close to you. He is with you."

 

Talk first given at "Refresh your Soul" Conference in Cincinnati on 18th March 2019

 

 

A troubadour in a small boat


He was a gambler who, in his youth, lost everything he had on racehorses, a gentle, prayer-filled man whom Mother Teresa described as "very, very holy". As a priest he was later instrumental in founding a community of Brothers devoted to the service of the poorest of the poor. He shared their lives in Saigon, Cambodia and many other places of violence and suffering, and wrote sublimely of the "beautiful" unsung people he met along the way, whom he believed to be the hope of the world. With fear and trepidation he appeared on prime time television. The interviewer and the audience were manifestly touched. A public platform beckoned from which he could have spoken powerfully on behalf of the voiceless of the world, until some of those close to him called him to account. There had been times when he had drunk too much and set a bad example. They wanted him to go into a clinic. Acknowledging with characteristic humility his frailty, he nonetheless declined. For him to do so would, he said, be a denial of the truth of his being. I have never met anyone whose being was so truthful. He opted to relinquish the leadership of his Brothers to become instead a "troubadour in a small boat". Possessing nothing, leaving God alone to arrange his life, he journeyed with the wind and tide, took retreats and wrote small booklets and letters. We met only a handful of times; we corresponded for some twenty years. His words increased in beauty, wisdom and light in a way that surprised him most: it could only, he was sure, be the Spirit at work through his weakening humanity. He died of stomach cancer, opting not to have expensive treatment but to end his life as he had lived it: in communion with the poorest of the poor. His voice still sings to me with richness, love and compassion from the pages of his letters.

When spirits are low, pain appears to rule and even the incarnated deity seems inattentive and distant, it is you, my friend, who are the tangible sign of God.

 


Another Way

 

With the possibility of Mother Teresa’s canonisation later this year, journalists and commentators throughout the world are poised "objectively" to assess the rights and wrongs of her life, of the process of canonisation in the Roman Catholic Church, and of her being made officially a saint. I know because a number of them have made contact with me.

Personally, I subscribe to the view expressed by Brother Andrew, co-founder with Mother Teresa of the Missionary Brothers of Charity, that: "Unless my life comes anywhere near hers in its effective concern for the poor and suffering, then I can only look very stupid in making my relatively petty negative points." Moreover it is the effectiveness of that concern which is for me the real miracle of her life, which truly bespeaks her sanctity. I will not go into the statistics here but the scope of what was achieved through one extraordinary only for her faith is breath taking. "Ye shall know them by their fruits" was a biblical text Mother Teresa regularly quoted and one on which I believe ultimately her case rests.

There are no doubt valid criticisms to be raised from the relative comfort of an office chair, but at the heart of many of them is the failure to comprehend the miracle that can occur when one human being touches, really touches another.

Mother Teresa believed in forgiving endlessly; she believed in the presence of the divine life in every human being; she believed that everyone should be given the opportunity to do good; and a lifetime of "living and diving into" poverty (as she used to advocate that those who really sought to comprehend should) had shown her that it was not something that could be fully understood by intellect alone. Only holding the hand of a dying destitute or the ravaged face of a leper teaches the unlimited, grace-filled value of that tiny, sometimes momentary gesture. Only entering into the life of the poor person teaches us our own inadequacy, our own brand of poverty, and so brings about communion and a very different, but somehow more hopeful and more joyous perspective.

There is a way that seeks to judge and to condemn, to diminish others in order to inflate our own sense of superiority, to resolve "issues", a way that demands a return on every investment and results at the end of every effort. And then there is another way...

8th March 2016

 

 

An ugly incident in a dreary police cell?

 

She was probably in her seventies, Afro-Caribbean, with watering eyes and a limp so pronounced that she could scarcely walk without her stick. She had been arrested for shoplifting, and I, as a Woman Police Constable, had been called to escort her to a cell and strip-search her. The rules on how the search should be conducted were very clear. Under no circumstances should I have let her keep her stick. Nor should I have helped her with the removal of her clothing. Rather I should have kept my distance and verbally required her systematically to strip. But my heart went out to this suffering grandmother alleged to have stolen a few groceries, and as she struggled to undo her shoes, I stooped to help her with her laces. The stick, she should never have been allowed to keep, cracked down upon my head and I saw stars.  In my surprise and pain I wrested the weapon from the old lady and found myself barking orders at her as we went through the remainder of one of the most undignified procedures to which one human being can subject another.

 

The next time I was required to strip-search someone I did it by the book. Never again did I suffer a physical assault but I did wonder about the injury to my humanity. The awareness that, for all my good intentions, at some level a change was occurring in me that I did not like became one factor in my leaving the police. I ran from my own inability to forgive.

 

Every Easter I marvel at the account of how Jesus chooses to lose his battle with the political and religious authorities of his day and, on the eve of his death, removes his outer clothing, thus making himself vulnerable, and kneels before each of his disciples in turn. Knowing they are about to betray, deny and abandon him, he nonetheless washes their feet. ’I have given you an example so that you can copy what I have done to you...’ The message is clear: ’Make yourself the least among those about you and, in the words of Mother Teresa, ’Forgive endlessly’.

 

It is all in the viewing. I can dwell upon the hurt the elderly shoplifter occasioned in me, resent the brutal injustice of her action and feel guilty about its effect, or, with greater maturity, I can see that, but for that feisty Afro-Caribbean lady, the washing of the feet would never have resonated so powerfully with me. Nor would I have changed career and been led to Mother Teresa and so many other extraordinary souls. Was our encounter an ugly incident in a dreary police cell or a luminous moment by which my life’s story was transfigured?

 

2nd April 2015

 

 

 

Seeing God in the darkness

 

An old man with flowing beard and hair, wearing the saffron robes of a sannyasi, sat cross-legged, silently gazing into the darkness of a cold mountain cave.

His earnest disciple waited patiently beside him. Many hours passed, during which the younger man felt the chilled darkness seep into his being and a growing sorrow. His heart longed for the sun rising over the waters of the Ganges that habitually brought joy to his meditations. Finally he could not resist speaking:

"Master, why are we here in the pitch darkness and not outside where the sunlight illuminates all creation, beside the waters that bring life and vigour to all things?"

"Can you not see?"

"I see nothing but the blackness of despair, the empty lifelessness of the void," replied the disciple.

"Then we shall sit here for a while longer."

Unable to detach his mind from his discomfort, the younger man began to while away the hours by running through the events of his life to date. Such was the darkness of his mood that he saw only the troubles, the suffering, the unreciprocated kindness, the painful injustices to which he had been subject, and all the good works he had performed which had apparently come to nothing.

As they sat, the cold of the cave intensified for winter was setting in, and the elderly sannyasi began to cough. Eventually it became apparent that he was close to death.

"Can you not see?" The sannyasi asked again.

"Can YOU not see the futility of sitting here?" The younger man protested.

"My son, look harder and with time you will see that nothing is futile. The cruel thing, the unfair thing may not be prevented. Yet still you are, and all is well."

With those words, the old man closed the eyes, which even in the cave had reflected the sparkle of the stars, and died. His younger companion wept then, as much because he recognized that the old man had sat in the dank darkness for the sake of his disciple’s illumination as for the loss of his beloved teacher.

But even as the tears flowed from his eyes, he felt the life assert itself within him. An unaccountable peace and warmth came upon him, and as he gazed into the darkness he saw an all-enveloping love.


19th February 2015

 

 

 

Finding the light


I have long been intrigued by the magi, those men from the east, where the daylight dawns, who had the insight, the vision, to spot in the darkness a previously unidentified star of exceptional luminosity. Having spotted it, they resolved to leave the security of what they knew and embark upon a journey into the unknown, drawn only by an intuition, a deep inner conviction, that the star was of extraordinary significance.

Their journey was long and arduous. There must have been times when their conviction was on the verge of being shattered, when wisdom appeared like utter folly. Perhaps it was important then that there was more than one of them (in fact an unspecified number), so that when one or another was overcome with weariness or a sense of the rational ridiculousness of what they were doing, there were others to carry those things with which they were heavily laden, and to reinforce the unaccountable sense of the rightness of their quest.

Apparently there were times when the star, which it would seem the magi believed to be the indication of a royal presence, was not so clearly visible. They were obliged to ask the location of the child born to be king of the Jews, of Herod, who was to meet what they revealed to him with violence.

And when finally they arrived where the star came to rest, they entered that humble place and found there a vulnerable child. In that helpless infant there were no obvious signs of royalty, power or the divine. Nonetheless the magi offered him gold, frankincense and myrh, gifts with which a king or deity was traditionally honoured. And having found the luminous object of their long search and clearly demonstrated their feilty to it, they left for their own country, in some way changed: "by another path".

In another Eastern tradition, the Sufi Mullah Nasruddin, who is sometimes the wise man and sometimes the fool, loses his keys inside the familiar security of his house. He knows very well where the light is and so persists in looking for them outside.

 

17th December 2014

 

 

Happy continuation! 

 

“I thirst”: in every form of human suffering Mother Teresa heard the words spoken by the crucified Christ. The vision which she held out to us was of Christ crying out for love in the broken bodies of the poor (whatever form that poverty might take) and of Christ simultaneously offering himself as spiritual sustenance in the broken bread of the Eucharist in order that that cry might not go without response. Deep in the hearts and bodies of humanity Christ was actual and real. In touching the poor she was touching Christ. Christ continued to suffer in Kolkata, New York, Paris and London. Christ continued to save there too, and Christ continued to rise to new life.

                                        

“See Christ in everyone you meet,” was Mother Teresa’s unrelenting directive, and the necessary condition of doing so was prayer: looking contemplatively. But what does it really mean to see Christ in those we encounter? Most obviously ideally it determines the quality of our approach to and relationship with others. But with the awakening of the years, for me the implications of Mother Teresa’s vision have grown.

 

The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses very different vocabulary. He talks, for example, about looking deeply (meditatively) into a sheet of paper which was there previously in the form of a tree, in the form of the sunshine, the form of a cloud, and the rain, in the form of minerals and the earth, all of which were necessary in order for that paper to become manifest. For Thich Nhat Hanh that piece of paper speaks: “I have come from the cosmos. I have been a tree. I have been a cloud. I have been sunshine and so on.” If one of these elements were to be returned to its origin, the sheet of paper would no longer be there. All these conditions lie in the paper.  If the sunshine were returned to the sun, there would be no sheet of paper. So it is that the sunshine is in the paper and when we touch the sheet of paper, we touch the sunshine, we touch the cloud, the rain, the earth, the whole of the cosmos. When we can be in touch with the paper in a state of awakened understanding, we are in touch with the whole of existence. The sheet of paper has no birthday and nor do we. We were not manifest without the satisfaction of numerous conditions, from nothing, independently of the inheritance that made up our ancestry. If we look with the eyes of a meditator, we will see those we meet and our own bodies as sacred homes of all that has gone before and the source of future generations. Thich Nath Hanh speaks of birthdays as “Continuation Days” and if it is true that a birthday is a continuation day then so too is the day of our death. “If your practice is strong, at the moment of dying you will sing a song of happy continuation.”

 

4th July 2014

 

 

The headmaster


The two-storey school building and deserted courtyard sparkled white in the Bengal mid-day sun. Suddenly from one of its entrances emerged a bespectacled figure, his kurta and pyjama also pristine white. With arms outstretched, he beamed from ear to ear and introduced himself as the headmaster. His pupils, he explained, had already gone home. With solicitous enthusiasm he ushered my two companions and me into a large, empty room at the far end of which stood a solitary desk and chair. Three additional chairs appeared without any apparent prompting and were placed in a row before the desk. Three glasses of lemonade made a similar mysterious appearance. Our generous host assumed his position on the other side of the desk, moved the paraphernalia on it about until it was apparently where he wanted it, polished his spectacles, rolled his eyes to the heavens, fixed me with an extraordinarily intense gaze, and began: The educational situation in Bengal was "most unsatisfactory".

At this point I made the mistake of venturing to suggest that I had always thought of Bengal as having a very high proportion of India’s poets and intellectuals. For the next forty minutes his dark brown eyes never shifted their focus from mine. Verbally he roamed purposefully from ancient Greece to the British Isles to the Bay of Bengal, taking in along his way Socrates, Jesus Christ, the Buddha, the Vedanta, Rabindranath Tagore, Shakespeare and Her Majesty the Queen. The unifying factor in this impressive monologue was love and duty and their expression. The room was humid. In the shadow of the headmaster’s desk insects were biting my bare ankles. Still subject to his unrelenting gaze, I tried surreptitiously to apply repellent to my legs and as I bent to do so, became aware that the room had silently filled up behind me with row upon row of chairs on which sat some one hundred schoolmasters. Startled, I turned to have a closer look, whereupon all, without exception, nodded and smiled.

The headmaster came to the climax of his speech: I and my companions had made a journey - an Odyssey no less - all the way from Europe to his school to see the work he and his staff were doing. What an act of love that was! Embarrassed by his effusiveness, my companions and I wondered what kind of response was expected of us. We need not have worried, for like something out of "Alice through the Looking Glass" the room had emptied of its nodding, smiling occupants as silently and swiftly as it had filled. We were once again alone with our host, who ushered us back to the school gates, pumped my hand and informed us: "I shall sleep happily tonight. I shall think of this day filled with love when I am in bed. What a gift!"


At the time it was all my companions and I could do to contain our nervous laughter at this surreal experience, but with the passage of the months I have come to realise that it was indeed a gift, for I never think about it without a chuckle, a raising of my spirits and a warm glow of affection for that kind and learned soul; and I think about it often.

30th May 2014

 


 


The nature of presence

 

With his shoulder-length hair, grey beard, flowing robes and fervent eyes, he had the air of the popular idea of an Old Testament prophet. The group of young people sat about him on the bare floor and listened as I had never seen them listen before. When I motioned to one to draw nearer because I sensed he could not hear the words, he gave me to understand that he did not need to. It was enough, he implied, just to be in this man’s presence: “It would not matter if he were reading a telephone directory.”

          There are some people who simply by their presence point to something greater than themselves, to the transcendent, the numinous. Unwittingly even in the briefest of encounters they convey a sense of beatitude. Mother Teresa was one such person. The man I am privileged to call my older Indian brother is another. The attention such people bring to the present moment and the person or persons they address is extraordinary. Not for them the token, half-listening interest of the social gathering with one eye roaming the room for someone potentially more interesting. In Mother Teresa’s case she saw the thirsting Christ in every human being and this in itself determined the quality of her attention. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh includes among his most important mantras “Darling, I am here for you.” Those who met Mother invariably came away with the conviction that, out of love, she had been totally there for them. The same is true of Dada, my Indian brother.

Yet paradoxically – or perhaps not so – it is the absence of the “I”, the “death” of the self, which makes the quality of this presence possible. Mother Teresa saw herself only as the imperfect instrument with which God was “writing his love letter to the world”. Her most painful “death” may well have been a sense of alienation from God in the dryness of prayer. Marthe Robin, the French stigmatist who spent more than fifty years paralysed and confined to bed, shared weekly in Christ’s crucifixion. With the passage of the years her physical presence was virtually obliterated. Yet the over 100,000 people who visited Marthe in the darkness of her remote farmhouse sickroom spoke of how in touch she was with the world and with them. “I will be going with you,” she would tell members of her communities leaving on missions and they had no doubt that she was indeed in some very real sense present to them.

My Indian brother has given his life to the poorest of the poor and shares daily and whole-heartedly in their suffering. So it is that when the students who have just visited the wonders of the subcontinent for the first time are asked what it is that has left the greatest impression on them, they mention not the Taj Mahal or the Golden Temple of Amritsar but Dada, the man whose presence to them became a temple in the truest sense.

28th February 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am always glad to receive comments on the contents of this website or any other aspects of my work.

                                                                    Kathryn Spink

 

                                          

 

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