Mother Theresa would have been 101 years old this year.
I learnt that whilst walking through the supermarket, from the cover of Time magazine. It was so refreshing to see her face smiling at me from the shelf. So many lines carved out by a life richly lived. Eyes that seem to have invented the twinkle. I read this birthday special edition dedicated to her life, cover-to-cover in one sitting.
This morning I was reading it again, sipping my tea and thinking about this post. And as if the yogi teabag could read my mind, it’s label announced, ‘Let love elevate you to excellence’.
It’s probably what most people think of when they remember Mother Theresa. Her huge capacity to love. And the excellent work she did in the world because of it. What else makes it possible to work day after day caring for the poorest of the poor, creating 517 missions all over the world?
However, Time Magazine also revealed something that I didn’t know about this saintly nun. Something that changed how I see her, in a radical way. She was already one of my heroines, this took my admiration to a new level.
She spent her life of service unable to feel the presence of God.
This woman who gave and gave of herself didn’t have some kind of deal going on with the big guy?? Apparently not. I was amazed to read her letters to her superiors – telling of a day-to-day loneliness, feelings of abandonment, a deep sense of loss.
When I read this about Teresa, I felt so much closer to her. She became more human. Not less saintly, just more human. It also reminded me of one of the darkest times in my life - when my own sense of connection fell away. And keeping faith felt almost impossible. Actually I’m still in the process of putting it back together.
It began when I was helping to run a yoga school a couple of years ago. I lived in a little concrete room, with a straw mattress and a swarm of mosquitos to keep me company. I poured all my waking hours into that school. There was a constant stream of students to help, floors to sweep, classes to teach, lectures to prepare, accounts to balance…
Life was a grind, and yet, it felt blooming brilliant. Effortless. Like I was being blown about the place by a huge, invisible fan. I saw the work as a way to live out my faith in the mystery that is ‘God’. It seemed to make even sweeping floors feel mystical.
And then the bubble popped. After going like a steam train for five months, I was knocked flat on my back for weeks. Things didn’t feel so blissful anymore. I couldn’t even move my body. But worse than that, someone had turned off the God fan! The flow of divine amrita stopped. And I felt emptier than a fuel tank on empty.
Reading Mother Theresa’s letters helped me to understand what happened.
In the past, when I heard the word ‘Saint’, I imagined someone who never feels the negative emotions I feel. Someone who has an intravenous tap from God. Teresa has changed my mind about that. I don’t think her saintliness came from some kind of secret deal with God. I think she was a saint because she felt as hopeless and abandoned as most of us have felt, she continued to serve through her loneliness. And her faith never went walkabout.
So thank you Mother Theresa, for your incredible faith. It’s bringing me back to my own. And happy birthday! I hope you’re having the party you deserve.