20 Years Ago, Mother Teresa Went Home to God

On Sept. 5, 2017, the Church celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mother Teresa's death.

(photo: Image credit: Robert Pérez Palou, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though it's been about 15 years, I still remember Amber vividly. I wish I still had the letter she wrote to me. It was in scribbled handwriting with a desperate sort of slant, and written with a cheap pen that she had permission to keep in her cell. I'm not sure how well Amber remembers me – to her I was probably just one of the “Sisters” that she turned to for a touch of hope in her miserable state of life. She was ravaged by the cross of severe manic-depression; she lived in an emotional cage of fury, winding darkness and terror. I believe her mother was in prison too, and her father had abandoned her. Because of some delinquent, dangerous behavior, she had been locked not only in a women's prison for a number of years, but she had also been put into their “lock-down” section. This meant she had to deal with no prison life privileges, no time for recreation, no getting out for a walk after meals, and all kinds of other punishments.

I remember standing there week after week, peering into her cell, trying to say something to console her in the midst of her twisted agony. I longed to bring her even just a glimpse of Christ's mercy. I could feel the cry of her poverty gnawing at me as I spent time with her – it was so raw and biting – it was a true encounter with the thirst of Christ Crucified. The lack of fresh air in the lock-down section made me nauseated, and my nerves were extremely edgy at this point in my life. When I felt weak, I would lean on the spirit of Mother Teresa, and everything seemed to turn out alright.

Now, when I look back, I realize that if it weren't for this ethereal saint of Calcutta, I probably never would have even visited prisoners like Amber. After all, it was she who liked to say, as she counted on her fingertips, “This is the Gospel on five fingers: You Did It to Me.”

Canonized saints have a way of getting us to do phenomenal things; things we wouldn't get ourselves to do if a bazooka were held to our heads. And Mother Teresa was most definitely such a saint. She didn't have a luminous aura about her (although some people say her smile was absolutely radiant), or an irresistible sort of charismatic personality. She was super short, pretty ugly (pardon my frankness, Mother!), a little cranky at times (or so one of her sisters told me), and had mangled toes. On a sensible level, she would have gotten a D+. She only had an “average Joe” education, so that would have left her with a C- with the intellectual crowd. And she couldn't bilocate or offer Holy Mass with bandages on her stigmatized hands, so to the spiritual people, she wasn't that exciting either.

But she had one thing that was capable of sweeping a good part of the world into the embrace of God on high – she had a diehard love for Jesus Christ. She was serious as a heart attack about him, and everybody around her knew it. “Jesus is my God, Jesus is my spouse, Jesus is my life, Jesus is my all in all, Jesus is everything to me, and without Him, I can do nothing,” was one of her dearest prayers, and she meant it.          

I am astounded by Mother Teresa not only because she was, hands-down, an ageless icon of charity who actually deserved the Nobel Peace prize for totally selfless service. I am also amazed by her simply because she believed in the love of God and the companionship of the Blessed Mother. She founded her life on her friendship with them. She taught everyone she could to pray, “Jesus in my heart, I believe in your tender love for me. I love you.”

Once, when I was crushed by all that life had thrown at me, one of her sisters said to me, “A thousand times a day, pray, 'I am a precious and beautiful child of God.'” Her remark made a sweeping impression on me. It reminded me that in the midst of life's splintery crosses, we must always remember whose child we are. And this is what Mother believed in doing – she believed in showing others, time and time again, that they belong to a God of inestimable mercy and power. They don't belong to a father who creates them and tosses them to the wind; they belong to a Creator who guards them in the palm of his hand, wounded from the death he bore for them.

One of Mother Teresa's favorite Scriptures to share with others was, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you; your walls are ever before me.”

On Sept. 5, the Church celebrates the 20th anniversary of Mother's going home to God. Her meek voice made such an impact on our world and on our hearts. Twenty years later, are we still listening to it? Are we letting her example live on in our souls?

As we honor her memory, we can think of all those “Ambers” in our life that may need to hear, just one more time, to whom they belong.

Please, Mother, be with us as we open our hearts to the lost and broken among us – those in our homes who need a smile, those down the street who could use a rosary, those suffering from natural disaster who could use the money we could have spent on things we don't really need. Let us pray along with you, “Of my free will, dear Jesus, I shall follow You wherever You shall go, in search of souls, at any cost to myself, and out of pure love of you.”