Mother Teresa’s Spirituality of Suffering for Ordinary Folks

By embracing Mother Teresa’s spirituality of suffering, we may bear our earthly trials a little bit easier, not to mention draw nearer to the goal of eternal salvation.


SUFFERING SAINT. Blessed Mother Teresa at the Basilica of St. Sebastian in Rome. Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA


Suffering was Mother Teresa’s companion, her clandestine treasure and her sweet link to Jesus. In her eyes, it was even, at times, a mark of God’s favor.

But is it for us? Should it be?

Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize, founded one of the most austere religious orders in the world and picked up more than 60,000 dying people off the streets of Calcutta. Most of us aren’t called to such a lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean we can’t heed her words of hope amid suffering.

By embracing Mother Teresa’s spirituality of suffering, we may bear our earthly trials a little bit easier, not to mention draw nearer to the goal of eternal salvation.

“Based on what Mother Teresa herself wrote of suffering, it seems to me that she found her own sufferings, physical and spiritual, to be moments of grace,” Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck, N.D., told the Register. “She found in her sufferings just how much the Lord truly loved her; she often referred to these times in her life as the moments of the light of love, purifying her of her doubts and her little lessons of trust in God and not herself.”

“As she worked tirelessly to serve the suffering and dying, she would say so often that what was most important was that all who suffered should see Jesus in her,” he added.

We can’t avoid suffering, so we should deal with it in the proper perspective. As Blessed Teresa once said, “Suffering will never be completely absent from our lives. So don’t be afraid of suffering. Your suffering is a great means of love, if you make use of it, especially if you offer it for peace in the world. Suffering in and of itself is useless, but suffering that is shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift and a sign of love.”

We have to learn to see suffering as coming from an incredibly generous God.

“Perhaps the most difficult thing for any of us to recognize in our own sufferings, be they spiritual or physical, is God’s will for us right at that time,” Bishop Kagan continued. “We naturally ask in something of a complaining way: ‘Why me?’ ‘Why now?’ A better way to face our sufferings is maybe to ask: ‘Why not me?’ and ‘Why not now?’”

In light of this, what is the trick to mastering the right attitude? Prayer.

“What I have found personally consoling in the times I have had to accept sufferings of various kinds in my own life are two very powerful invocations: ‘Lord Jesus, crucified, have mercy on me a sinner’; and the beautiful: ‘Jesus, I trust in you’ from the Divine Mercy devotion,” Bishop Kagan shared. “I suggest that these two invocations be prayed over and over during one’s sufferings or times of trial; and the great grace of the Lord’s peace will be received. In the end, God never tests us beyond our capacities. If we faithfully persevere, we save our lives for eternity, and the good example we offer to others, as did Mother Teresa, is priceless. God is then glorified through us.” 

And, according to Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle, author, speaker and EWTN TV host, who had a personal friendship with Mother Teresa, embracing suffering can be redemptive.

O’Boyle recalled the comfort of Mother Teresa’s wisdom “during a time of intense suffering and uncertainty.”

“My mentor and beautiful spiritual mother, Mother Teresa, expressed something profound about suffering, free will, acceptance and redemption in a letter to me,” remembered O’Boyle, whose book The Kiss of Jesus: How Mother Teresa and the Saints Helped Me to Discover the Beauty of the Cross (Ignatius Press, 2015) relates this. “She said, ‘I am sorry to hear of the suffering you have to undergo. Jesus loves you, and though he is the Lord of all, he cannot interfere with the gift of free will he has given to man. Jesus shares his love with you and shares his suffering and pain. He is a God of love and does not want his children to suffer, but when you accept your pain, it becomes redemptive for yourself and for others.’”

Through their 10 years of friendship, Mother Teresa continued to help O’Boyle understand the wonder of suffering along with Jesus.

“I’ll never forget when Mother Teresa told me something quite mind-blowing in a letter. She knew of my struggles and pain and reassured me, ‘If we pray, it will be easy to accept suffering. In all our lives, suffering has to come. Suffering is sharing in the passion of Christ. Suffering is the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.’ That is precisely why I titled my memoir The Kiss of Jesus.”

In daily life, where does this “kiss of Jesus” come into play? And how do we know if we are accepting suffering that doesn’t need to be accepted? Meghan Cokeley, director of the Office for the New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, had an interesting experience when she spent a summer working with the Missionaries of Charity Sisters that sheds some light on this question.

“In the past, my view of suffering has not always been the healthiest. For a long time, I thought that holiness meant only to suffer, even if I was very unhappy. A beautiful light about this came to me during a conversation with a Missionary of Charity sister while washing. She was telling me about a young woman who was a postulant in their community. After some time, they told her she was not called to be a Missionary of Charity. I asked the sister, ‘How did you know that it wasn’t God’s will for her to be a Missionary of Charity?’ She replied simply, ‘Because she wasn’t happy.’”

At the time of this conversation, Cokeley was discerning her vocation in life, and she found what the sister said helpful.

“In this short word, the charism of Mother Teresa was shining through,” Cokeley said. “What I learned that day was that God’s will is what brings us joy — always joy! — and the true cross will always bring joy, not misery and sadness. Mother Teresa was granted a special sharing in the agony of Jesus, and while most of us may not be called into that level of suffering love, one thing we know for certain is that Jesus would like all of us to experience with him the mysteries of his earthly life: his hidden life at Nazareth, his transfiguration, his miracles and healings, his passion and his resurrection. This is a gift to which we are all called by virtue of our baptism.”

“Many of our sufferings are not life-altering or life-threatening, but that does not make them any easier for us,” added Bishop Kagan. “However, what can transform our sufferings from inconveniences and distractions is to look at them and compare them to what Jesus willingly suffered for us. That is not a pious thought; the sufferings of Jesus for each of us were utterly terrible. He did not relish those terrible tortures, but he did offer them and himself to the Father: ‘Not my will but thine be done.’”

Amanda Evinger writes from Bismarck, North Dakota.


Getting to Know Divine Grace: My Years With Mother Teresa’s Sisters

As I knocked on the thick, steel door of Queen of Peace Emergency Shelter in Indianapolis in 2005, I was torn by mixed feelings. I knew that once I walked into those doors yet again, I would see great suffering, and I would be called upon to ease it. Some days I was up for the feat, and some days I was not. I knew that when I opened the doors, I’d be surrounded by smells of homeless women, and I would probably wind up witnessing things like drug paraphernalia in mother’s purses, pregnant women with AIDS, baby diapers that hadn’t been changed for a couple of days, and prostitutes who had absolutely nowhere on this earth to rest their weary heads.

But I also knew I would see beautiful things like the shimmering smiles of Mother Teresa’s sisters, well-worn Bibles from hurt women who were trying so hard to change and non-Catholic shelter residents sporting rosaries around their necks with a pride that would put most Catholics to shame.

And so I went in, smiled at everyone who came across my path, headed for my miniscule “housemother” room and went to bed early. I was going to be up at 5:45am for prayer.

I went to work as a live-in volunteer for the Missionaries of Charity in Harlem, N.Y., merely weeks after I joined the Catholic Church in 2001. I was only 21, and God only knows where I mustered the courage to hop on a Greyhound bus and pull such a stunt — especially since family members were totally pitched against it. As an enthusiastic yet sorely recent convert from Calvinism, the traditional religious practices of the Missionaries of Charity both haunted and astounded me. And as an upper-middle-class kid with plenty of higher education, living in a shelter was not exactly my style.

Yet, looking back, I can honestly say that the nearly three years I spent with the sisters were fabulous. Jesus crucified was so near to my heart. His passion to rescue souls from darkness and hearts from distress became a living desire of my very own. God’s grace sailed me through times of sacrifice and suffering in ways beyond my most creative dreams.

During those years, I learned many things about suffering. From the sisters, I learned that suffering and joy go quaintly hand in hand — when Jesus is in the picture, that is.

I learned that Christ’s thirst is as real as the ground we walk on. As we visited women in prison who were in “lockdown,” I saw him, and I felt his relentless thirst to love the spiritually and physically poor. I saw his face in their desperate gazes. As I ate leftover “soup” with lettuce floating on top and bathed myself with detergent, I came to know him in his poverty. As I watched the sisters make sacrifice after sacrifice, I felt such peace, and I knew I had been let in on one of the most marvelous secrets known to man: the secret freedom that comes from taking Mother Teresa’s spirituality of suffering to heart.

     — Amanda Evinger