Peering into the Heart of a Saint
A new book recounts private conversations with Mother Teresa.
By: Karen Bussey
When Mother Teresa was alive, did you ever wish you could sit down and have a long talk with her? I certainly did. So did Renzo Allegri, an Italian journalist who heard about her work with the dying in 1971, when she was still relatively unknown. Right from the start, he was fascinated, and set his heart on talking with her at length.
I wanted . . . to win her trust, to get insights about her life and her extraordinary work, and to understand the feelings and emotions she experienced while living a life among the outcasts of humanity. In brief, I wanted to look into the heart and soul of this woman who was a saint in my eyes.
Allegri’s “impertinent desire” was realized only after many years, and we are the richer for it. The result— Conversations with Mother Teresa—is indeed, as the book’s subtitle puts it, a “personal portrait” that adds many insights and human details to what we already know about this astonishing woman. It is not a biography but the record of a “precious friendship” that developed through many leisurely talks. And because Allegri puts Mother Teresa’s words in context, describing what he sees and feels as she speaks, we glimpse the gentle interactions of the journalist and the saint and feel that we are really sitting in on their conversation.
Hidden Stories. Mother Teresa was notoriously reticent to speak about herself and deflected Allegri’s fi rst question in her usual way: “There is nothing to tell about myself. Jesus loves the poor. We need to talk about them, not about me.”
It’s a good thing Allegri was persistent. Or perhaps, as he thinks, Mother Teresa opened up to him out of compassion and tenderness when she saw that, at first, he was tongue-tied and intimidated in her presence. In any case, as the book shows, their conversation soon flowed easily into many subjects—prayer, miracles, the Miraculous Medal, death, and the Assumption, as well as reflections on Mother Teresa’s family, vocation, and Missionaries of Charity.
One thing Mother Teresa did not mention was the “dark night of the soul” she was enduring. Allegri was as surprised as anyone else when her letters and diary entries about this lengthy ordeal were published. He had assumed that anyone so joyful and passionate about Jesus would be having visions and supernatural encounters—“similar to what we read about in the biographies of the saints.” That her heart was “dry as a desert” only heightens his appreciation of her heroic love of God.
When God Calls. I was especially interested in the chapter, “The Mystery of a Vocation,” which probes the spiritual paths by which a young girl in Albania came to become a universally known icon of selfless service. To us, she was always “Mother Teresa,” says Allegri. But in reality, she grew into her spiritual identity, her vocation “revealed slowly and through a rather complex path.”
A vocation “begins at the very first instant of life,” Mother Teresa told Allegri, and then unfolds and becomes clear over time through a person’s inner dialogue with God. She heard her “initial call” when she was twelve, she said. But it took six years of hidden struggle and growth before she took the step of leaving home to become a missionary sister in India. And only at the age of thirty-six did she come to understand “the essence of my vocation at its core.”
Many of us have heard the remarkable story of how this happened: during a night train ride in September 1946, when she heard Jesus’ call to leave her convent and go out into Calcutta’s slums. Not everyone has those dramatic moments, though, so it’s encouraging to learn that, for the most part, Mother Teresa’s vocation unfolded like most people’s—quietly, naturally, over time, and with many twists and turns
One of Us. As I read Conversations with Mother Teresa, I recalled how her example gave me courage back in 1997, when I took my own step of faith into the unknown. That year, I left my job as a hospice social worker in order to open a home for the dying—a place where people in the greatest need could be cared for in the love of Christ. As it happened, this little mission began within days of her death on September 5, and so it is “Mother Teresa House.” Many volunteers have joined me in offering free service to the dying, and for all of us, Mother Teresa remains a beacon example.
I have to admit, however, that it was not easy for me to relate to Mother Teresa’s saintly life of extreme poverty and hardship. And I found some of her sayings—such as, “You must love until it hurts”— unreachable for me at first.
But as Conversations with Mother Teresa makes clear, this woman, too, had to grow in her calling to the poorest of the poor. She had to discern what God was and was not asking of her, just as I did. And she had normal feelings about leaving a loved, familiar life to pursue a call that few others understood.
When the door of the convent closed behind me on August 16, 1948, and I found myself alone on the streets of Calcutta, I felt a deep sense of loss and almost fear that was difficult to overcome.
Yes, Mother Teresa also felt God’s presence and guidance—“otherwise, I could not have endured the ordeal.” But how encouraging to hear her say that “the transition was very difficult”! For all of us who find it hard to leave our comfortable habits in order to serve others—even in small ways— here is encouragement that God will transform us as we persevere.
Joining the Conversation. Conversations with Mother Teresa appeared in Italian last year, on the hundredth anniversary of her birth. To have it now in English, in an adept translation that captures the artistry of Renzo Allegri’s writing, brings Mother Teresa close to us, as he hoped it would:
Mother Teresa is . . . more alive than when she was on this earth, . . . always close to people who think about her. I sincerely hope that whoever has the kindness to read these pages will experience her constant presence through her words.
For anyone who wants to meet Mother Teresa in a deeper way, this book is a gift. Sit down with it, and you will find encouragement and inspiration in her kind company
Karen Bussey directs Mother Teresa House, a home in Lansing, Michigan, for people with terminal illnesses.
Conversations with Mother Teresa, Renzo Allegri, (softcover, 200 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us, along with excerpts, at our website.