In honor of Mother Teresa being officially declared a saint, we’re posting a chapter from The Irresistible Revolution about my time in India working alongside her and the sisters.
In Search of a Christian
I wondered what it would look like if we decided to really follow Jesus. In fact, I wasn’t exactly sure what a fully devoted Christian looked like, or if the world had even seen one in the last few centuries. From my desk at college, it looked like some time back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it. The hilarious words of nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard resonated in my thirsty soul:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
I knew we were not going to win the masses to Christianity until we began to live it. So I went on a quest. I went looking for a Christian. I looked around hoping to find someone else who might be asking, What if Jesus meant the stuff he said? And I kept coming across dead people—the desert fathers and mothers of the fifth century, Francis and Clare of Assisi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero (and it was hard to miss that these dead people might have lived a little longer had it not been for reading this little Book). And then there was Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, sassy contemporary radicals. Rumor has it that the only time Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa met was in Philly. And rumor also has it that Mother Teresa attended our beloved parish at Sacred Heart in Camden when she was in town. Dorothy Day was an activist and a communist, a mother and a journalist, who converted to Christianity. As a Christian, she courageously spoke out against the roots of oppression, war, and poverty, and steered the Catholic Worker movement through the1900s, a renewal which has given birth to dozens of hospitality houses scattered around the world. Unfortunately for my hunt, she died a few years back in 1980. Mother Teresa, on the other hand, was still alive. She seemed to be giving the gospel a pretty good shot and probably wouldn’t be around too much longer. So my friend Brooke, with whom I had been dreaming since before St. Edward’s, and Idecided to write her a letter. “Dear Mother Teresa, we don’t know if you give internships out there in Calcutta, but we would love to come check things out.” We shared with her the story of St. Ed’s and our newly born vision of church, as all our friends stood by hooting and hollering, “You are writing who?!” And then we waited. And waited.
I am not the most patient person, so after a few weeks, I got a little fidgety. With summer approaching, I decided to just start calling nuns to see if any of them knew how to get ahold of Momma T. Some told me to write her again. Others wondered if it was a prank call. But finally I ended up talking to a precious nun in the Bronx. She told me, quite amused (I think she felt sorry for me), that she would let me talk to “Mother Superior” there in the Bronx. Feeling pretty good about talking to anyone with “superior” in their name, I got ready. Mother Superior picked up the line and we talked. She told me I needed to write a letter to Mother Teresa. I told her I had. She told me I needed to wait. I told her I had. Then she said she would give me a number for Calcutta, and I was not to give it out (darn telemarketers). So I got the digits for Mother Teresa.
I did some homework and found out that I needed to call at 2 a.m. and that the call would cost four dollars a minute. (So I resolved to talk fast, not easy for a Tennessee boy.) I was calling from our dorm lounge, on a pay phone. Pay phones were what we used to call people on in the 1900s. You put quarters in them. Crazy, huh? So this call took a lot of quarters. With my friend Brooke standing beside me, both of us praying someone would answer, we called at 2 a.m. from the pay phone in our college lounge.
It began ringing. I was expecting to hear a formal greeting: “Missionaries of Charity, how can we help you?” Nope. I just heard an old raspy voice on the other end mutter, “Hullo.” Thinking I had the wrong number in Calcutta with the tab rolling at four dollars a minute, I started railing: “Hi-I’m-calling-from-the-USA-trying-to-reach-Mother-Teresa-or-the- Missionaries-of-Charity—I’m-wanting-to-visit.” On the other end, I heard the muffled voice say, “This is the Missionaries of Charity. This is Mother Teresa.” My initial reaction was, “Yeah right, and I’m the pope.” But I held back. I told her we had written and wanted to come work with her. She asked how long we wanted to stay, and I told her we would like to spend the summer, about two to three months. “That’s a long time, ” she said, and I shot back, “Or two to three weeks, or two to three days . . .” Heck, two to three hours seemed nice. She said, “No, come for the summer. Come.” Come? Where would we eat and sleep? So I asked her, “Mother Teresa, where would we eat and sleep?” She didn’t worry a lot about that. She said, “God takes care of the lilies and the sparrows, and God will take care of you. Just come.” Who am I to argue with that? I thanked her, and we hung up.
Continue reading here. Republished with permission from Harper Collins.