December 1993By Luis Gamez
Luis R. Gamez writes from Hamilton, Ohio
Seeking the Heart of God: Reflections on Prayer. By Mother Teresa and Brother Roger. HarperCollins. 100 pages. $12.
Mother Teresa: A Life in Pictures. By Roger Royle. HarperCollins. 159 pages. $18.
Brother Roger is the founder of the Taizé Community in Burgundy, famed for its work among the poor, its innovative liturgical music, and its hospitality to youth from all over the world. Mother Teresa is to many already a saint by popular acclamation. Seeking the Heart of God, their third collaboration, reveals a rich spirituality.
The book is laid out in 12 short chapters, each of which focuses on some aspect of prayer; Mother Teresa and Brother Roger write half of each, presenting separate reflections that manage to refer to each other at crucial points. Their voices are distinct but complementary think of two vines winding their way up a trellis, one clockwise and the other counter, touching occasionally, a graceful double helix as they aspire toward the same goal while supported by a common base.
Brother Roger's voice evokes more of a sense of dialogue with the reader than Mother Teresa's soliloquies; his language employs more external points of reference to missionary work and liturgy, while Mother Teresa's continually probes the interior heart, her reflections creating a fluid rhapsody, frequently slipping from discourse to prayer and back to discourse again. Mother Teresa, no stranger to action, stresses a contemplative oneness with Christ while Brother Roger, no stranger to prayer, brings in social action, focusing our attention on the "human solidarities" that "need to be nourished at the sources of faith, in an inner life."
One theme that both authors return to throughout is the problem of spiritual aridity. They do a lovely job of applying the intercessory hyperentynchanei of Romans 8:26 to the practical difficulties of emptiness. Brother Roger says, "Paul wrote, We do not know how to pray .' And he added: but the Holy Spirit comes to help our weakness and prays within us.' Your heart can scarcely image it, but His Spirit is constantly active within you . No matter how little we sense of the Holy Spirit, He is Life for us." Brother Roger's reflections lead us to contemplate the mystery of the Presence, "even when there is no apparent resonance." Mother Teresa's modest formulation is most moving: "When times come when we can't pray, it is very simple: if Jesus is in my heart, let Him pray, let Him talk to the Father in the silence of my heart. Since I cannot speak, He will speak; since I cannot pray, He will pray." Later she expands this concept to incorporate our communion with the Church: "we all belong to the mystical body of Christ, which is praying always. There is no such thing as I pray,' but the Body of Christ prays." Through the mystical community of prayer we can together heal the "spiritual deserts" which cover the contemporary world.
Indeed, when I consider the vibrant wedding of contemplation and social action in this book, along with the profound communitarian witness of Brother Roger and Mother Teresa, I locate a deep consonance with the social vision of Christian personalism, a tradition with roots in the writings of Emmanuel Mounier and Jacques Maritain. Personalist praxis requires radical change of heart, a metanoia, which begins in deepened Christian reflectiveness and radiates outward. Those of us who seek to rethink and rework society to reflect the transcendent dignity of the human person can do no better than to begin to deepen our awareness here, with a lectio, meditatio, and oratio founded on this slim volume.
Mother Teresa: A Life in Pictures is a tasteful, handsomely produced hagioromance that holds no surprises. The first third of the book consists of Roger Royle's brief sketch of milestones in the career of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu her childhood as part of an Albanian family in the Serbian town of Skopje; her vocation to become a nun, which took her first to Dublin and then to India; the Great Bengali Famine and the Direct Action Day riots in Calcutta; her famous "call within a call" (in 1946 while on a train to Darjeeling) to serve God among the poorest of the poor; the founding of the Missionaries of Charity and their ministry to the dying, the lepers, and the children of Calcutta; the international expansion of her work and subsequent torrent of awards, media interviews, and honorary doctorates, capped with the Nobel Peace Prize. Though there are one or two lapses how could Ian Travers-Ball have been a Jesuit priest when he arrived in India in 1954, and yet have been ordained in 1963? the whole nonetheless satisfies as narrative.
The remaining 100 pages present an engaging blend of archival and recent photographs. The photos of the Sisters of Charity's street work are particularly bracing in their gritty, no-Sound-of-Music-nuns-need-apply immediacy. The book ends, inevitably, with Mother Teresa the Global Celebrity and the requisite Who's Who photo album: the Nobel Committee, Archbishop Tutu, Ted Kennedy, Indira Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, Yasser Arafat, John Paul II, Princess Diana, John Cardinal O'Connor, and so on with Mother Teresa smiling, smiling, smiling, in all but one.
That one, for me the most arresting photo in the book, shows Mother Teresa taking Archbishop of Canterbury A.K. Runcie on a tour through the Shishu Bhavan nursery. Mother Teresa lacks her signature broad smile; she wears thick glasses and, with intense and reverent concentration, gazes on the infant she lifts from its crib. To see this photo is to witness Thomas's expression when, fingering wounds, he whispered, "My Lord and my God." The camera allows us palpably to share Mother Teresa's personalism through that gaze, showing us that to her that child is Christ, is in fact (as Maritain writes) already a whole universe. For Mother Teresa, tending to an unwanted child is a sacramental act.