Mother Teresa’s smile and the silence of happiness


Guest contributor Joaquin Navarro-Valls

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Rome | Just talking about Mother Teresa and the many memories I have of her is something I find profoundly moving, and slightly melancholic.

The slow, tired way she walked – especially towards the end of her life – and the way she moved her hands, which bore clear signs of the passing of the years, somehow expressed her extraordinary strength of mind – a set of personal qualities that became apparent as you listened to her words or looked at all the things she did.

There is one aspect of Mother Teresa that showed her real character more than any other, and that I saw in the many meetings I had with her: that innocent, childlike smile which lit up her time-worn face like a flame.

I first met her on a flight from India to the Philippines. Spotting an empty seat beside her, I went over and sat there. We talked at length, although at that point we didn’t know that we would often meet again in the future.

In 1986, during St John Paul II’s visit to Kolkata, we visited the place set up and organized by her spiritual daughters, the Missionaries of Charity, in Kalighat – two bare rooms holding some of the sick they had collected from the streets of Kolkata.

I asked her about the meaning of this superhuman undertaking, and she gave me an unforgettable reply. “It’s to try and ensure that people who have been treated worse than animals during their lives, can die like what they are, like God’s children; that is, having been washed, combed, and fed.” This statement, I feel, contains Teresa of Calcutta’s inner richness – her practical, humanitarian spirituality that could adapt to any situation and culture, with total self-dedication.

St John Paul II’s visit had great significance for Mother Teresa. Indeed, when she came to Rome in 1990 and we met in my office, the first thing we did was recall the Pope’s visit to Kalighat. Her immediate take on St John Paul II’s encounter with all those sick people, who died there in Mother Teresa’s arms, held a touch of humour: “Over the years, I managed to give an entrance ticket to St Peter’s Gate – Heaven – to more than 20,000 people.”

She looked over some of my photos of her with the Pope. Looking at one in particular, she glanced up at me and smiled, giving me to understand that she would like to keep it. I was struck by how happy it made her to take that souvenir away with her.

I met Mother Teresa again in 1993, during the Pope’s visit to Albania, and some months later we saw each other again in Rome. I remember asking her, without thinking, what she would say to a nun who wanted to leave her vocation. She said straight away, “I’d say, ‘Don’t be afraid – now you are with your Divine Spouse in his Passion, in the Garden of Olives… but keep going forward, and don’t give in!” I could never have imagined it at the time, but this may have been something she said to herself during her long years of spiritual aridity.

Perhaps those profound, meaningful words hold the key to her own spiritual situation, marked by bitter inner aridity, which she experienced for many years of her life and which has only become generally known comparatively recently.

It is a phenomenon well known to mystics down through the ages, when one’s feelings do not match the truths in which one believes, the truths which give meaning to one’s whole life. This desolate emotional silence even leads one to question the very thing for which one would willingly give one’s life. Angelus Silesius called it “the darkness of the soul”, and Mother Teresa said the same, in the poetic language we can all admire in the writings of St John of the Cross or St Therese of Lisieux – which she was very familiar with.

It is true that her religious conviction was not easy to understand, being far removed from banality and superficiality. Teresa of Calcutta knew very well that each person’s life experience goes through periods of difficulty, times of great aridity and deep desolation, but that all of this is not a sign of any lack of faith. Instead, it is the normal – and sometimes heroic – sacrifice one faces when one tries to live in a way that is totally, deeply consistent with one’s personal commitments and decisions, and not just those required by a specific religious vocation.

The extraordinary richness of a particular path in life is always marked by choice and by commitment to an ideal, defined in terms of a true, personal “duty to be” that is full of truth, to which, at a given moment, one decides to direct one’s whole life, come what may; and for which one is ready to sacrifice many other options, which may sometimes seem more pleasant and attractive.

The absence of a sense of certainty in living out a commitment is such an important element that it becomes a sort of ultimate test. This is why Leibniz said that it is not evil or suffering that really cause people to go into crisis, but the lack of them. Every worthwhile life choice includes the decision to be consistent for the whole of one’s life, to commit oneself to live for an ideal;  certainly not one inspired by any humdrum satisfaction, but by suffering meditated on in the depth of one’s being, and directed beyond the present, to what one wants to be forever.

Mother Teresa’s letters reflect all this. Should we conclude, then, that her smile, the smile I always saw on her face, was false – that her life choice was not what she wanted, and that her way of life was really hypocrisy? Absolutely not. I do believe, however, that Mother Teresa’s inner lament, the lament she addressed to the God whom her feelings refused to “feel”, can help each of us realize how harsh the path to genuine authenticity can sometimes be.

The canonization that Pope Francis will effect next Sunday 4th September includes a powerful lesson about life. It is the example of someone who followed an ideal – in her case, the ideal of charity, shown heroically in her self-giving to the outcasts of the world – and held on to it until death, in spite of not “feeling” anything. You could say that the inner battle that Saint Teresa of Calcutta waged with herself was another great act of mercy, for the benefit of thousands of poor and sick people throughout the world.


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