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Love in Action

By Trisha Coder

After a 20-year friendship with Mother Teresa, and her death in 1997, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk was appointed postulator of the cause of beatification and canonization of Mother Teresa. While gathering testimonies in support of her sainthood, he discovered thousands of private letters she had written to her spiritual advisors. The letters reveal that the "Saint of Calcutta" experienced dark spiritual struggles and intense trials of faith.

Kolodiejchuk, a Catholic priest and the director of the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center, published her private writings in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. He spoke with Whitworth Today when he came to campus in spring 2019 to present on Mother Teresa's spiritual values in our commercial world.

Trisha Coder: Tell me a bit about your background and how you came to meet Mother Teresa.

Brian Kolodiejchuk: I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada. I was in the seminary in Toronto. I decided to leave when I was 21, after three years of philosophy and a bachelor's degree from St. Michael's College. The year before, in 1976, my sister joined Mother Teresa's Sisters. After one year she was in Rome, and my parents and I went from Winnipeg to see her. At that time, Mother Teresa was in Rome and she was beginning the first group of Contemplative Brothers. My parents and I would go in the morning for Mass and we'd go for afternoon prayer, and we would help in the home. So Mother Teresa knew that I was the brother of one of her Sisters.

TC: What were your first impressions of Mother Teresa?

BK: What struck me is how ordinary she was. She was very motherly. For example, we would go to the airport in New York to pick her up and then go back to the convent. The Sisters would serve us coffee, tea, cookies. We'd be waiting in the parlor and then in would come Mother Teresa with the tray and set out the plates. As simple and ordinary like it was nothing at all. People just wanted to see her once, touch her, and here she is serving us tea and biscuits like your grandmother.

TC: You compiled her letters and reflections in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. This was the first time that people got to see another side of her.

BK: No one, not even the Sisters closest to her, had any idea what was going on inside. We saw the ordinary, smiley, joyful Mother Teresa. She got up at 4:40 every morning, and sometimes she'd have meetings at 9:30 or 10 o'clock after night prayers. She would write letters until midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning, and then get up at 4:40 a.m. And no rest in the middle of the day, except the last years. You would think it wasn't easy being Mother Teresa because you're always "on," but at least she's enjoying this intimate union with Jesus, experiencing His presence. Then you find out the contrary.

TC: How did you come to discover her letters?

BK: In the church, when someone is a candidate for canonization or sainthood, there is a long, formal process to go through that person's life with a fine-toothed comb. You have to find negative witnesses, you have to see if there are any obstacles, from things no one would have known or have never brought to light. So there are oral witnesses, and then we look at documents. A priest who knew her for some years had her letters.

TC: How many of Mother Teresa's letters did you collect?

BK: Overall, we collected about 6,000 letters, and that's not everything. I remember reading in The New York Times that the two people who got the most letters in the world were Pope John Paul the Second and Mother Teresa. She used to carry around a box, like a shoebox, filled with letters, and at night was the only time she could answer, which is why she'd stay up so late.

TC: What was most surprising for you about Mother Teresa's letters?

BK: She was able to cover up her interior life by joy. She would say, "I want to be an apostle of joy." Another of her sayings was, "A heartbeat yes to God and a smile for all."

She didn't really have a peer group – her first followers were her students. In some ways, she was like a mother and they were like her children. And parents don't share those kinds of things with their children. If she had four or five peers, maybe it would have been different.

Normally all of us need some kind of support or some sense of consolation, you know, "I saw God, I felt His presence, He answered my prayer, He is with me." In Mother's case, as we discovered, not only did she not feel God's presence, but she felt rejected and abandoned and not wanted. Thankfully, even though she wanted her letters to be destroyed, the church saved them.

So now we understand that she was so united with Jesus that she could share in His deepest suffering in the garden, on the cross, that sense of abandonment. And she was living materially poor – she was in solidarity with all those who feel unloved, unwanted and uncared for. Now we understand that in Calcutta, and wherever she went, people would come to see her and they would sit down with her and God knows what horror stories they would tell her. She would console them, and she was able to speak to them from experience. To me, that's the single most heroic part of her life.

TC: What kind of reaction did your book generate?

BK: Some people were angry. "How can you do that? How can you publish those letters?" I'd say the book revealed something very important. Her [trials of faith] were not just her own private experience, but an integral part of living her vocation of being with the poorest of the poor.

I think people were surprised. A lot of people were like, "She was a nice old lady, she served the poor. It's wonderful. Let's applaud." But then you're like, "Well, wait a minute. She had a very deep spiritual life here and a real union with Jesus."  

Some were shocked. Well, everyone was shocked: "Now I understand something of the characteristics of her holiness, the depth of her spiritual life." The amazing thing is, she was such a public person, but in her lifetime, at least, she managed to keep her spiritual struggles private. 

TC: Is there a memory you carry with you that you'll never forget?

BK: I remember speaking with Mother one December. I was hesitating going back to the Brothers because I had a difficulty with the leader. I was wearing brown corduroy pants, and she said, "Look, I can't say that these pants aren't brown. They're brown. If it's true, it's true. There's a difficulty, but still, there's your place. If that's where God wants you, you go there no matter the difficulties." She was very realistic. Dealing with all kinds of people, she knew human nature very well. And yet, at the same time, having faith means to be realistic, but being realistic is to be hopeful. Maybe not human optimism, but hopeful.

TC: What do you think Mother Teresa's advice would be to those who want to help people in need?

BK: By serving, by helping, she would say that we receive more than we give. And the paradox is, like the gospel paradox, the ones who lose their life will gain it. When you're focused outward on serving, you receive. And that's the path to happiness. If I seek my own happiness, I'll never find it. But if I'm focused outward, on love of God and love of neighbor and serving the poorest, I will gain. That's why all the volunteers who come to Calcutta, wherever they are on the spiritual map, they always receive something because they're giving.

She would say to be generous in whatever help you can give. You will meet God in the people you serve, too. Put your love for God in living action. She liked that expression. Put love in living action!

A shortened version of this Q&A appears in the spring 2019 issue of Whitworth Today magazine.

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