It’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of a royal warrant, we decided over lunch. That’s what it is like to find oneself “by appointment” to the Missionaries of Charity. It’s such an honour for the person supplying the goods – or, in this case, giving them retreats. They have a great hunger for spiritual and theological nourishment.
Fr Thomas, an American Oblate of Mary Immaculate, an order whose charism is to give Ignatian retreats, is directing one group of Sisters and I am directing another, all squeezed into their house in Southall. He and I meet each day for lunch. (The Sisters are, of course, in silence for eight days.) We share our stories of how we first came to work with the Sisters, and how, like holy sirens, once you hear them calling you can’t really sail by. You know their insistence is for the good of the Church.
Fr Thomas tells me how he met Mother Teresa many times, and spoke of the shock that everyone experienced when, after her death, her inner darkness was revealed. “She was always full of joy,” he says, “her eyes just shone with joy.” Her darkness is indeed hard to understand, though as St Denis, the father of mystical theology, says: “The way towards the summit of the mountain lies obscured in cloud.”
We are not speaking of a kind of psychological darkness or depression, but of the darkness of a very deep faith, of a mystical death in which one’s true life is hidden with Christ in God, and one may draw life from this knowledge, even if there is no sensible consolation associated with it. This darkness is an absence which only love can bear.
We are working with groups of Sisters from a region that includes Britain, Ireland and Iceland. There are Missionaries of Charity all over the world. The regional superior points out they have missions in Syria – in Aleppo and Damascus – as well as Baghdad and Tripoli. “We have to prepare our Sisters for martyrdom,” she says matter-of-factly.
This is no pious affectation. Four Sisters were killed in Africa around the millennium. Three were murdered in the Yemen in 1998. They retain a mission there. It is, the Sister explains, easy to carry on when they are with a community of local people. They concentrate not on the politics of the region, but on being in solidarity with the people they serve.
The eight-day retreat is part of month-long programme of renewal, a time for these young women to withdraw from their active apostolate to find the nourishment they need to recognise Jesus in His “distressing guise” of the poorest of the poor. It is very easy to romanticise their life and work. In reality, both are extremely tough. In England, much of their work is done with homeless men. These tend to be addicts or mentally ill, and many are threatening and far from easy to deal with.
In fact, the Sisters’ regimen of prayer during the average working day is already considerable. They begin every day with an hour of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. But on retreat they will happily spend many hours in prayer and Adoration. Trying to direct the Sisters’ meditations, therefore, is rather like trying to fly a kite. The only skill is pointing it into the breeze to launch it. All I do is suggest Scripture passages to them and they take flight. I pay out the string and only intervene if they start to lose height.
The way in which the Word of God can speak to their depths, because they are so prayerful, is such an object lesson. We know by faith that our hearts are touched by Scripture. Scripture itself assures us that the word of God never returns without accomplishing what it was sent to do. But with women full of prayer like this, the Scripture also works on deep psychological wounds. In the course of eight days one can see such growth and change wrought by poring over the word of God, confirming that it is something alive and active and can slip through the place where the joint is divided from the marrow.
In another kind of religious life, there would be trips to the psychologist and prolonged psychological introspection. Here the word of God, with its surgical precision, is what they trust in, and the healing balm of the Real Presence.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (15/5/15).
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