Peggy Noonan on Mother Teresa

I’m a pretty big Peggy Noonan fan.  I have been since she produced a series of truly extraordinary columns that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in the weeks and months following the 9/11/01 attacks (like this one, for example).  So I’ve paid fairly close attention to her work since then.

Her most recent column features a run-down of the books she read during 2008.  (She seems to share the same quirky habit I have — keeping a running list of books read.)  One of them, and the one she spends the most time on in the column, is Fr. Joseph Langford’s Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire,  published this fall by OSV Books (which is, by the way, running a free shipping sale right now).  

Fr. Langford’s book is on my wish list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.  Noonan’s column has whetted my appetite a bit more.  After going through a series of interesting books that were on her reading list this year, Noonan writes:

None of these books were more important in the end than a modest and unheralded book called “Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire” by Joseph Langford, a priest of her Missionaries of Charity and her close friend of many years. You wouldn’t think there’s much new to say here, but there is. Everyone knows that as a young nun in Calcutta, Mother Teresa, then Sister Teresa, left her convent, with only five rupees in her pocket, in order to work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of the city. But what made her do this?

On Sept. 10, 1946, on a train to Darjeeling, on her way to a spiritual retreat, she had, as Father Langford puts it, “an overwhelming experience of God.” This is known. But its nature? It was not “some dry command to ‘work for the poor,'” he says, but something else, something more monumental. What? For many years, she didn’t like to speak of what happened, or interpret it. So the deepest meaning of her message remained largely unknown. Says Father Langford, “What was deepest in her . . . is still a mystery even to her most ardent admirers. But it was not her wish that this secret remain forever unknown.”

In this book, based on her letters, writings and conversations, he tells of how she came to serve “the least, the last, and the lost,” not as a female Albert Schweitzer but as “a mystic with sleeves rolled up.” Father Langford tells the story of her encounter on the train, of what was said, of what she heard, and of the things he learned from her including, most centrally, this: You must find your own Calcutta. You don’t have to go to India. Calcutta is all around you.

It’s better than I’m saying. But this is a good time to have Mother Teresa’s life in mind, and to remember, perhaps, that all can change, that a life—and a world—can be made better all of a sudden, out of the blue, unexpectedly. But you have to be listening. You have to be able to hear.

Check out the full column, “A Year for the Books.”


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