The distressing disguise of Jesus

May 22, 2008 | 6 comments

I’ll admit it: when I first received my copy of Mother Teresa: In the Shadow of Our Lady, I felt guilty.

The kind folks at the Maximus Group offered to send me a review copy, and I immediately accepted it without any further thought because I have this uncontrollable reflex that forces me to say “yes!” to all offers of free books. But once I saw in my mailbox, I realized this wasn’t really my type of book. Though I admire Mother Teresa, I’ve never been particularly drawn to her story; and though the idea of having a devotion to Mary is something that made sense to me, it’s not something I was strongly drawn to at that time.

I was surprised, then, when I found myself captivated by this little book (not including the appendices, it’s only 79 pages — it fit easily in my purse). For such a short work, it packs a powerful punch. From his 30 years of knowing and working directly with Mother Teresa, Joseph Langford uses his book to tack three main topics that I found particularly interesting:

1. What does it mean to have a devotion to Mary?

At the time I first started reading this book, I didn’t know what, specifically, was involved with “having a devotion to Mary.” Other books I’d read talking about it in vague, often flowery terms that left me scratching my head as to what it’s all about. In In the Shadow of Our Lady, however, Langford uses bullet points (and even a chart!) to give clear examples of what it means to transform our hearts to be more like Mary’s. For example, he offers:

  • Four important attitudes of soul necessary for God to transform our hearts to be more like Mary’s
  • The three states of soul Mother Teresa thought were of critical importance for her Missionaries of Charity to cultivate
  • The twelve duties of those who are consecrated to Christ through Mary

And so on. He also adds an appendix, The Biblical Foundations of Mother Teresa’s Relationship with Mary, that is a fascinating work that could be an interesting book in and of itself. Through details like these, in this little book Langford offers one of the most concise, clear answers I’ve ever read to the questions, “What is Marian devotion, and why does it bring people closer to Christ?”

2. How did Mother Teresa do it?

Whenever I’ve heard any details about Mother Teresa’s life and work, I’ve often wondered, “How on earth did she do it?” I’ve read stories of her bathing people who’d been living on the streets for years, changing the bandages of dying men with festering sores, facing strong rejection and obstacles to her mission — especially in light of the news that she suffered long periods of spiritual dryness, I couldn’t imagine how she kept going.

Langford gives the reader insight into the deep interior spirituality of Mother Teresa, detailing how she leaned on Mary, who experienced her own times of darkness, to use her spiritual pain as a catalyst for deeper conversion. “[Mother Teresa’s] darkness was a crucible of faith, hope, and love in which Mother Teresa became Saint Teresa, ” he writes. “Darkness was the school in which she learned to cling to God even in his felt absence, in which she served the pain of others rather than being lost in her own.”

Especially in light of her powerful vision of 1947 in which she saw herself as a child, being comforted by Mary at the foot of the Cross, I thought the insights on Mary’s role in overcoming her spiritual obstacles were particularly interesting:

It was Our Lady who taught her to see in the darkness, Our Lady who had seen through it first, and at its worst, as her Son struggled for his last breath. It was Our Lady whose faith bolstered and directed Mother Teresa’s faith, and brought her to stand and not waver, despite the darkness, at the cross planted in her own soul. And because Mother Teresa’s long night made this cross such familiar ground, she was able to recognize and stand in unfazed service at the crosses of the poor scattered across the globe, on Calvaries that bear no name.

Though other recent books have treated this subject in more detail, I thought that Langford did a great job of covering the subject in relatively few pages. I came away with a new understanding of how, even in times of spiritual dryness, we can each emulate Mother Teresa in being a “fountain of God’s life and light, shining in the darkness.”

3. How can we grow closer to God, in both good times and bad?

Langford offers specific examples of the prayer practices that Mother Teresa encouraged her Sisters to follow so that they could be “contemplatives in the heart of the world, contemplatives in the midst of action.” He writes:

The seat and center of our waking consciousness is normally at the “head” level. This is where our five senses are, and where we interact with the world. But this is not the place of encounter with God. We need to pass to the level of the heart. The heart…represents the place of inner quiet, not feelings or sentimentality but rather inner depth, the silent place where God speaks. […]

Before finding the Lord Jesus in what Mother Teresa called the distressing disguise of suffering and failure, whether mine or those of my family and friends, we need first to be experts in the contemplative life, masters at finding God in the little details of life. [emphasis mine]

And he then goes on to explain the spiritual practices that Mother Teresa and her sisters used to accomplish this, noting that without these practices, “The poor are no longer Christ, but a cause.”

It’s funny to me now that I initially didn’t think I’d enjoy this book, since it ended up having a big impact on my life. Receiving my copy of Mother Teresa: In the Shadow of Our Lady was the beginning of a period of God hitting me over the head with a ton of bricks to tell me to seek to better know and emulate his mother, and I have indeed found that doing so has been the source of great grace and spiritual growth (although that’s the subject of a whole separate post).

Mother Teresa once said in an address to her Sisters, referring to her vision of standing at the foot of the Cross with Mary, “With [Our Lady] and like her we learn to stand by the distressing disguise of Jesus in the world today, especially in the lives of the poorest of the poor, both materially and spiritually, and thus satiate His thirst to love and be loved.”

That is, essentially, what this little book is all about: how did Mother Teresa, and how can we, look for Christ everywhere and in all things, even in the midst of our own dark nights, and even when his disguise is distressing?


  1. Meta

    Reminds me of a quote from The Devout Life:

    “For our actions are like the rose, which is more pleasing when it is fresh, but has a more powerful scent when it is dry.”

    ~St. Francis de Sales

  2. Abigail

    Wow! What a facinating read. I’m really going to mediate on that image of being a little child who Mary comforts at the foot of the cross. I’ve got a tender heart which tends to get overwhelmed with the sufferings of others. Good to know how I need to grow in grace in that area!

  3. Tausign

    Two thoughts jump out at me in this post: The first is Mother Teresa’s movement from holiness to sanctity. I’ll pull this author’s quote from a post I wrote earlier to help explain: Finding Your Spiritual Family

    “The motivation which helps us to overcome our fallen nature’s propensity toward evil may be as ungallant as the fear of hell. The measure of a response to goodness may come from a sense of obligation toward our Creator, but when it is guided by generous love of Jesus, we call it holiness. When our generosity is total, we call it sanctity. The program or system we follow to maintain a steady progress in holiness toward the goal of sanctity is called a spirituality.[Rev. Zachary Grant]

    This quality of guiding lives (especially her sisters) towards sanctity through prayer and discovering the person of Jesus in the poor (and thus enobling them) oftens gets overshadowed by her ‘care for the poor as social welfare’.

    The second point is how Mary is involved intimately and unavoidably when one moves closer and closer to the Lord. People often speak of ‘Marian’ spirituality as they would Augustinian, Franciscan, Carmelite, etc. But there is no separate spirituality as such. Where Christ is — there is his mother. Where Mary is — there is her son. And so any authentic movement from holiness towards sanctity must involve devotion to Mary.

  4. Susan

    Thanks. I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with Mary during my life, but find myself increasingly drawn to her. I talk about my growing appreciation of Mary in a blog post I made in honor of Mary’s month here:

  5. Em the luddite

    I heard about your blog from my dear friend at TwoSquareMeals, but did not find that the life of a grad student was conducive to additional blog-reading. However, after a summer of exploring the Catholic Church in Ireland after growing up an Evangelical Protestant, I just added you into my Google Reader. I thought you might like to know that among your regular readers hiding in the shadows of cyber-space is a Protestant praying very seriously about a conversion.

    (I recognize that that does not relate directly to this post… but it was a particularly Catholic post, and far back enough in the past that the rest of the blogger world won’t necessarily read it. I don’t know how public I am ready to be about it right now.)

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