Mother Teresa served God in the slums of Calcutta, a place gripped with the sort of poverty we can scarcely imagine. There, she worked among the world’s poorest people—feeding the hungry, teaching the young, nursing the sick, burying the dead. She served them faithfully through five decades, always deflecting any credit she might receive to Jesus. And there was a lot of credit to deflect. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and her very name has become a watchword for love and charity. Say someone is a veritable Mother Teresa, and you know that person must be very noble indeed.
Throughout her life, most of us imagined that she felt sustained in her incredibly difficult work by God’s love—that she sensed the Holy Spirit filling her with light and love and hope.
We were wrong.
After her death and as the Catholic Church began to pave the way for her possible sainthood, more than 6,000 letters of hers came to the attention of the Vatican—letters showing that, throughout her life and ministry, she lived in deep spiritual anguish. She felt as though God had left her, and her longing to feel His presence was almost overwhelming.
“The longing was so strong that it would feel like torture,” says Father van Exem in The Letters. While she never doubted that she was an instrument in God’s hands, she didn’t feel that hand. Not for 50 years.
Teresa never intended for anyone to read those letters. She asked that they be destroyed after her death, fearing that people would “think more of me and less of Jesus.” But the canonization process is a very public one, and nothing can remain hidden forever. And in this movie, which paints a picture of how Teresa’s ministry began and progressed, we’re shown how even in darkness—especially in darkness—light finds a way through.
Famed atheist Christopher Hitchens didn’t like Mother Teresa much, claiming that she was “less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.”
He was one of a very, very few detractors. The Mother Teresa we see in The Letters is the figure most of us imagine her to be: pious, modest and loving. And she could be a bulldog when she needed to be.
When Teresa first heard what she described as a “call within a call,” when she believes Jesus was telling her to work with the poorest of the poor, she was simply a nun and a teacher in Calcutta’s Loreto Convent. It was forbidden for her to even step outside the convent walls. But she felt very certain of what Christ was asking her to do. “I love teaching,” she says. “I love being a nun. But I must do something.”
Loreto’s Mother General calls Teresa’s desire to help the poor “foolishness,” but Teresa (then Sister Teresa) persevered, seeking the pope’s blessing and eventually leaving the convent with five rupees to her name—about the equivalent of a couple bucks. At first, she wasn’t even very welcome: Many of Calcutta’s Hindus would’ve agreed with Hitchens, assuming that her goal was conversion, not compassion. But she won people over through her selfless devotion, ministering to India’s “Untouchables” who were often left to die alone in the streets.
When a man donates the upper floor of his house to Teresa, apologizing for its modest furnishings, she responds by asking that some of the furniture actually be removed. “I need very little,” she explains. When a reporter comes to talk with her about her work, she refuses an interview with him—pointing him instead to India’s poor. Therein lies the story, she says.
“It’s not my work,” she says—the only quote she gives the reporter. “It’s God’s work. I’m just a pencil in God’s hand.”
The Letters is about as spiritual a movie as they come. We see Teresa and others in prayer, and Teresa is constantly talking about God’s work. “The more the work spreads, the more clear it becomes,” she says. “It is His will.”
In her jousting with Loreto’s Mother General, we also see some of the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Priests and nuns gather in sometimes sumptuous surroundings to discuss Teresa’s work. She regularly petitions Rome for special dispensations to work outside the walls of Loreto. And when it looks like Mother General plans to resist yet another dispensation four years in, Teresa decides to petition the Vatican to turn her work into a separate “congregation” (and thus separate from the religious order she had been a part of before). The petition is accepted, and Teresa officially heads the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity—becoming Mother Teresa in the process.
As mentioned, Mother Teresa faces resistance from some in the slums. “We do not want you here,” one man tells her. “We do not need your help! We are Hindu! Do not teach our child about your God.”
“I may not be wanted here,” she admits. “But I am needed.” She promises that she won’t try to convert anyone (though earlier she says she does want to show people the love of Jesus), and while she wears a cross on her robe, she makes no showy demonstrations of her faith on these streets lined with images of the Hindu gods. As time goes on, even her most resistant critics begin to have a change of heart. “Maybe the Christian woman can give [our children] something we don’t have,” one mother says to another.
The religious divide, though, comes into harsh focus when the government gives a deserted Hindu temple—one dedicated to Kali, the goddess of time and death—to Teresa’s ministry. She turns it into a hospice, telling an official, “I like that it was center of worship for Hindus.” Those Hindus take umbrage at a Christian ministry taking over a Hindu temple, however, and demonstrations are staged outside in protest.
We’re told of Teresa’s beatification and canonization process; also her pained letters. “Inside she was experiencing a terrible emptiness,” a priest says. “The feeling that she had been abandoned by God.” But when another priest reads the letters, he concludes that such feelings don’t weaken Teresa’s standing in the church.
“The darkness she lived with was an essential element of who she was,” a priest argues. Moreover, it was somehow integral to her work with the poor. And when Father Benjamin Praagh speaks to Rome about Teresa’s beatification, he argues that the letters should be published. “Many people who go through similar trials may benefit from them,” he says.
None. Teresa does help with a difficult birth, and we see her working between the woman’s legs to determine that the baby is breech.
After delivering the baby, Teresa exits the hut with bloodied garb. Hindus protest Teresa’s use of the old Hindu shrine, battering the doors with rocks. An apparent riot outside the walls of Loreto has people setting stalls and shacks ablaze as the wounded and/or dead lie in the city’s streets. When learning how to work with the sick, Teresa is exposed to a person with horrific sores on his body, causing the nun to nearly throw up.
A man dies in Teresa’s hospice.
When Teresa first approaches Mother Governor to tell her about the “call” she feels—her desire to step outside the convent walls and help the poor—her spiritual superior tries to dissuade her from the work. After all, Calcutta teems with poverty. “You can’t help them all,” Mother Governor says.
“But we can help some,” Teresa says. “I would be ashamed not to try.”
And try she did. During a ministry spanning six decades, the real Mother Teresa helped countless people in Calcutta. Some might argue that even such an accomplishment did little to change Calcutta or India as a whole: The people there were still poor, often desperately so. And yet the people whom she did help were blessed, sometimes beyond measure.
Sometimes, the world’s problems seem too huge for us to even bother with. The need is too overwhelming. Our aid insignificant. We wonder: Are our pitiful efforts really helping anyone?
Even Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. But that didn’t dissuade Him from helping the ones who came to Him. Perhaps Teresa looked at the concept of help in the same way Jesus did. And by His and her examples we learn that in saving one person, we make a world of difference.
The Letters won’t make headlines or win Oscars. It plods at times, and it promises to delve into an issue that in reality it scarcely touches—the personal darkness that sometimes accompanies spiritual vision, and how that struggle is necessary, some say, to the work Christ calls us to.
But Mother Teresa’s story is strong enough to inspire us, no matter how it’s presented. And so The Letters challenges each of us to think of opportunities we might have to truly make a difference in our own small worlds and in our own small ways.
The movie deals mainly with just a few early years of Teresa’s ministry—roughly 1946 to 1952. But we do see her accept her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. We’re told that she only agreed to accept the honor after others convinced her that, by doing so, she would bring more attention to Calcutta’s poor. And as she accepted, she quoted a prayer attributed to the great medieval friar Francis. A portion of it reads as follows:
“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.”
Like I said, it’s inspiring stuff. It seems to me that both Catholics and Protestants alike could do worse than emulate this prayer and Mother Teresa’s faithful spiritual service.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.