“The Letters”: worth seeing – but read the book

Somewhere between James Bond and a galaxy far far away, there are other films in release. Don’t overlook The Letters, based on the lengthy correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual advisor. Few accounts of the now-beatified nun convey the extent of her very human day-to-day struggles, internal as well as external, as the founder of the Missionaries of Charity. Those struggles are at the heart of the correspondence that inspired the screenplay by William Riead (who also directed the film).

The private letters, which were unknown to Mother Teresa’s fellow nuns, would have been destroyed if her wishes had been followed. Instead, they were retained by her spiritual director, Father Celeste van Exem, who no doubt realized that the letters would be relevant testimony in any proceedings for beatification or canonization. Also, as the actor portraying him says in the film, van Exem knew that people experiencing spiritual discouragement could take heart if they knew that even Mother Teresa had had such crises.

The Letters is a quiet film, not flashy or sensational, and for that reason alone might be worth a couple of your Advent hours.  It’s a quick sketch rather than an in-depth story, and a fictionalized account rather than a documentary. Within those limits, I considered my two hours at the theater well spent, if not entirely satisfactory. There’s much more to the story than the quick sketch Riead affords us – but with much of Mother Teresa’s correspondence now publicly accessible, Riead’s sketch could be an invitation to deeper study.

“It’s God’s will – not mine – I will trust in God.” That was Teresa’s response to objections as she responded to the “call within a call” that took her from being a respected teacher with the Sisters of Loreto to being a servant of India’s poorest people.  As she offered profound charity in the slums and as more women joined her ministry (later the Missionaries of Charity), she was burdened by a sense that God had abandoned her.  One is left to wonder how the poor of Calcutta would have fared had Mother Teresa chosen to work with a less encouraging and discerning spiritual advisor.

Beautifully filmed, with very effective understated music up until the jarring tune over the closing credits, The Letters benefits from elegant production and good casting. Juliet Stevenson as Sister (later Mother) Teresa ages decades over the course of the story not by obvious makeup but by posture, bearing, and tone of voice. She expresses an ongoing dark night of the soul without resorting to caricature. Her spiritual advisor, Fr. van Exem, is played in a kindly yet authoritative manner by Max von Sydow, whose rich voice narrates parts of the story. (Van Exem in his younger days is portrayed by Aapo Pukk, whose resemblance to von Sydow is uncanny.) Rutger Hauer gets third billing but has relatively little screen time as  the priest responsible for investigating the case for sainthood.

Notable in supporting roles – roles actually far more substantial than those afforded to von Sydow and Hauer – are Tillatoma Shome and Vijay Maurya as a Hindu wife and husband deeply suspicious of Mother Teresa and her work.

There are drawbacks to a screenplay that tries to cover half a century in two hours. Some characters, notably the leader of the religious community Mother Teresa left in order to found the Missionaries of Charity, are two-dimensional.  So are some of the scenes. I kept wishing for more material from the letters themselves.

Don’t go looking for any mention of Mother Teresa’s opposition to abortion, which in her Nobel lecture she called “the greatest destroyer of peace in the world today.” Such details fall to the quick-sketch nature of the screenplay.

Director Riead spent over a decade bringing The Letters to the screen, and he obviously has great respect for his subject. It would be something to see if he were to give Mother Teresa’s correspondence the documentary treatment it deserves.

As it is, I left the theater wanting more. Fortunately, more is available. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007) is a collection of the nun’s letters, edited by a priest of the Missionaries of Charity. In that volume, the sketch of Mother Teresa becomes a portrait.

The Letters offers a glimpse into the inner life of one of the most influential women of our era, framed by a director who treats his subject with respect. For more than a glimpse, read Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. 

“We must live life beautifully.”

Yes, I’ve posted about this before, and you can bet I’ll do it again: this week is the anniversary of the lecture Mother Teresa gave on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Here are some excerpts from Mother Teresa’s remarks. You can find the full text at NobelPrize.org. Take a deep breath and hear her words anew. A fitting meditation for the beginning of a Year of Mercy, come to think of it.

Our hunger [is] for God, because we have been created for [His] love. We have been created in His image. We have been created to love and be loved, and then He has become Man to make it possible to love as He loved us. He makes himself the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the sick one, the one in prison, the lonely one, the unwanted one – and He says: you did it to Me. This is the hunger of our poor people. This is the hunger that you and I must find. It may be in our own home.

[I was] visiting a home where they had all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them in an institution and had forgotten them, maybe. I saw in that home they had beautiful things, but everyone was looking towards the door. I did not see a single one with a smile. I turned to the Sister and asked, how is it that the people have everything here, why are they looking towards the door, why are they not smiling? She said [that] nearly every day, they are expecting and hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten. See? This is where love comes. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried. Are we there? Are we there to receive them?

We are talking of peace. The greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing. And this I appeal in India, I appeal everywhere: let us make this year that we make every single child, born and unborn, wanted. 

One evening, we went out and we picked up four people from the street. One of them was in a most terrible condition. I did for her all that my love can do. I put her in bed, and there was such a beautiful smile on her face. She took hold of my hand, and she said one thing only – “thank you” – and then she died. I could not help [but ask myself] what I would say in her place. I would have tried to draw a little attention to myself. I would have said I am hungry, that I am dying, I am cold, I am in pain, or something. But she gave me much more; she gave me her grateful love. She died with a smile on her face. 

I believe that we are not real social workers. We may be doing social work in the eyes of the people, but we are really contemplatives in the heart of the world. We are touching the Body of Christ 24 hours a day. You, too, try to bring that presence of God into your family; the family that prays together stays together. Just get together, love one another, bring that peace, that joy, that strength of presence of each other in the home, and we will be able to overcome all of the evil that is in the world. Love begins at home. If we all look into our own homes, how difficult we find it sometimes to smile at each other. That smile is the beginning of love. Make time for each other in your family.

When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread. I have removed that hunger. But the person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person who has been thrown out from society – that poverty is so much; I find it very difficult. 

We must live life beautifully. We have Jesus with us, and He loves us. If we could only remember that God loves us, and I have an opportunity to love others as He loves me, not in big things but in small things with great love, then [this place] becomes a nest of love. And how beautiful it will be that from here, a center for peace has been given. That from here, the joy of life of the unborn child comes out. 

She Said It: Mother Teresa to the U.S. Supreme Court

Mother Teresa (photo from Missionaries of Charity Fathers web site)
Mother Teresa (photo: (c) 1986 Turelio via Wikimedia Commons)

I hope you will count it no presumption that I seek your leave to address you on behalf of the unborn child. Like that child I can be considered an outsider. I am not an American citizen….It was a sad infidelity to America’s highest ideals when this Court said that it did not matter, or could not be determined, when the inalienable right to life began for a child in its mother’s womb. America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation….I have no new teaching for America. I seek only to recall you to faithfulness to what you once taught the world. Your nation was founded on the proposition—very old as a moral precept, but startling and innovative as a political insight—that human life is a gift of immeasurable worth, and that it deserves, always and everywhere, to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect.

These words were addressed by Mother Teresa of Calcutta to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994. They were part of an amicus brief (which may be read in full at this link) addressing two cases being considered by the Court. Twenty years later, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.




The decidedly un-squelched Rep. Groen reflects on Roe

Rep. Warren Groen (photo from warrengroen.blogspot.com)
Rep. Warren Groen (photo from warrengroen.blogspot.com)

On January 22, at the end of the day’s business, Rep. Warren Groen of Rochester stood up in the New Hampshire House of Representatives to address his colleagues under “unanimous consent.” This is a time when legislators traditionally offer eulogies, statements of special recognition, and other remarks not directly related to pending legislation. Such speeches can only be made with the consent of all the members present, which is usually automatic. Knowing that Groen is pro-life and that the 22nd was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, abortion advocate Rep. Candace Bouchard of Concord stood up to object to Groen’s speech before he started it, thus silencing him and flouting a tradition of House courtesy. Rep. Groen asked once again at the January 29 House session for unanimous consent. He got it. I listened to the livestream of the session as he spoke. He later told me that a number of colleagues chose to leave the room rather than listen to him. Here’s what they missed. I thank Rep. Groen for sending me this text of his prepared remarks.

Madam Speaker, I rise today to share some of the words of Thomas Jefferson, found on the walls of the memorial that bears his name in our nation’s capital.

First, from the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”

Was Jefferson a hypocrite, saying this while owning slaves? That case could be made. But we must also recognize that Jefferson wanted to ban slavery in this newly founded country. However, he and the other founding fathers knew that was a deal breaker and would divide and destroy even the attempt at founding this new nation. Therefore they elected to move forward and deal with slavery later. And deal with it we did, with much blood shed.

What was Jefferson’s response to this delay?

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism.”

Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.” We, having learned that the concept of one person owning another was reprehensible, have returned to our folly. This time it is babies being owned – for destruction.

Today we thank the more than 700 citizens of New Hampshire who braved the cold and snow to mourn the loss of 55 million little unborn citizens, who since January 22, 1973 have been denied their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Like Jefferson I tremble for my country when I contemplate that God is a Just God, and because I know that God is a God of Mercy I pray for my country that He will forgive this nation for what we have done. Our justice system is among the best in the world, yet when it comes to the unborn it is poverty-stricken.

Hear the words of Mother Teresa: “Any country that accepts abortion is the poorest of the poor.”

Susan B. Anthony, who knew a thing or two about the suffering of women, said this: “Sweeter even than to have had the joy of children of my own has it been for me to help bring about a better state of things for mothers generally, so that their little ones could not be willed away from them.”

And yet we will them away at the blade of a scalpel at the hand of a doctor sworn to do no harm.

As Mother Teresa said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

God have Mercy on our nation, Madam Speaker.




On this date in 1979: Mother Teresa’s Nobel Prize lecture

© 1986 Túrelio (Wikimedia-Commons) / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0 de
© 1986 Túrelio (Wikimedia-Commons) / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0 de

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Peace prize thirty-four years ago. She may be the only Nobel laureate who ever used her Nobel lecture to promote natural family planning. Her theme was love and commitment and peace, so NFP fit quite well – along with her references to the Holy Family, St. Francis, the generosity of the poor, the need for families to spend time together, why smiling is so important, and “the greatest destroyer of peace today”: abortion.


You can hear or read the full lecture at this link. Share it with the kids in your life, too, so they know this woman as a real human being, not a historical artifact.

What she wrote about families hasn’t received nearly as much attention as her work on the right to life. This is from her Nobel lecture, and it’s as compelling now as it was then.

I never forget an opportunity I had in visiting a home where they had all these old parents of sons and daughters who had just put them in an institution and forgotten maybe. And I went there, and I saw in that home they had everything, beautiful things, but everybody was looking towards the door. And I did not see a single one with their smile on their face. And I turned to the Sister and I asked: How is that? How is it that the people they have everything here, why are they all looking towards the door, why are they not smiling? I am so used to see the smile on our people, even the dying one smile, and she said: This is nearly every day, they are expecting, they are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them. They are hurt because they are forgotten, and see – this is where love comes. That poverty comes right there in our own home, even neglect to love. Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried, and these are difficult days for everybody. Are we there, are we there to receive them, is the mother there to receive the child?