When she was still a Loreto nun, Mother Teresa made her way by train to Darjeeling for a retreat. And on that train she heard a voice inviting her to carry the light of Christ to the darkest places. When she returned to Calcutta, she began the process that led to the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, an order whose purpose would be to respond to that summons. That work is carried on today by her sisters in more than 500 establishments around the globe.
A couple year ago I personally experienced this extraordinary work. While producing the ten-part CATHOLICISM series, our team filmed in a small hospital in Calcutta, India where the Missionaries of Charity care for children with mental and physical disabilities. When we arrived, the electricity had just gone out, and the room was stiflingly hot. Everywhere, the sisters and a large team of volunteers milled about, providing medical assistance, speaking to the kids, teaching some of them to sing simple songs, or just holding them.
There was one sister who was carrying in her arms a small girl of perhaps a year and half or 2 years old. The child was blind. I asked sister how they had come to care for this girl, and she told me that she had simply been abandoned on the street. “She is my special baby,” the sister said,. And then she flashed this absolutely radiant smile, which told me that she had found a deep joy precisely in this hot, crowded hospital, in the midst of one of the most squalid cities in the world.
All of us human beings want joy. Everything we do and say, all of our actions and endeavors, are meant to produce contentment, peace, happiness. Even the most morally corrupt person, ultimately, wants joy. But how do we find it? The most elemental mistake–made consistently across the centuries to the present day–is to seek joy by filling up in ourselves something that we perceive to be missing. We tell ourselves that we’d be happy if we just had enough pleasure, enough power, enough security, enough esteem. But this does not work.
It is the supreme paradox of the Christian spiritual tradition that we become filled with joy precisely in the measure that we contrive a way to make of ourselves a gift. By emptying out the self in love for the other, we become filled to the brim with the divine life. The smile of that Missionary of Charity, which was the same smile Mother Teresa bore, signaled the presence of a joy that no wealth, no security, no pleasure, no honor could possibly provide, and that can emerge even in the most miserable context.
The secret to joy is self-giving love. Mother Teresa imparted that to her sisters, and she offers the same lesson to us.
“The secret to joy is self-giving love.”
by Fr. Robert Barron