The Marvelous Synchronicity of "The Letters"

Monday was a very strange night for me. By strange, I mean a curious mixture of big feelings and "what just happened" wonder. What did just happen?

I watched a movie called The Letters (2014) on Netflix, starring Juliet Stevenson. This movie was about Mother Teresa: the story of her calling, her work among the poverty stricken, and her spiritual struggles related through letters written to her spiritual advisor.

I guess you could say it was a docu-drama? It took a very empathic approach to storytelling. I found it beautiful and touching, but also stirring in deep places. Mother Teresa heard the voice of the divine calling her distinctly to serve the homeless, hungry, and sick. She battled through great resistance to gain respect and support to begin and continue her work. There were times it looked like she would have to sacrifice her position and standing in the church, but she was relentlessly devoted to God's call no matter what it cost her.

When hearing the story of Mother Teresa from a quick historical narrative, I hadn't really heard it in such detail, and in the past had come away with a glossy impression of her steadfast devotion. In reality, it cost her a great deal. She battled feelings of darkness, loneliness, separation, and loss. At times, she would report that it seemed God had abandoned her.

This is where it got weird for me, because the day before I watched this, I had confessed the same struggles to my faith community, and it felt uncanny to stumble across one of history's and religion's great heroes and find a shared experience. Those who speak of her speak of a woman of great faith, and she was indeed faithful to her calling in spite of how she felt. Her spiritual struggles persisted through 60 years! That takes some supernatural dedication to love and compassion and mission.

I'm not going to be the one who chimes in with a platitude about faith not being about feelings here, because it is. It surely is. Anyone who says otherwise is asking you to exclude a piece of your true self. We are not just our feelings, but they are a part that cannot be separated from us without causing a rift in our wholeness.

What struck me here is how those in the movie who represented the findings in Mother Teresa's letters portrayed the importance and significance of her feelings. It was a touching validation and something that I see largely missing from our modern day faith communities. We are often handed the model of John Wesley, who when dealing with faith struggles was told to preach faith until he had it. I think the world was done a great disservice on that advice, and continues to perpetuate the harmful fake-it-till-you-make it formula. Mother Teresa's advocates seemed to understand the nuance of spiritual sojourn throughout the course of a person's life, and continued to respect and revere her for the whole person she was and the work that flowed from the place of her conviction.

The movie didn't end with "she figured it out in the end." It didn't hand you the answers. Instead, it showed that throughout her service, she would not tolerate any attention on herself, but would point all toward her Christ. The conclusion directed the audience to a meditation on the prayer attributed to St. Francis, which brought tears to my eyes (for the 3rd or 4th time in the movie, at least!)

Lord, make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred, may I bring love.
Where there is wrong, may I bring a spirit of forgiveness.
Where there is discord, may I bring harmony.
Where there is error, may I bring truth.
Where there is doubt, may I bring faith.
Where there is despair, may I bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
— Prayer of Saint Francis

I am still in an ongoing shift in my faith and my idea of God. I am still sharing that same struggle that Mother Teresa's letters described. Yet I felt distinctly as though I were being spoken to through this film in a way that said "You are okay where you are, whether or not you find meaning to this mystery. Be faithful to the work of your convictions. Be steadfast in your commitment to hope, light, joy, and freedom. It matters. With or without answers, it matters that you continue. You are not alone."

I highly recommend you see the movie. It's on my life list of Must-Watch films. If you do, please jump into the comments and share with me if it spoke to you, and how it stirred you.

Jamie Bagley