The Secret of I Thirst
August 17, 1972 was the day that Mother Teresa changed his life. Joseph Langford was an American seminarian but lately arrived in Rome. An avid reader, he wandered into the large bookstore on the Via della Conciliazione just down from St. Peters. And there he first saw her, on the cover of Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God (1971).
The book captivated the young Langford. Muggeridge (1903-1990) ended his life a staunch Roman Catholic and an outspoken defender of all that is good. His prose, even during his wayward years, was always direct and punchy. He was the kind of writer who reaches out and grabs his reader’s attention, and especially so in this little book. Muggeridge introduced the world to a woman who was a sign of contradiction to all that secular modernity holds dear. He portrayed her life as an ongoing miracle; during the recording of the BBC special that Muggeridge narrated, there was even a miracle that had to do with the lighting and the film. He transmitted precious bits of her conversation—“our way of life is to preserve life, the life of Christ in the life of the child”—and even an astonishing private letter from the saint to this man who had once been something of a notorious public sinner.
By the end of the 1960s, Muggeridge had come to believe in Christ, but he was far from home; he would be received in the Catholic Church only in 1982. Yet Mother Teresa seemed to see in him a spiritual brother. “Your longing for God is so deep,” she wrote to him, “and yet He keeps Himself away from you.” What followed in her letter was this exquisite confession:
Christ has created you because He wanted you. I know what you feel—terrible longing with dark emptiness. And yet He is the one in love with you.
Here the curtain was first pulled back, ever so slightly. Many years later, now the co-founder of the Missionaries of Charity, Father Joseph Langford would hear the rest of the story from Mother Teresa herself. She had been given the great gift—perhaps an unprecedented gift—of experiencing the thirst of Christ for souls. Her darkness contained a calling and a mission. At the heart of the extraordinary life of Mother Teresa and the valiant culture-changing service of the Missionaries of Charity was a revelation of God’s thirst.
Private revelation is an important feature of Catholic life. St. Margaret Mary and St. Faustina, St. Bernadette and the three children of Fatima: these saints have been the means of transmitting gifts to the universal Church for which countless millions are grateful. We will reckon the impact of these divine interventions only in heaven when their full story becomes known.
Assessing the validity and significance of private revelations is accomplished by the Magisterium, in the last analysis, and with reference to a clear principle noted by Cardinal Ratzinger in his theological commentary on the message of Fatima: “The criterion for the truth and value of a private revelation is therefore its orientation to Christ himself.” If the private revelation leads the people of God to a deeper love for Christ and connects them in a more profound way to the public revelation that we have preeminently in Sacred Scripture, then it is possible that it is an authentic gift from God for the building up of the life of charity.
Mother Teresa’s spirituality of Christ’s thirst seems a good candidate for this status.
The first part of the story is well-known. In 1946 while on a train ride to her annual retreat in the north of India, Mother Teresa received a call within her call. And from that inner experience, her determination to found the Missionaries of Charity sprang, with the Order’s mission to quench the thirst of Christ for souls. The Order’s great works of mercy—especially its spiritual works of mercy—went forward under the banner of the crucifix, with the words “I Thirst” emblazoned on the wall beside it in every one of its convents.
The second part of the story, however, became known only after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997. It has been told, in large part, by Father Langford, to whom—among other members of the Order—it was confided during her last years. For his narrative account and theological reflections on Mother Teresa’s interior journey, one turns to his book Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire (2008). And now, for a different sort of approach to the interior landscape of the woman he called a “mystic with sleeves rolled up,” we have I Thirst: 40 Days with Mother Teresa (Augustine Institute, 2018).
Fr. Langford (1951-2010) was for many years what may perhaps be called the promoter of Mother Teresa’s spiritual vision through his retreats on the theme of Christ’s thirst offered to Missionaries of Charity communities around the world as well as to lay groups. These retreats were modeled on the Spiritual Exercisesof St. Ignatius Loyola. Within his retreat conferences, Fr. Langford offered meditations on traditional spiritual topics—our sinfulness and need for redemption, Christ’s offer of salvation, prayer and sacramental life as means of conversion, Mary and Jesus as patterns of Christian life, and more—all illuminated by Jesus’ cry from the Cross, “I thirst” (John 19:28). The meditations are now available to the reading public for the first time in I Thirst, where they have been collected in a form appropriate for daily devotional use. The goal of the work is to introduce us—even if necessarily through a glass, darkly—to the compelling interior experience that God gave to Mother Teresa, which was, as Fr. Langford explained, “not simply a feeling, but instead a deep desire of the will, meant to be our habitual state after discovering, or rediscovering, God’s thirsting love for us in Christ.”