An inside look at a saintly life

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Her story is familiar, but incredible.

At the age of 40, Mother Teresa started her own religious order, the Missionaries of Charity. She gave up all she had and dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor. Before her death in 1997, her order grew to include 4,000 sisters worldwide and she became an international figure after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In 2003, only six years after her death, she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Father Leo Maasburg knows this story well. For many years, he was a close personal friend of the world-renowned sister, serving as her spiritual adviser, confessor and translator on many of her travels to Rome, India and around the globe.

In his time with Mother Teresa, Father Maasburg was impressed by her devotion to prayer, her generosity and her humility - all qualities that led many to think of her as a living saint. Even more than that, though, he remembers her humanity. For all of her holiness and honors, he insists she was "fascinatingly normal."

He shares many of his experiences with Mother Teresa in a new book, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait, released in October by Ignatius Press.
In 23 engaging chapters, Father Maasburg gives details about his experiences with Mother Teresa, including visits to the Vatican, her prayer life, her work with the poor, her work ethic and her travels around the world to places like New York, Moscow, Nicaragua, Armenia and Cuba.

In his stories, he paints a portrait of Mother Teresa that is fully realized and dynamic - in other words, much more than just a smiling face on a holy card. By the end of the book, readers will know that Mother Teresa was a real woman - one who loved chocolate and glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary and who had a penchant for handing out miraculous medals to everyone she met, but who was also brave enough to stand her own in front of Vatican guards, reporters from around the world, politicians, the occasional dictator and even Pope John Paul II himself. She once marched up to him to ask for the canonization of (now) St. Damien of Molokai. It is that story of the sister's determination and others like it, Father Maasburg writes, that led those closest to her to call Mother Teresa a "benevolent dictator."

Father Maasburg also writes extensively about Mother Teresa's humility. Despite her fame, she always worked to keep the spotlight away from herself. In one chapter, he writes that Mother Teresa so disliked having her photo taken that she would ask God to release one soul in purgatory in exchange for every camera flash.

Often, he remembers, Mother Teresa would respond to questions about her life or biographical details with some variation of the following: "I don't really like to talk about myself, because when people speak or write about me, they speak or write less about Jesus."

Father Maasburg's firsthand accounts and memories are empowering and, often, humorous. The stories in his book will surely inspire reflection and prayer, as well as many conversations.

An added bonus is the quotes Father Maasburg included from Mother Teresa, including excerpts from interviews and speeches on topics as vast as love of neighbor and love of family, to respect for life and human dignity - especially for the poor.

In one quote, Mother Teresa speaks about her role in the world as being "only a little pencil in the hand of God, a God who is about to write a love letter to the world."

Hopefully, this book will inspire some readers to look at their lives in the same way.

Get the book

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012