Why do you suppose the movie audience I sat with recently gave a standing ovation? We had just screened The Letters, the recent feature biopic about the adult life of Mother Theresa. Why give any ovation at all, let alone a standing one? After all the director, writer, and cast were not there to receive the applause. Nor was the “star” of the film present. The famous nun of Sri Lanka, the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize laureate known as Mother Theresa, passed away in 1997.
I also doubt it was the talented, veteran cast which included Juliet Stevenson, Max von Sydow, and Rutger Hauer— all who galvanized us from our seats. Despite their award-winning pedigree, I’ve not seen them receive a standing ovation before. Nor do I think the audience was packed with devout Roman Catholics. Indeed, Mother Theresa is depicted in the film as being at odds with her Catholic superior and the movie seems to send mixed messages about the Church.
Nor is The Letters the two dimensional portrait of a stereotypical “saint,” who had super-human divine gifts we other mortals simply cannot attain. Indeed, the script is derived from her private world of often darker emotions revealed in her recently declassified notes and letters. She may well be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church but the entire film is driven by the question of whether she should become “Saint” Theresa.
From my perspective, what attracts us to this extraordinary being is that she proves to be a lot like you and me. She faced very human feelings and “politics” in her job just as we do. But she was not distracted by them because she was ultimately and persistently motivated by her primal spirituality. She knew she was a spiritual being on a spiritual mission, accountable to a Higher Power, no matter what the actions and distractions of others. And she followed her “higher voice” no matter whether she was opposed by Hindus, Muslims, or fellow Catholics.
Nor did this religious and cultural “packaging” of others matter. She loved the critically ill, the dirt poor, the untouchable, the Hindu and Muslim no less than her own “Father” (Pope) and “sisters.”
Ultimately, unlike the formula movies of today, The Letters does not rely upon one ounce of gratuitous sex, violence, glitz, or special effects to gain traction or attraction. Why? It has something more powerful to offer —a life of uncommon human integrity, revealing the great potential available to each of us, due to our primal (original, innate, and primary) spirituality.
Somehow this woman of short physical stature (5’0”), yet of giant spiritual posture, reminds us of who we all can be if we simply honor our original spiritual identity.
The greatest takeaway from the film for me was not that I should emulate Mother Theresa by copying her life trajectory. The greatest takeaway is that I can follow her example whether or not I follow in her footprints. What she did is possible for me and others whether or not we affiliate with organized religion. What she did is possible whether or not we lead a cloistered existence away from family and our home country.
Why? What the film indicates is that her most remarkable achievement, which catalyzed all of the others, was to be true to her primal spirituality, to hear and follow the voice within, which was her GPS for Divine success. No matter what the outer voices of her environment told her, it was her inner voice, which she referred to as “God’s calling,” which propelled her forward to fulfill her mission.
Who among us does not have such a voice within? We may be called toward a totally different mission than is indicated in The Letters. But what Theresa’s letters indicate most is not that she was a precocious genius with enhanced powers but instead that she was in many ways quite ordinary. She faced deep tests of the soul and feelings of abandonment like many other “normal” human beings.
And yet she never looked back. Once committed to God, once assured that her primal spirituality was foremost in her identity, she took the path far less travelled and in doing so, she blessed thousands of lives. The same path winds through my country and your neighborhood.
We can each face the types of challenges she faced and meet them victoriously in our own way. Ironically, The Letters reveals that it is living by the spirit, not by the letter, which leads to true fulfillment.
TOM COOPER is currently guest scholar at the East-West Center, University of Hawaii, Stanford and Berkeley and professor at Emerson College (Boston). Musician, black belt, and playwright, he has written eight books and two hundred published articles, been advisor to the Elders Project (with Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and others), co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and is co-publisher of MEDIA ETHICS magazine.