Posted in Book Lovers Community

Little Britches #4: Mary Emma and Company


Mentoring is a critical theme woven throughout the first half of the Little Britches series. Despite the incredible hardships that his family endures, Ralph Moody is very clear that God always looked out for them and rewarded their faithfulness in interesting ways. In new places and new circumstances, God not only provided the work requisite to support the family but also generous friends and excellent mentors.

In Mary Emma and Company, the Moody family has returned to Boston after being forced to leave Colorado.  Their eastern flight was made so secretly and so quickly, that they had precious little opportunity to make arrangements for their return to Mary Emma’s Boston family. Generously, Mary Emma’s brother and sister-in-law pour out incredible kindness and support on the young family when they arrive.

The Moody family strictly believes in hard work, integrity, and faithful adherence to God’s principles. The moral character of their family is awesome to behold, especially in true adversity. While Mary Emma struggles to find meaningful employment, the family is perplexed. They do not want to slip into dependence on generous family members. Instead, they struggle to find work and housing as quickly as possible. Everything in Massachusetts, however, is different from Colorado. And, in many ways, harder.

Since his father’s death, Ralph has helped to provide for the family’s needs in substantial ways. Once they are settled in his uncle’s apartment, it is Ralph’s first priority to find employment. Sadly, however, Ralph learns that Massachusetts state law requires boys to attend school. Ambitious, creative, tenacious, and persistent, Ralph finds a job at the grocery store that he can do before and after school. While the store has no horse, Ralph’s western experiences have trained him well in how to earn the respect of his employers and give his best effort. And ultimately, the men Ralph works for become good mentors for Ralph, and valuable friends to have.

Families who have loved the western themes in the earlier books may be worried that this story won’t be as satisfying. Ralph, however, is still very much the Ralph we have come to love, and he readily employs that western spirit in incredibly creative ways in this new environment. His western experiences have trained him to see things from an entirely different point of view than that of his new neighbors. This different vantage point provides some exciting experiences and makes for a really good story.

Also consistent with the first three books, Ralph makes friends, good friends, very easily. He is naturally likable, quite honest, clever, and broad-minded. The Moody family is blessed more than once because of the men who respect Ralph and the boys who are loyal to him.
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In the western books, Ralph knew many good honest men. Nearly all of them, however, were a bit rough around the edges. In this new environment, Ralph is blessed with strong male family members who help him develop a more cultured approach. Additionally, Ralph is befriended by men of the world who understand law and business. These mentors will provide Ralph with a solid orientation in citizenry and commerce that will come back to Ralph as an advantage in the later books. The kind of education that Ralph acquires in Boston is far less technical than his western experiences but far more social and cultural.

For young families, this may be the last book in the series that you will read until your children are older. This book marks the end of Ralph’s childhood. The next book, The Fields of Home, takes a harder and more mature tone.

The first four of the eight Little Britches books could easily be shared by families over a long winter in the evenings. This interesting and elegant book ends on a very sweet and optimistic note. I think that all of the tears I shed in this one were tears of joy and tenderness.

Goodbye, young Ralph. Yours was a boyhood that makes my mama’s heart full and proud.

We will be reviewing all of the Little Britches books. Find all that we have posted here.

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“I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, nor an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need only to do one more experiment to find out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it [as religion does] but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.” – Carl Sagan, The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God


This quote from Carl Sagan in 1985 beautifully articulates the thrust behind his elegant work of fiction – Contact. Contact is a substantially complex, interesting, and challenging story. In point of fact, it is a wonderfully creative and fascinating story. While, like Sagan’s character Palmer Joss, I disagree with Sagan’s conclusions, I do agree with much of his approach and I respect his attempt to know truth. Of all the non-theistic science writers I have encountered, I think that Sagan shows the most respect to those of us who conclude that there is a Master Creator, and that He is knowable. Further, a close reading of Contact seems to indicate that Sagan envied us our faith when he perceived that we were otherwise rational and careful in our conclusions.

“They overestimate what they know and underestimate what we know. When we ask for explanations, they tell us it takes years to understand. I know about that, because in religion also there are things that take years to understand. You can spend a lifetime and never come close to understanding the nature of Almighty God. But you don’t see the scientists coming to religious leaders to ask them about their years of study and insight and prayer.” (p 130)

Silly as it is, my husband and I have enjoyed the t.v. series Bones. I mention it because I think that the relationship between Booth and Bones is quite similar to the relationship that Sagan develops between two of his most interesting Contact characters.


Dr. Ellie Arroway is an agnostic astronomer and a serious scientist. She does not deny the possibility of a God, but she is a committed skeptic who hasn’t encountered the requisite proof to be convinced. Ellie is the main character in this story, and it is easy to read Sagan into her without damaging Sagan or Ellie too badly. While there are many characters who feature more prominently in the action of the story, it is clear to the astute reader that Palmer Joss is the only character that really challenges (and ultimately supports) Ellie. Joss is a theologian but he is also deeply rational, well read, scientifically minded, and has little patience for fundamentalist religious types.

“Palmer Joss combined his even handed criticism of science and religion with a fervent plea for moral rectitude and a respect for the intelligence of his flock.” (p. 136)

Contact is a romance. It is a romance of rational science and irrational belief. A romance of ideas, and possibilities, and spiritual tensions.

Mainstream Christians today believe in some version of the Genesis accounts of creation. Of course, there is little consensus among Christians on how to read those two creation accounts and square them with the scientific “evidence” of Darwinian theory and other widely accepted scientific hypotheses. Many science-minded Christians opt for the non-literal seven-day creation. Some Catholics, for example, believe that each day in the creation account signifies an epoch or an age. Even Sagan is noncommittal on the rational origin arguments. “Nobody has seen evolution happen, nobody has been marking time since the Creation.”  (p. 136)


In all of my reading about creation vs. evolution, I always felt as though I was being forced to choose one. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy changed all of that for me. In his science fiction fantasy, our sovereign and true God has created many worlds. Lewis’s stories explore the possibilities of other planets with intelligent life possessed of immortal souls. Each planet, however, marks a different phase of spiritual evolution. As opposed to something like War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Sagan’s story seems more like Lewis. And I don’t think that was by accident. In fact, Sagan named a spaceship in Contact, The Narnia, and there is a scene about wormholes that strongly reminds me of the ponds and rings in The Magician’s Nephew. This story, like Lewis’s trilogy, is more about ideas and human essence than about scientific achievement or technical prowess. This makes it all the more enchanting.

“The picture, of course, was alarming. We could tell you were in deep trouble. But the music told us something else. The Beethoven told us there was hope.” (p. 359)

Throughout this story, we are invited to retain hope for the human race. Hope that defies science and logic. Hope that hints at something, or someone, greater. When Ellie meets her dad on the beach (I am being purposefully vague in the interest of spoilers), we learn something significant – these other intelligent lives have souls of some kind and they too do not know who or what the prime mover, master creator, or author of it all is. Sagan’s technique allows for mystery. The kind of mystery that science cannot yet explain and the kind of mystery that faith knows defies explanation. Even though Sagan’s third wife staunchly denies that Sagan was ever convinced of the existence of a personal and living God, he seems bent on chasing the idea beyond the limits of rational conviction. “Perhaps we are all wayfarers on the way to truth…” (p. 173).

“There were excesses in science and there were excesses in religion. A reasonable man wouldn’t be stampeded by either one.” (p. 136)

hokaidoThis highly creative story invites us into a respectful debate between the two extremes. While Sagan writes completely detestable characters for each end of the spectrum, he is very careful to create two characters who are open minded enough to look past the blinding rhetoric and courageously meet truth on its own terms. In Ellie and Palmer we see two brilliant, hopeful, and curious creatures who are locked into their own convictions but are so impressed by the other that they allow themselves to be stretched and challenged.

“There were many interpretations of Scripture and many interpretations of the natural world. Both were created by God, so both must be mutually consistent.” (p. 136)

I loved this book. I have loved this movie for many years and have watched it dozens of times. In some ways, I think the movie is more true to the story that Sagan seems to be trying to tell than the book is. In other ways, I am glad to have all 434 pages of additional characters and complex layers. I think that both can stand together or apart on their own merits. And I think that both can do much to challenge and stretch everyday Christians who marvel at God’s enormous and gorgeous cosmic creativity.

When I was a high school religion teacher, I used Contact in one of my classes to illustrate the marriage of science and faith, and to help my students grasp the power of rhetoric. While the movie is not perfectly moral, it is much more teen friendly than the book. Sadly, this book very clearly espouses a post sexual revolution point of view. While none of the sex talk is graphic, descriptive, or on scene, comments about casual sex are peppered throughout the text. It’s totally unavoidable. I strongly recommend that parents of teens pre-read.

“Look, we all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it.” (p. 173)

Modern fairy tales are all the rage today. Everyone wants to reinvent the fairy tale archetype. Frankly, most of that is lost on me. I love the old fairy tales for the truths they reveal about their time and place. Their power, to my mind, is in how they convey the transcendence of that truth into any time. They don’t need to be modernized to strike a chord with us because we are wired to receive truth no matter how it is disguised. Instead, Contact is a new fairy tale. In this modern fairy tale, we get to explore deep space only to find that Beethoven is our best ambassador. Beethoven communicates the essential human qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty. Beethoven communicates hope.


Posted in Book Lovers Community

The World of Ben-Hur


“To the people of his hometown, Jesus was always a carpenter, the son of a carpenter, a man who worked with saws and planes. We have some of the same problems, except in reverse. We’ve always known Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. We can’t see him as an ordinary craftsman who made things with his hands and sold them to customers… Ben-Hur helps us imagine Jesus the man, the strangely ordinary carpenter who did and said such extraordinary things.” – Mike Aquilina, The World of Ben-Hur


Mike Aquilina is a Catholic historian and scholar of apostolic history. I discovered him when the t.v. series AD: The Continuing Story was preparing to air. Aquilina had consulted with Roma Downey and Mark Burnett and had composed a beautiful Bible study supplement that families could use while watching the series. While the series was not perfect, I am convinced that it served a good purpose and has the capacity to do much good in drawing people into an understanding of the apostolic age. Aquilina’s Viewer’s Guide does a gorgeous job of providing biblical, historical, and cultural context to the story as a whole. I hope to review the series and his book in the near future.


When the Ben-Hur film was being promoted I noticed that the ink was barely dry on a new support guide penned by Aquilina. The World of Ben-Hur is, in my mind, a gold mine of background and context that can support any reader or viewer of any of the Ben-Hur offerings. Diane and I are working on a detailed review of Lew Wallace’s novel, the Charlton Heston film, and the new film (spoiler: we hate the new film for complex reasons). In the interim, I wanted to get this review up so that readers and viewers could make full use of this excellent resource if they are movie-going or planning to read the novel.


When Aquilina wrote this 160+ page guide, he had not seen the new movie. Even though the cover on the book is the movie poster for the new film, the content inside is well grounded in Wallace’s novel.

This is a friendly, easy to access, and trustworthy resource. The Lew Wallace novel has many layers to it and advances some really challenging questions. This guide tackles some of those serious cultural questions – like the multifaceted approach to slavery, the history of Roman customs, what the term “Christ” meant to the people of that time, and what the cultural consequences of Jesus’ new theology were. Aquilina has done a beautiful job of breaking these down for us in a way that supports our ability to draw even more out of the novel and movies. I happened to have been reading this at the same time that my husband and I were watching Risen and The Young Messiah, and it was very helpful for understanding the subtext of those films as well. Reading this resource guide is akin to sitting with a Bible scholar and getting the backstory on the most interesting aspects of the movie and novel. As someone who has been reading or watching Ben-Hur almost every year for 30 years, I think that this guide is essential.

One of my favorite aspects about this resource is that it is set up in such a way that someone who is new to Ben-Hur could read the first four chapters and get grounded in the context and get inside the head of the author before they even begin the novel or the movies. By reading the first four chapters before experiencing Ben-Hur readers would gain a tour through the story landscape and see into some of the cultural nuances so that it feels familiar and less disorienting when they begin to read the novel.

Even if readers have some knowledge of Ben-Hur (like who marries whom, who dies, who wins the chariot race, etc.) I would still recommend saving the remaining 7 chapters until after they have seen or read Ben-Hur. Aquilina gives us an entire chapter on the Roman navy that is incredibly helpful in understanding why Wallace wrote the galley (war at sea) scenes as he did. This information is really interesting and helped to give me a more informed view of this aspect of the plot and cultural context, but it might very well be confusing to someone who has not yet read the novel or seen the movie.


Veteran readers could probably read the entire book in two or three sittings with a cup of tea. I enjoyed the writing and learned many new things. I intend to use this with my children when they are old enough to read Lew Wallace’s novel.


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GK Chesterton: Architect of Spears

In my Potato Peel Pie book club we are reading a little Chesterton every week. And by “little,” I mean one essay every Sunday from
In Defense of Sanity. Each week we read and reflect on one short essay or article from G. K. Chesterton and play with the ideas he articulates. Some of the essay are hilarious, some astute, some poignant, and some artistic. Nearly all, however, pair well with a cup of coffee and seem to hit the spot on a Sabbath afternoon. In this article I am ruminating on “The Architect of Spears” from Miscellany of Men and my take on what he has said.

“It is said that the Gothic eclipses the classical by a certain richness and complexity, at once lively and mysterious. This is true; but oriental decoration is equally rich and complex, yet it awakens a widely different sentiment.” – The Architect of Spears


I emphatically agree. I love how he says things that we intuitively know, but don’t notice as being true. It seems inappropriate to say that there is something about Gothic architecture that inherently communicates something spiritual. It seems as though the modern philosopher would say that if we have any religious association with Gothic architecture it is because we were trained to do so. Perhaps that is right. None the less, I cannot change the fact that as early as sixth grade I knew that there was a spiritual difference between the Taj Mahal, a Chinese pagoda, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.


In my sixth grade social studies class my teacher took us on a world tour. In each region of the world we studied religious architecture. I remember being impressed by the peacefulness of the Taj Mahal. That beautiful rounded dome sat beside a serene pool with a cool sky as a backdrop. I remember thinking that that religion must be one of quietness, stillness, peace, and contemplation.


I remember studying a Chinese pagoda in detail so that I could build it out of sugar cubes. I remember thinking about how precise it was. How geometric. How organized it’s beauty was. I remember thinking that that must symbolize something organized and balanced and precise about the religion of those people. Something about order and the ordering of energy.


My parents took me to Europe when I was at the very end of my second grade year. We walked through a lot of cathedrals. We saw a lot of gargoyles. We heard stories about a lot of peaks and spires. I remember walking away from that experience with the clear understanding that cathedrals represent the war between heaven and earth. As man’s soul tries to climb towards heaven, it does so in a garish and assaulting way. It must pull free of all of the earthly trappings and become smaller as it goes higher. The gargoyles remind us that the spiritual world is all around us and both beautiful and hideous. Gothic cathedrals have an ugly kind of beauty. A poetry that communicates that man’s very best effort at beauty will always fall short of the ideal but be better than no attempt at all.


I really appreciate Chesterton’s short essays like this because they give me the opportunity to play with ideas. In this case, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. As he described the architecture, my mind was flooded with childhood memories of Cathedrals as well as other religious houses. Chesterton prompted me to revisit childish impressions with adult understanding. And exercises like that are satisfying on several levels. While he could not have known that this reader would be taken back to childhood, he probably assumed that many of his readers would be. Since Cathedrals are so commonplace in his homeland, this essay probably struck a childish nerve in many as it did in me. And that, really, is trademark Chesterton. Joseph Pearce’s biography of G.K. Chesterton is entitled Wisdom and Innocence because that was the hallmark of Chesterton’s writing. GKC put a high value on the wisdom and innocence of childhood that we, as adults, must strive to recover. Perhaps as we try to ascend to heaven like Gothic spires, we must become small again.


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The First Olympics

In June of 1894, Pierre de Coubertin and his newly organized International Olympic Committee unanimously voted to schedule the first Olympics of the modern era to open in April of 1896 in Athens, Greece. Over the next two years, 13 countries would assemble teams of athletes to represent their nation in this peaceful international assembly of goodwill. For two weeks, every four years, the world would build something positive together.

Actual American Olympic Team in Athens 1896

In May 1984, a beautiful t.v. movie mini-series about these first modern Olympics was released to coincide with the 1984 Summer Olympics. This series boasted a t.v. all-star cast (Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Honor Blackman, Louis Jourdan, etc.), gorgeous sets and costumes, and really excellent family-friendly storytelling. Over several episodes, viewers were drawn into the triumphant and heroic story of the establishment of the modern Olympic games.

In the summer of 1984, I was eight years old and our young family was mesmerized by the Summer Olympics. Like families everywhere, we were glued to the television watching swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and diving. This mini-series allowed us to keep the excitement of the Olympics alive long after the games were over.

Still from the film

Beautifully told through an optimistic and virtuous filter,  it is devoid of crass language, sexual content, and alcohol. Following the stories of the American athletes, the famous Australian Edwin Flack, and the Greek marathoner Spiridon Louis, families are transported back in time to a very special (and romantic) moment in history.

Chariots of Fire was released in 1981. Anne of Green Gables was released in 1985. The First Olympics has a feel very similar to both of those productions and captures many of the same wholesome notes.

Actual Robert Garrett at the 1896 Olympic Games

There are so many things that we take for granted today when we think of the Olympics. We think of a universal calendar. We think of standardized weights and specs for the discus. We think of standard rules for the pole vault. But when the first modern Olympics took place, little was standard and everyone had some surprises. While many of the facts surrounding the Olympics are lost, the discus issue, for example, with Robert Garrett was clearly documented in many reliable sources. (In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I am being vague.)

This living history movie is a romanticized but compelling look inside the process of recruiting athletes and coaches, training and housing the team, fundraising for their passage to the games in Greece, and ultimately hosting a successful Olympic games.

1896 Olympic Stadium

At 3 hours and 57 minutes, our family watched this in one hour segments across four Sunday nights during the long cold winter. There is one scene that turns out very wholesomely, but may cause conservative parents initial concern: when the boys are preparing for the first public exposition with local fans, they misunderstand and think that they must compete as the ancient Greeks did – in the nude. The camera angle is such that we see next to nothing and the coaches rush them back into the bath houses to put on clothing. We do have one quick rear view.

Posted in Book Lovers Community

A Town Like Alice

War is a barbaric, dehumanizing and destructive force that rips families apart and tears nations to shreds. Like a wildfire, it has no mercy and it is indiscriminate in its destruction. Also like a wildfire, however, it can be a catalyzing force for new growth and potential.

Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice is a long, intricate, emotional, and deeply fascinating look at life during Japanese occupation and post-war life after much destruction. But even more than that, it is a story about the search for vocation. Our favorite characters in this novel endure incredible, unthinkable, suffering during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during WWII. At the risk of sounding cliché, what did not kill them, made them so much stronger. Ordinary people living through extraordinary circumstances discovered something about themselves that could only be uncovered under extreme pressure.


In this story, the reader follows English born Miss Jean Paget from post-war England back in time to the Japanese invasion of Malaysia where she was a typist in a rubber factory. The first half of this tropical novel more or less covers her experience as a prisoner of war. Once that chapter of her life has been explained, we follow Jean back to Malaysia and on to Australia and her new endeavors for the remainder of the book.

Before the war, Jean was a young woman of no particular consequence. Her behavior during horrific circumstances, however, reveals something very substantial about her character that not even she knew was there. As we hear from Jean, however, it aged her. Three years as a prisoner left a young twenty-something woman feeling like she was seventy. I see now that we have to understand the scars of the survivors if we are going to properly appreciate the rest of the book.


This is not a sad book. There are some sad bits, but overall, it is a romantic book. And by romantic, I mean both definitions of the word. There is a beautiful romance between two noble characters, as well as a romance of ideas and possibilities. While the party of women and children arrested by the Japanese numbered 37 white English at the start of the occupation and concluded at less than half of that number, there was much heroism and beauty even in their suffering. After the war, in the second half of the novel, those lessons of courage and creative compassion are channelled into significantly inspired and powerful ventures.

While the war is a character in and of itself, so too are the Malaysians and the Australians. Shute writes about native peoples in a way that makes us feel as though we can understand their wildly different way of life. He shows the common ground that all of humanity and religions share as well as highlighting the differences in profound ways. As the narrator says in the final chapter, Jean’s letters  “home” to England began as those of an English woman living in a foreign country. By the end of the novel, however, Jean writes herself into the landscape as one of the people who call Australia home.


A beautiful novel, but not one without some major hiccups.

First, the story opens in a very dry and stilted way. A man whom we come to know as Jean’s attorney is laying down his memoir of “The Paget Girl”. Before we can understand that or even meet Jean, however, we are embroiled in matters of a personal estate trust. Had this book not been so passionately recommended by a friend who shares my taste in fiction, I might not have persisted. It is a weak opening, in my opinion, and is absolutely not a foretaste of what is to come.

Second, the story is told generally from an observer’s point of view, but often switches into intimate first person story telling and then back out to third person narrative. It works, but it is a bit quirky. We understand that Jean’s attorney is telling us Jean’s story, as he learned it directly from her and her letters. However, there is so much dialogue in the recollections that it often feels as though it were unfolding in front of us. It also stretches the limits of credibility when some of the very personal and very intimate details of interactions are supposedly recounted to us by Jean’s lawyer via a letter that Jean sent to him. Specifically, the romantic beach scenes. I just don’t think that those details would have been shared in that way. I wish that Shute had not boxed himself in with the format.


Third, while perfectly appropriate to its time and place, modern readers may be offended by the way in which natives in both countries are characterized. For example, in one business, the natives are served in a separate room. I would think that most of the race related elements are typical cultural nuances that were probably pretty accurate of that time and place.  Additionally, even though Jean is a brilliant lead character with incredible leadership skills and business acumen, Shute does put men and women in their very traditional roles. I did not think that it was at all sexists, but modern women may not share my opinion. I chose to take all of these things as being part of the war and early post-war cultural of the Pacific. While modern readers may be sensitive to the way the black and female characters are represented, I don’t think that Shute intended any disrespect or degradation of their valuable contribution to their society.

Finally, there are two scenes that may make this story inappropriate for teen readers, despite the fact that I believe that this is on the Mensa list for highschool students:

  1. In one scene, the Japanese crucify someone as a means of torture. Without spoiling, I can explain that it is jarring but not graphic. Deeply unsettling because of the context but mostly off scene.
  2. There is a romantic beach scene. It is not graphic and it is pretty clear that it goes far but not all the way. It is tastefully done but the couple are not married. The reason why it stops as it does is because they do want to do things in the appropriate order.

All of those criticisms notwithstanding, this story grows beautifully and when we are just over the midway point, we think that it must be getting to the point of finishing up. This, is where the book is its most satisfying. So often authors will give us the happy ending without giving us much information about what happens later. In this case, we understand that the “happy ending” is a series of happy endings and that life lived well is interesting and exciting at every chapter.

The audiobook is extremely well done. The narrator reads in a middle aged English voice for the narrator lines – totally appropriate to the text. Later on, however, he does the accents for the other voices beautifully and authentically. I genuinely enjoyed his vocalization of the story.


There have been 2 attempts to capture this book on the screen. I found the 1956 movie to be a keeper. It is very truncated, in fact, just under half of the book is completely left out. However, it tells the first more than half of the story with real integrity. Of course there are minor changes in order to adapt the story to screen, but it is a very faithful retelling of this compelling book.
The acting is beautiful and the supporting characters are given more personality in the movie then they were in the book because of the excellent craftsmanship of the actors who filled the roles. 

I have not been able to get my hands on the 1980s Australian mini series. All of the reviews I have read say that it is incredible. I continue to be on the lookout for a reasonably priced version on dvd.




Posted in Book Lovers Community

Mother Teresa

This is article is in our modern Missionaries, Mystics, and Martyrs series. You can find all of our Christian biography articles here.

Of my free will, dear Jesus, I shall follow You wherever You shall go, in search of souls, at any cost to myself, and out of pure love of you.” – Mother Teresa of Calcutta

In 1910 Anjezë (Agnes) Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Macedonia – one of many Serbians displaced by the constant political churning of the Ottoman Empire.  Nikollë and Dranafile Bojaxhiu, were middle class and Roman Catholic. When her father died, likely killed for political reasons, Agnes was only eight years old. Never wealthy but always willing to share with the poor, Agnes’ mother was very devout and believed passionately in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:40 RSV-CE

Typical of young children, Agnes struggled against selfishness. At one point, her mother saw an opportunity to help shape her daughter’s character. When Agnes was being lazy in the care of an elderly woman, Dranafile explained that every time they treated the poor and lonely with dignity and love, they were living out the five finger Gospel: “You did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40). Dranafile counted each word on a finger illustrating that Agnes would always have a reminder of Christ’s command just by looking at the hands she should use to serve Him. This admonition rooted itself in Agnes’ heart and remained there for the rest of her life.

Every act of love is a work of peace no matter how small.” – Mother Teresa


By the time Agnes was ten, she yearned to become a missionary and serve Christ wherever He called her. Inspired by the stories of great missionaries, Agnes shared this desire with her parish priest who liberally shared his library with her. With his help, and her mother’s blessing, Agnes joined the Sisters of Loreto in Rathfarnham, Ireland at the age of 18, because of their international missionary work. In Ireland, she began the process of becoming a nun while also learning English. A year later she began her official novitiate in Darjeeling, India where she would make her first vows as Sister Teresa and teach in a school for colonial and high caste Indian girls.


For about 20 years, Sister Teresa was very happy as a teacher and mentor to the girls in the Loreto convent school in Entally, Calcutta. Over time, however, she was became more and more uneasy about the rampant poverty swelling in the streets outside her convent walls. Like the foundress of the Loreto Sisters, Mary Ward, Sister Teresa longed to go out into streets and minister to the poor, the forgotten, the dying and the orphans. The colonial structure in India, however, prevented nuns from leaving the convent and interfering in the local crisis.

In 1946, travelling from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, Teresa was seized by a deeply mystical experience. At a train station, she heard our Lord clearly, articulately, say “ I thirst.” In the broken body of a homeless man Sister Teresa saw our Lord in a “most distressing disguise.” From that moment on, she was certain that the Lord was calling her to a call within a call. She was adamant that He was calling her to leave the cloister and meet Him in the people of the streets. She understood that she could do a very little to relieve their suffering, but that a very little was exactly what God desired.

Like Jesus we belong to the whole world living not for ourselves but for others. The joy of the Lord is our strength.” – Works of Love Are Works of Peace

The process by which Sister Teresa was able to remain a nun, but leave the Loreto Sisters and establish the Missionaries of Charity is very complex. It is a fascinating look into Catholic understanding of heavenly and earthly obedience, trust in God’s provision, and the safeguards that the Church employs to protect both God’s servants and the integrity of the Gospel. As much as I would like to try to explain this process, I am going to refrain from doing so in this article. It is done so beautifully in Mother Teresa with Olivia Hussey, as well as The Letters, with Juliet Stevenson.

I knew it was His will, and that I had to follow Him. There was no doubt that it was going to be his work. But I waited for the decision of the Church.” – Mother Teresa in an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge in 1969

Ultimately, Teresa was able to receive permission from the Church to leave Loreto and begin work as a Missionary of Charity. At first, the permission was provisional on a trial basis, then in 1950 it came in permanent form.

Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today, I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then, the comfort of Loreto came to tempt me. ‘You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again,’ the Tempter kept on saying … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard.” Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography, Spink

From 1950 until her death in 1997, Mother Teresa continued to serve the poorest of the poor, and Christ in all of His distressing disguises. She, the sisters of her order, the Missionary Brothers, and the Lay Missionaries of Charity have opened homes for the dying, orphanages, schools, and family counselling clinics all over the world. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – which she cared about not at all except that it would draw attention to the poor and the suffering and might inspire others to serve the poor in their midst.


For Mother Teresa, mercy was the ‘salt’ which gave flavour to her work, it was the ‘light’ which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.” – Pope Francis, Holy Mass and Canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was officially canonized by the Catholic Church on September 4, 2016. The canonization process is also a complicated but deeply fascinating process. To learn more about it, check out this cool video

What is necessary is possible.” – CS Lewis, Out of Silent Planet

Mother Teresa was so famous for so long and for such good reason, that many have written about her and several movies have been made trying to tell her story. Reticent to do anything other than pray and tend to the poor, Mother Teresa authorized almost no publicity, gave few interviews, and trusted even fewer with her secrets. Over the years, many journalists wrote about Mother and the Missionaries of Charity – some declaring her a living saint, and some wrote scathing critiques based on half truths. Mother ignored almost all of this. She was interested only in being obedient to God in all things and keeping His work central to her focus.


Something Beautiful For God, by Malcolm Muggeridge

In 1969, Malcolm Muggeridge, a British WWII spy and post-war journalist, obtained a rare interview with Mother Teresa which aired as a documentary. Muggeridge became a lifelong friend of Mother Teresa and claims that he ultimately converted to Catholicism due, in part, to Mother’s persistent prayers for him. Muggeridge’s documentary is very hard to find today, but a beautiful book was published by Harper One’s “Lives of Faith” series containing the interview along with numerous photos and a number of other interesting bits and pieces. Something Beautiful For God is a treasure. The documentary is credited as being the first ambassador of Mother to the world. The spine by Harper One is a  peek inside of the lives of the Missionaries of Charity. The audio is very well done and narrated by Leonard Muggeridge as Malcolm, and Wanda McCaddon as Mother. (McCaddon was the narrator for the Corrie Ten Boom books as well.) In Something Beautiful for God, Muggeridge asked Mother many pointed and intelligent questions and it is hard not to be won over by her charming and humble answers.

That is asking a lot isn’t it? You ask these girls to live like the poorest of the poor, to devote all their time and energy and life to the service of the poor.

This is what they want to give. They want to give to God everything. They know very well that it’s to Christ the hungry and Christ the naked and Christ the homeless that they are doing it. And this conviction and this love is what makes the giving a joy. That’s why you see the Sisters are very happy. They are not forced to be happy; they are naturally happy because they feel that they have found what they have looked for.

But one thing that would strike, I think, anybody looking on, is the magnitude of what you’re tackling and, apart from your own extraordinary faith and the marvelous faith of your Sisters, the smallness of your resources. Don’t you ever feel discouraged? Some people believe that these things should be done by great state organizations, they feel that a few loving souls trying to tackle such a thing is absurd. What do you think about that?

If the work is looked at just by our own eyes and only from our own way, naturally, we ourselves can do nothing. But in Christ we can do all things. That why this work has become possible, because we are convinced that it is he, he who is working with us and through us, in the poor and for the poor.


Works of Love Are Works of Peace by Michael Collopy

“Let us pray that this book will draw people to Jesus, help them to realize how much God loves them, and help them want to pray. Let it be for the glory of God and the Good of His people. God bless you.” – Mother Teresa

As a high school student, Michael Collopy saw Malcolm Muggeridge’s documentary Something Beautiful For God, and was deeply moved by it. He thought that Mother Teresa’s witness was powerful and wanted to know more. In 1982 he was beginning his career in professional photography and had the opportunity to meet Mother in San Francisco. From then on, they were friends and he became involved in the ministry of the Missionaries of Charity in San Francisco. Over ten years he took photos of their work both in San Francisco and all over the world and slowly compiled, with Mother’s permission, this absolutely gorgeous photo journey through the ministries of the Missionaries of Charity.


This coffee table book is all in black and white. The photos are deeply moving and show us how distressing a disguise our Lord wears in the poorest of the poor. Sprinkled throughout are prayers, quotes, and stories from Mother and some of the sisters. At the end of the book are pages of details about the prayer life and routines of the Missionaries of Charity.

I have purchased this book many times since discovering it. It makes such a compelling and beautiful gift and I can not bear to not have a copy in my home for easy access.

Mother Teresa, starring Olivia Hussey

“I am just a pencil in the hand of God.” – Mother Teresa

Olivia Hussey has had an incredible career! In 1968, she gave an outstanding performance of Juliet, in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. In 1977, she played Mary the Mother of Jesus, in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. In 1982, she was gorgeous and graceful as Rebecca the Jewess, in Hallmark Hall of Fame’s Ivanhoe. In 1989, she played the part of Therese in The Jeweler’s Shop, which is a film adapted from a play penned by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). But my favorite performance of her career is that of  Mother Teresa in the powerful 2003 film, Mother Teresa.

At over 100 minutes, this substantial film gives the viewers an emotional and sincere look into the complicated and noteworthy life of Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. What a gift it is to have films like this which can help us to visualize the otherwise unfathomable depravity of the slums of Calcutta. But more than that, what a gift it is to have film that tried so hard to capture the radiant joy and the persistent obedience of Mother Teresa and all those around her who likewise were trying to serve Christ in all of His distressing disguises.

While the film is very bright, joyful, and hopeful, it may not be suitable for all children. Sensitive children may be overwhelmed by the poverty and the sadness of certain aspects. All of my children have watched it (5, 7, and 9), but as Catholics, they are routinely exposed to saint stories which contain some unsettling material. I strongly urge families to preview before showing to children younger than high school.


Meditations from a Simple Path

This is one of my favorite little prayer books. A pocket-sized book, it is a treasury of meaningful short prayers that can encourage any spiritual life. The audio is particularly beautiful, and I often listen to it when I am struggling with insomnia in the middle of the night, or when I am struggling under the weight of something heavy and cannot find my own words for prayer.

In The Heart of the World

Slightly larger than the pocket-sized Meditations from a Simple Path, this is another gift-worthy little prayer book. This one is a collection of stories and prayers from Mother Teresa that I have used in ministry when opening a meeting, a retreat, or just praying with teens. I have also used this in my prayer life when I am looking for something that speaks the Gospel into our modernity with clarity and tenderness. Not too large for a purse or a glove box, it is a great book to keep in the car.

Mother Teresa: A Life Inspired by Wyatt North

Wyatt North is a Catholic biographer who writes of the lives of great Catholics and Christians. His writing is friendly, well-researched, and well-intentioned. This short but well-packed biography on Mother Teresa is a lovely introduction to those who have not read more scholarly or spiritual books about her. More substantial than a children’s biography, it is very accessible to younger readers and families. The audio was a great listen while I folded laundry and cleaned bathrooms.