The long dark night of Mother Teresa

Having offered a reflection on Psalm 42 (following post) and longing for God, this might be a good time to share with you excerpts from James Martin's article on Mother Teresa in the September 21 issue of America. I have not yet read the recently published collection of her letters but I am confident that her experience has much to teach us in the barren desert that our culture, times and spiritual lives can sometimes be.
In My Soul: the long dark night of Mother Teresa

Perhaps Catholics should not have been surprised by the revelations in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, a new collection of letters by the “saint of the gutters” that show her astonishing battle with spiritual darkness. Reports of her “dark night” had been circulating since 2003, when Brian Kolodiejchuk, a priest member of the Missionaries of Charity and postulator for her cause for canonization, published a series of articles about her struggles...

What is new about Come Be My Light is that it gathers together the bulk of letters, which reveals the full measure of her inner turmoil. For the first time readers will learn that Mother Teresa suffered this relentless aridity for roughly 50 years—with one brief respite—until her death in September 1997. “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing,” she wrote to a confessor.

The posthumous collection is largely an extended cry to God, expressed through candid letters. A recurring syntactical habit—the frequent use of dashes—adds to the breathless urgency of her lamentations. “In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, of not being wanted—I want God with all the powers of my soul,” she writes in the letter of 1959 quoted above.

The feeling of God’s absence is not uncommon in the lives of the saints or in the lives of average believers. The Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night“ and posited it as a necessary stage for the ascent to mystical union with God. St. Ignatius of Loyola termed it spiritual desolation in his manual for prayer, The Spiritual Exercises. “One is completely listless, tepid and unhappy,” he wrote, “and feels separated from our Creator and Lord.” During her final illness, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Carmelite nun, experienced a desolation that seemed to reflect doubts over whether or not anything would await her after her death. “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into!” she once said to the sisters in her convent.

For Mother Teresa, the decades of spiritual darkness, which began not long after she founded the Missionaries of Charity, were all the more acute when she reflected on her earlier relationship with Jesus.

The woman born Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu was raised in a devout Catholic family in Skopje, Albania. Her mother, Drana, was a generous woman who used to care for an elderly neighbor who was ravaged by alcoholism and covered with sores. “When you do good,” Drana told her daughter, “do it quietly, as if you were throwing a stone in the sea.”

A Jesuit priest’s talk at her parish stirred within Agnes the desire to do missionary work, and in 1928 at the age of 18 she was overjoyed to be accepted by the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. Three months after her entrance, Sister Mary Teresa (she took the name to honor Thérèse of Lisieux) was sent on a mission to India to work in a girls school in Calcutta. In 1937 she pronounced her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and, as was the custom in her order, was given the title Mother. Five years later she made a private vow to Jesus “not to refuse Him anything.”

In 1946 on a train ride en route to a retreat (and some rest) in Darjeeling, she was surprised to undergo a series of intense mystical experiences, which included hearing the voice of Jesus, who asked her to begin working with the poorest of the poor. “Wilt thou refuse?” asked Jesus. These experiences, which she would term her “call within a call,” convinced her to take the difficult step of leaving the Sisters of Loreto to found a new order.

Her later years of darkness were all the more baffling to her in the wake of the unique graces received early in her religious life. Moreover, since clergy and members of religious orders were (and are) regularly counseled to rely on Jesus as their most intimate friend, his subsequent disappearance from Mother Teresa’s inner life was nearly impossible for her to understand.

She also seems to have been slow to recognize that her darkness may have been a kind of answer to her fervent prayers and private vow; in 1951 she wrote of her wish “to drink only from His chalice of pain” (her emphasis). For the reader who knows what awaits her, this is among the most difficult passages to read in Come Be My Light. The subsequent trials recall the comment of another Teresa, of Avila, who said that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

Ultimately, in 1961 Mother Teresa found some relief from her interior turmoil through the counsel of Joseph Neuner, S.J., who suggested that her dark night might be one way God was inviting her to identify with the abandoned Christ on the cross and with the abandoned poor. He also reminded her that the very longing for God itself came from God. “For the first time in this 11 years,” she wrote the Jesuit theologian, “I have come to love the darkness.” Indeed, one of the many poignant aspects of Come Be My Light is that it makes clear how much someone can suffer without the right spiritual guidance, and how much relief can come with a few words of wise counsel.

Still, while this provided further insight and what one might call intellectual relief, God’s absence continued unabated in her prayer. In 1967 she wrote again to Neuner, “Father I want to tell you how—how my soul longs for God—for him alone, how painful it is to be without Him.”

Mother Teresa understood how odd her situation was: the woman acclaimed as a “living saint” struggled with her faith. Though she sometimes admitted feeling like a “hypocrite,” as she notes in one letter, she decided that a public admission of her struggles would direct focus on herself, rather than on Jesus. Consequently, she suffered her spiritual trials largely alone…

Most believers who read Come Be My Light will at some point ask, “Why would God do this?” Of course one might just as well ask, “Why is there suffering?”

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola suggests three possible explanations for spiritual desolation. First, we may be “tepid, lazy or negligent” in prayer. Clearly this was not the case for Mother Teresa, who was utterly faithful to her daily prayer, to the Mass and to frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Second, it may test “how much we are worth and how far we will extend ourselves in the service and praise of God.” Again, if Mother Teresa, who worked tirelessly until her death, did not “extend herself,” who of us has? Third, it may give us “true recognition” that consolation is “a gift and grace from God our Lord.” In other words, it reminds us who is in control. But after 10 or 20 years of the darkness, Mother Teresa had grasped this, as her letters to her spiritual directors demonstrate.

Any divine “reasons” for her trials remain mysterious. But with hindsight certain fruits of her suffering—besides the heightened ability to identify with the poor—may suggest themselves…

(O)ne might argue that Mother Teresa’s letters, the fruits of her spiritual agony, which she asked to be destroyed, will now help a new group of people. Having ministered to the sick and dying in Calcutta during her lifetime, she will now minister to the doubtful and the doubting as a sort of saint for the skeptics. Could this be a way God will use her sufferings to bring about greater good? Is this the Easter Sunday of Mother Teresa’s long Good Friday? Only God, and now Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, knows the answers…

The unrelieved spiritual aridity of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta makes her earthly accomplishments all the more remarkable. Her letters also offer some lessons to believers. First, they are a reminder that what could be termed radical Christianity is not simply the province of those called saints. Many imagine that since the saints enjoy privileged access to God in prayer, their work is somehow easier, lighter—a mistaken view that excuses the “average believer” from striving for sanctity. Instead, Mother Teresa’s life reminds us that holiness is a goal for all believers, even those given to doubt. Second, her letters remind us that dryness, darkness and doubt are natural parts of the spiritual life, whether ordinary believer or extraordinary saint. Finally, they remind us that fidelity does not depend solely on feelings or emotions…

Blessed Teresa remained heroically faithful to the original call from the very God who seemed to have withdrawn from her. Shortly before her death, one of her sisters noticed her praying alone before an image of Christ and overheard a phrase that could sum up her life. “Jesus,” she prayed, “I have never refused you anything.”

James Martin, S.J., is acting publisher of America and author of My Life With the Saints (Loyola), which will be released in paperback in October.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting reflections on her suffering. After reading her book, I'd mused on her darkness a bit myself, and posted my thoughts here:


    If you've got a moment or three to take a look at it, I'd certainly appreciate your comments or reflections. Again, thanks so much for your thoughts!


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