Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith By David Van Biema
By David Van Biema Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007
Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the “Saint of the Gutters,” went to Oslo. Dressed in her signature blue-bordered sari and shod in sandals despite below-zero temperatures, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu received that ultimate worldly accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance lecture, Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity had grown from a one-woman folly in Calcutta in 1948 into a global beacon of self-abnegating care, delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,'” she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had “[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate. She condemned abortion and bemoaned youthful drug addiction in the West. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world “that radiating joy is real” because Christ is everywhere — “Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.”
Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she assured Van der Peet. “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”
The two statements, 11 weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.
And in fact, that appears to be the case. A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist.”
That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she writes, is “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love,” she remarks to an adviser. “If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.'” Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and the author of My Life with the Saints, a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa’s doubts: “I’ve never read a saint’s life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented.” Recalls Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light’s editor: “I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her.”
The book is hardly the work of some antireligious investigative reporter who Dumpster-dived for Teresa’s correspondence. Kolodiejchuk, a senior Missionaries of Charity member, is her postulator, responsible for petitioning for her sainthood and collecting the supporting materials. (Thus far she has been beatified; the next step is canonization.) The letters in the book were gathered as part of that process.
The church anticipates spiritually fallow periods. Indeed, the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross in the 16th century coined the term the “dark night” of the soul to describe a characteristic stage in the growth of some spiritual masters. Teresa’s may be the most extensive such case on record. (The “dark night” of the 18th century mystic St. Paul of the Cross lasted 45 years; he ultimately recovered.) Yet Kolodiejchuk sees it in St. John’s context, as darkness within faith. Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with it and abandoned neither her belief nor her work. Kolodiejchuk produced the book as proof of the faith-filled perseverance that he sees as her most spiritually heroic act.
Two very different Catholics predict that the book will be a landmark. The Rev. Matthew Lamb, chairman of the theology department at the conservative Ave Maria University in Florida, thinks Come Be My Light will eventually rank with St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain as an autobiography of spiritual ascent. Martin of America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book “a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life,” and says, “It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”
Not all atheists and doubters will agree. Both Kolodiejchuk and Martin assume that Teresa’s inability to perceive Christ in her life did not mean he wasn’t there. In fact, they see his absence as part of the divine gift that enabled her to do great work. But to the U.S.’s increasingly assertive cadre of atheists, that argument will seem absurd. They will see the book’s Teresa more like the woman in the archetypal country-and-western song who holds a torch for her husband 30 years after he left to buy a pack of cigarettes and never returned. Says Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, a scathing polemic on Teresa, and more recently of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great: “She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.” Meanwhile, some familiar with the smiling mother’s extraordinary drive may diagnose her condition less as a gift of God than as a subconscious attempt at the most radical kind of humility: she punished herself with a crippling failure to counterbalance her great successes.
Come Be My Light is that rare thing, a posthumous autobiography that could cause a wholesale reconsideration of a major public figure — one way or another. It raises questions about God and faith, the engine behind great achievement, and the persistence of love, divine and human. That it does so not in any organized, intentional form but as a hodgepodge of desperate notes not intended for daylight should leave readers only more convinced that it is authentic — and that they are, somewhat shockingly, touching the true inner life of a modern saint.
Prequel: Near Ecstatic Communion
[Jesus:] Wilt thou refuse to do this for me? … You have become my Spouse for my love — you have come to India for Me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far — Are you afraid to take one more step for Your Spouse — for me — for souls? Is your generosity grown cold? Am I a second to you?
[Teresa:] Jesus, my own Jesus — I am only Thine — I am so stupid — I do not know what to say but do with me whatever You wish — as You wish — as long as you wish. [But] why can’t I be a perfect Loreto Nun — here — why can’t I be like everybody else.
[Jesus:] I want Indian Nuns, Missionaries of Charity, who would be my fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children … You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?
— in a prayer dialogue recounted to Archbishop Ferdinand Perier, January 1947
On Sept. 10, 1946, after 17 years as a teacher in Calcutta with the Loreto Sisters (an uncloistered, education-oriented community based in Ireland), Mother Mary Teresa, 36, took the 400-mile (645-km) train trip to Darjeeling. She had been working herself sick, and her superiors ordered her to relax during her annual retreat in the Himalayan foothills. On the ride out, she reported, Christ spoke to her. He called her to abandon teaching and work instead in “the slums” of the city, dealing directly with “the poorest of the poor” — the sick, the dying, beggars and street children. “Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor,” he told her. “Come be My light.” The goal was to be both material and evangelistic — as Kolodiejchuk puts it, “to help them live their lives with dignity [and so] encounter God’s infinite love, and having come to know Him, to love and serve Him in return.”
It was wildly audacious — an unfunded, single-handed crusade (Teresa stipulated that she and her nuns would share their beneficiaries’ poverty and started out alone) to provide individualized service to the poorest in a poor city made desperate by riots. The local Archbishop, Ferdinand Périer, was initially skeptical. But her letters to him, preserved, illustrate two linked characteristics — extreme tenacity and a profound personal bond to Christ. When Périer hesitated, Teresa, while calling herself a “little nothing,” bombarded him with notes suggesting that he refer the question to an escalating list of authorities — the local apostolic delegation, her Mother General, the Pope. And when she felt all else had failed, she revealed the spiritual topper: a dramatic (melodramatic, really) dialogue with a “Voice” she eventually revealed to be Christ’s. It ended with Jesus’ emphatic reiteration of his call to her: “You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use you for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?”
Mother Teresa had visions, including one of herself conversing with Christ on the Cross. Her confessor, Father Celeste Van Exem, was convinced that her mystical experiences were genuine. “[Her] union with Our Lord has been continual and so deep and violent that rapture does not seem very far,” he commented. Teresa later wrote simply, “Jesus gave Himself to me.”
Then on Jan. 6, 1948, Périer, after consulting the Vatican, finally gave permission for Teresa to embark on her second calling. And Jesus took himself away again.
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated
In the first half of 1948, Teresa took a basic medical course before launching herself alone onto the streets of Calcutta. She wrote, “My soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.” Kolodiejchuk includes her moving description of her first day on the job: “The old man lying on the street — not wanted — all alone just sick and dying — I gave him carborsone and water to drink and the old Man — was so strangely grateful … Then we went to Taltala Bazaar, and there was a very poor woman dying I think of starvation more than TB … I gave her something which will help her to sleep. — I wonder how long she will last.” But two months later, shortly after her major triumph of locating a space for her headquarters, Kolodiejchuk’s files find her troubled. “What tortures of loneliness,” she wrote. “I wonder how long will my heart suffer this?” This complaint could be understood as an initial response to solitude and hardship were it not for subsequent letters. The more success Teresa had — and half a year later so many young women had joined her society that she needed to move again — the worse she felt. In March 1953, she wrote Périer, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.'”
Périer may have missed the note of desperation. “God guides you, dear Mother,” he answered avuncularly. “You are not so much in the dark as you think … You have exterior facts enough to see that God blesses your work … Feelings are not required and often may be misleading.” And yet feelings — or rather, their lack — became her life’s secret torment. How can you assume the lover’s ardor when he no longer grants you his voice, his touch, his very presence? The problem was exacerbated by an inhibition to even describe it. Teresa reported on several occasions inviting a confessor to visit and then being unable to speak. Eventually, one thought to ask her to write the problem down, and she complied. “The more I want him — the less I am wanted,” she wrote Périer in 1955. A year later she sounded desolate: “Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. — [The saving of] Souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”
At the suggestion of a confessor, she wrote the agonized plea that begins this section, in which she explored the theological worst-possible-case implications of her dilemma. That letter and another one from 1959 (“What do I labour for? If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no Soul then Jesus — You also are not true”) are the only two that sound any note of doubt of God’s existence. But she frequently bemoaned an inability to pray: “I utter words of Community prayers — and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give — But my prayer of union is not there any longer — I no longer pray.”
As the Missionaries of Charity flourished and gradually gained the attention of her church and the world at large, Teresa progressed from confessor to confessor the way some patients move through their psychoanalysts. Van Exem gave way to Périer, who gave way in 1959 to the Rev. (later Cardinal) Lawrence Picachy, who was succeeded by the Rev. Joseph Neuner in 1961. By the 1980s the chain included figures such as Bishop William Curlin of Charlotte, N.C. For these confessors, she developed a kind of shorthand of pain, referring almost casually to “my darkness” and to Jesus as “the Absent One.” There was one respite. In October 1958, Pope Pius XII died, and requiem Masses were celebrated around the Catholic world. Teresa prayed to the deceased Pope for a “proof that God is pleased with the Society.” And “then and there,” she rejoiced, “disappeared the long darkness … that strange suffering of 10 years.” Unfortunately, five weeks later she reported being “in the tunnel” once more. And although, as we shall see, she found a way to accept the absence, it never lifted again. Five years after her Nobel, a Jesuit priest in the Calcutta province noted that “Mother came … to speak about the excruciating night in her soul. It was not a passing phase but had gone on for years.” A 1995 letter discussed her “spiritual dryness.” She died in 1997.
Tell me, Father, why is there so much pain and darkness in my soul?
— to the Rev. Lawrence Picachy, August 1959
Why did Teresa’s communication with Jesus, so vivid and nourishing in the months before the founding of the Missionaries, evaporate so suddenly? Interestingly, secular and religious explanations travel for a while on parallel tracks. Both understand (although only one celebrates) that identification with Christ’s extended suffering on the Cross, undertaken to redeem humanity, is a key aspect of Catholic spirituality. Teresa told her nuns that physical poverty ensured empathy in “giving themselves” to the suffering poor and established a stronger bond with Christ’s redemptive agony. She wrote in 1951 that the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus’ life that she was interested in sharing: “I want to … drink ONLY [her emphasis] from His chalice of pain.” And so she did, although by all indications not in a way she had expected.
Kolodiejchuk finds divine purpose in the fact that Teresa’s spiritual spigot went dry just as she prevailed over her church’s perceived hesitations and saw a successful way to realize Jesus’ call for her. “She was a very strong personality,” he suggests. “And a strong personality needs stronger purification” as an antidote to pride. As proof that it worked, he cites her written comment after receiving an important prize in the Philippines in the 1960s: “This means nothing to me, because I don’t have Him.”
And yet “the question is, Who determined the abandonment she experienced?” says Dr. Richard Gottlieb, a teacher at the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute who has written about the church and who was provided a copy of the book by TIME. “Could she have imposed it on herself?” Psychologists have long recognized that people of a certain personality type are conflicted about their high achievement and find ways to punish themselves. Gottlieb notes that Teresa’s ambitions for her ministry were tremendous. Both he and Kolodiejchuk are fascinated by her statement, “I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before.” Remarks the priest: “That’s a kind of daring thing to say.” Yet her letters are full of inner conflict about her accomplishments. Rather than simply giving all credit to God, Gottlieb observes, she agonizes incessantly that “any taking credit for her accomplishments — if only internally — is sinful” and hence, perhaps, requires a price to be paid. A mild secular analog, he says, might be an executive who commits a horrific social gaffe at the instant of a crucial promotion. For Teresa, “an occasion for a modicum of joy initiated a significant quantity of misery,” and her subsequent successes led her to perpetuate it.
Gottlieb also suggests that starting her ministry “may have marked a turning point in her relationship with Jesus,” whose urgent claims she was finally in a position to fulfill. Being the active party, he speculates, might have scared her, and in the end, the only way to accomplish great things might have been in the permanent and less risky role of the spurned yet faithful lover.
The atheist position is simpler. In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: “There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance,” he says. “They thought, ‘Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I’m not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.’ They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired.” That, he says, was Teresa.
Most religious readers will reject that explanation, along with any that makes her the author of her own misery — or even defines it as true misery. Martin, responding to the torch-song image of Teresa, counter-proposes her as the heroically constant spouse. “Let’s say you’re married and you fall in love and you believe with all your heart that marriage is a sacrament. And your wife, God forbid, gets a stroke and she’s comatose. And you will never experience her love again. It’s like loving and caring for a person for 50 years and once in a while you complain to your spiritual director, but you know on the deepest level that she loves you even though she’s silent and that what you’re doing makes sense. Mother Teresa knew that what she was doing made sense.”
I can’t express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in … years — I have come to love the darkness — for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a ‘spiritual side of your work’ as you wrote — Today really I felt a deep joy — that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony — but that He wants to go through it in me.
— to Neuner, Circa 1961
There are two responses to trauma: to hold onto it in all its vividness and remain its captive, or without necessarily “conquering” it, to gradually integrate it into the day-by-day. After more than a decade of open-wound agony, Teresa seems to have begun regaining her spiritual equilibrium with the help of a particularly perceptive adviser. The Rev. Joseph Neuner, whom she met in the late 1950s and confided in somewhat later, was already a well-known theologian, and when she turned to him with her “darkness,” he seems to have told her the three things she needed to hear: that there was no human remedy for it (that is, she should not feel responsible for affecting it); that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and her very craving for God was a “sure sign” of his “hidden presence” in her life; and that the absence was in fact part of the “spiritual side” of her work for Jesus.
This counsel clearly granted Teresa a tremendous sense of release. For all that she had expected and even craved to share in Christ’s Passion, she had not anticipated that she might recapitulate the particular moment on the Cross when he asks, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The idea that rather than a nihilistic vacuum, his felt absence might be the ordeal she had prayed for, that her perseverance in its face might echo his faith unto death on the Cross, that it might indeed be a grace, enhancing the efficacy of her calling, made sense of her pain. Neuner would later write, “It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus’ passion.” And she thanked Neuner profusely: “I can’t express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in … years — I have come to love the darkness. ”
Not that it didn’t continue to torment her. Years later, describing the joy in Jesus experienced by some of her nuns, she observed dryly to Neuner, “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist].” She described her soul as like an “ice block.” Yet she recognized Neuner’s key distinction, writing, “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.” Although she still occasionally worried that she might “turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness,” with the passage of years the absence morphed from a potential wrecking ball into a kind of ragged cornerstone. Says Gottlieb, the psychoanalyst: “What is remarkable is that she integrated it in a way that enabled her to make it the organizing center of her personality, the beacon for her ongoing spiritual life.” Certainly, she understood it as essential enough to project it into her afterlife. “If I ever become a Saint — I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven — to [light] the light of those in darkness on earth,” she wrote in 1962. Theologically, this is a bit odd since most orthodox Christianity defines heaven as God’s eternal presence and doesn’t really provide for regular no-shows at the heavenly feast. But it is, Kolodiejchuk suggests, her most moving statement, since the sacrifice involved is infinite. “When she wrote, ‘I am willing to suffer … for all eternity, if this [is] possible,'” he says, “I said, Wow.”
He contends that the letters reveal her as holier than anyone knew. However formidable her efforts on Christ’s behalf, it is even more astounding to realize that she achieved them when he was not available to her — a bit like a person who believes she can’t walk winning the Olympic 100 meters. Kolodiejchuk goes even further. Catholic theologians recognize two types of “dark night”: the first is purgative, cleansing the contemplative for a “final union” with Christ; the second is “reparative,” and continues after such a union, so that he or she may participate in a state of purity even closer to that of Jesus and Mary, who suffered for human salvation despite being without sin. By the end, writes Kolodiejchuk, “by all indications this was the case with Mother Teresa.” That puts her in rarefied company.
A New Ministry
If this brings You glory — if souls are brought to you — with joy I accept all to the end of my life.
— to Jesus, undated
But for most people, Teresa’s ranking among Catholic saints may be less important than a more general implication of Come Be My Light: that if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem. One powerful instance of this may have occurred very early on. In 1968, British writer-turned-filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge visited Teresa. Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived with a film crew in Calcutta he was in full spiritual-search mode. Beyond impressing him with her work and her holiness, she wrote a letter to him in 1970 that addressed his doubts full-bore. “Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you,” she wrote. “He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite.” Muggeridge apparently did. He became an outspoken Christian apologist and converted to Catholicism in 1982. His 1969 film, Something Beautiful for God, supported by a 1971 book of the same title, made Teresa an international sensation.
At the time, Muggeridge was something of a unique case. A child of privilege who became a minor celebrity, he was hardly Teresa’s target audience. Now, with the publication of Come Be My Light, we can all play Muggeridge. Kolodiejchuk thinks the book may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. “The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”
America’s Martin wants to talk precisely in religious terms. “Everything she’s experiencing,” he says, “is what average believers experience in their spiritual lives writ large. I have known scores of people who have felt abandoned by God and had doubts about God’s existence. And this book expresses that in such a stunning way but shows her full of complete trust at the same time.” He takes a breath. “Who would have thought that the person who was considered the most faithful woman in the world struggled like that with her faith?” he asks. “And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?” Martin has long used Teresa as an example to parishioners of self-emptying love. Now, he says, he will use her extraordinary faith in the face of overwhelming silence to illustrate how doubt is a natural part of everyone’s life, be it an average believer’s or a world-famous saint’s.
Into the Light of Day
Please destroy any letters or anything I have written.
— to Picachy, April 1959
Consistent with her ongoing fight against pride, Teresa’s rationale for suppressing her personal correspondence was “I want the work to remain only His.” If the letters became public, she explained to Picachy, “people will think more of me — less of Jesus.”
The particularly holy are no less prone than the rest of us to misjudge the workings of history — or, if you will, of God’s providence. Teresa considered the perceived absence of God in her life as her most shameful secret but eventually learned that it could be seen as a gift abetting her calling. If her worries about publicizing it also turn out to be misplaced — if a book of hasty, troubled notes turns out to ease the spiritual road of thousands of fellow believers, there would be no shame in having been wrong — but happily, even wonderfully wrong — twice.
A Light in the 21st Century’s “Dark Night”
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, SEPT. 01, 2007 (Zenit) – As a respected Boston lawyer once remarked of recent biographies, “It’s tough times for the dead.” A case in point was the cover of last week’s Time magazine. Splashed across the front page ran the headline “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa,” accompanied by the gloomiest picture you ever saw of the saintly nun.
With its sensationalist title, Time magazine not only descended to the level of tabloid journalism, but betrayed a woeful ignorance of the meaning of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s spiritual journey.
Capitulating to the fad of finding the sordid behind the glitter, where titles like “Britney’s Breakdown” or “Lindsay in Crisis” are guaranteed to boost sales, the article itself feeds into the mentality that things are never as pretty as they seem. In our age of masking our own shortcomings by pointing out the flaws in others, it suggests that Mother Teresa’s joyous love of the poor hid a darker, almost sinister side.
Recent interest in the extraordinary founder of the Missionaries of Charity stemmed from the recently published book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.” Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator for the cause of canonization of the saintly nun who died in 1997, compiled her letters and writings, including a number that revealed Teresa’s spiritual trials.
By releasing these documents, Father Kolodiejchuk sought to grant readers a window into the intimate spiritual life of Mother Teresa, and to offer inspiration and hope by recounting her challenges in following Christ.
Instead, some have twisted her doubts about her faith, which she confided in letters to her spiritual director, into an indictment of her sincerity and personal holiness. Time author David Van Biema writes, “Perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain.”
These terms relate Mother Teresa’s life to that of a comic actor, suggesting that her professional persona and her private self were separate. Yet Teresa did more than just smile for cameras; she demonstrated joyous love, through her every action, gesture and expression.
The predatory glee with which news services leapt upon word of Mother Teresa’s “dark night of the soul” resembled the same relish with which they report celebrity arrests. Questions such as, “Can she still be made a saint?” demonstrated an utter lack of knowledge regarding the Church’s idea of sanctity while attempting to sow division by casting doubts on her holiness.
As a side note, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is blessed, which means that she is officially recognized by the Church as being in heaven. When she becomes a saint, worldwide devotion to Mother Teresa will be permitted, i.e. church dedication, invocation during the liturgy etc.
A different standard
The standards of the media are not those of saints. While Teresa herself feared falling into a sort of spiritual hypocrisy, the fact was that she, like many saints, possessed an especially keen sensitivity to how she fell short of Christ’s example.
Celebrated atheists leapt to recruit the nun to their cause. Christopher Hitchens, who penned a vicious biography of Mother Teresa, was quoted extensively in the article. Seizing the opportunity to reach millions, Hitchens eagerly made his bid to turn Teresa into a poster child for nihilism.
Time also consulted psychologists to posthumously analyze Mother Teresa from her letters. It seems strange that so many people who do not believe in the soul felt themselves qualified to probe that of Mother Teresa’s.
Although many have already rushed to quell these sparks, Mother Teresa obviously needs no defense. Happily situated in heaven along with other doubters like, well, St. Thomas, she is probably beseeching Jesus with her characteristic compassion to forgive Hitchens and the others “for they know not what they do.”
Paradoxically, the divisive aspect of the stories has done what many Church synods couldn’t. Liberal and traditional Catholics have joined forces to correct the record and to recognize Mother Teresa as an example for all people who suffer spiritual loneliness.
Her doubts and suffering, far from being a source of shame for those who love and admire this great woman, should make us proud to discover that she is an even greater hero than we thought.
For anyone seriously interested in the cause of Teresa, her spiritual difficulties come as no surprise. They were made known after her beatification in 2003. Discussing the subject at Roman dinner tables at the time, people spoke with awe of Mother Teresa’s exceptional perseverance in the face of what would have crumbled anyone less attuned to God’s grace.
Mother Teresa’s experiences are not scandal, but a mirror of our own lonely age. While people today try to dispel feelings of loneliness with analysts, medications or pop spirituality, Teresa embraced her loneliness and clung to her faith in Jesus, which, though often devoid of feelings, was solid and profound. What many have failed to notice, in fact, is that a good number of her expressions of solitude are addressed to Jesus himself.
Carole Zaleski in “First Things” wrote that Teresa converted “her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God.”
In many ways, her own sense of marginalization from God helped Mother Teresa to recognize loneliness in others. She proclaimed that there was “more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread.” She realized that rejection and abandonment was not only the province of lepers, but present even in the inner life of those who appear to be successful and privileged.
How many times have we gone to Mass, not “feeling it,” as modern speak would put it. Our lips moving, our gestures mechanical, but we remain distant from the reality of God and his love for us. In that emptiness, temptation raises its head, suggesting that rather than practice this “hypocrisy,” we should forego Mass and go out for a round of golf instead.
Mother Teresa lived her doubts, not for an hour on Sunday, but every day as she tended the poor and dying in utter, relentless squalor. Her example reaches across from Christians to non-Christians.
Benedict XVI, as Father Joseph Ratzinger, made the interesting point in his 1963 “Introduction to Christianity” that “both the believer and the unbeliever share each in his own way, doubt and belief.” That led him to notice that doubt could be a possible “avenue of communication” between the two.
Time and time again, saints show us that when they suffer, the solution is to look outside oneself, not further within. St. Alfonso Liguori and St. John of the Cross both overcame their own troubles by focusing on their calling. As one religious sister acutely observed, when Teresa couldn’t find Jesus in her prayer life, she found him in the faces of her fellow human beings.
Teresa eventually came to give a meaning to her trials. She saw them as a privilege, the gift of sharing in Christ’s loneliness on the cross.
In his film “The Passion,” Mel Gibson painted a wrenching image of Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Amid oppressive darkness, the sight of Jesus, abandoned by his apostles, struggling to continue with his mission, confronts viewers with the sense of desolation that accompanied his sacrifice.
Saints like Blessed Teresa, who faced loneliness in their self-sacrifice, experienced a unique sharing in the mystery of Christ’s passion. Like the purest gold, they have been forged in hotter fires.
Particularly in our era that gives more weight to feelings than facts and to sensation rather than sense, Mother Teresa teaches the world to persevere through doubt, pain and loneliness. In the dark spiritual night of the 21st-century, Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s example is a shining beacon to us all.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org