In 2007, a new book about Mother Teresa was published, grabbing headlines and causing people around the world to look at her in a completely new light.
The book was called Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta.” In it, Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a priest-member of the Missionaries of Charity, released a collection of Mother Teresa’s letters and personal writings that showed how she spent the last fifty years of her life in almost total spiritual darkness. It turns out that for decades, this beloved nun who was looked up to as a model of holiness felt nothing but the absence of God in her heart. She felt “as if everything was dead” in her spirit and wondered, “How long will Our Lord stay away?” How could this be?
This was no temporary “dry period” to be resolved by extra prayer, clearer repentance, or a deeper surrender to Jesus. In fact, there was nothing temporary about this darkness. Except for a brief period around the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, Mother Teresa experienced no reprieve from her sense of isolation for the rest of her life.
A Mature, Spiritual Woman. This was a disturbing revelation, giving rise to a number of questions. Is this really how God treats his most faithful and loyal servants? Was Mother Teresa really living a lie? Was she deceived? Or worse, was she a hypocrite to tell all of us to give our hearts to Jesus when it felt to her like God didn’t even exist?
As we try to answer these questions, it would be helpful to remember that it was not always this way for Mother Teresa. From her earliest years, she had a vibrant prayer life, which gave her a deep joy and a strong love for the people around her. Especially around the time of her calling into the slums of Calcutta, Mother Teresa felt very close to Jesus, even to the point of hearing his voice speaking to her heart. As he unfolded his plan for her and her new order, Jesus would call her “my own spouse,” and “my own little one.” And she would respond by calling him, “my own Jesus.” Clearly, these are not the words of one suffering from spiritual desolation!
It is also helpful to remember that Mother Teresa was already thirty-six years old when she heard the Lord call her into the slums. And the darkness didn’t descend until she actually began that work two years later. At that point, she had been living the life of a Loreto Sister for twenty years—praying, meditating on Scripture, giving herself in service to others, and drawing closer to the Lord.
This is important because it tells us that Mother Teresa was already a deeply spiritual woman when she began to experience this spiritual emptiness. It tells us that Mother Teresa was a mature, stable woman with years of experience in the spiritual life. What’s more, her heroic dedication to her calling to the poor and her persistence in talking about the love of Jesus tell us that much more was going on in her heart than a simple dry spell. No, Mother Teresa continued to believe. She continued to serve his people. And she continued to love Jesus deeply. She didn’t lose her faith, and she never stopped surrendering herself to God’s will, no matter how hard it was.
Embracing the Darkness. So how did Mother Teresa respond to this darkness and emptiness? For years, she grieved over it, wondering what she could possibly have done to make the Lord withdraw from her. Was there some secret sin or defect on her soul? Had she displeased him in some way? She continued her work, however, and confided her inner turmoil to her confessor and spiritual director, both of whom helped counsel her.
It is a sign of her faith that rather than collapse in despair, rather than return to the relative security of the Loreto convent, rather than run away from religious life, Mother Teresa pressed on. She sensed somehow that God himself was behind her darkness, and she had vowed as a young woman not to refuse Jesus anything he asked of her.
It wasn’t until about eleven years into her work that, with the help of another spiritual director, she came to understand what was going on in her.
“I have come to love the darkness,” she wrote, “for I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” In this and other letters, Mother Teresa showed that she had come to see her painful situation as a way of sharing in Jesus’ life—a mysterious sharing in his suffering and in his cross.
Becoming One with the Poor. Why would God place such a burden on Mother Teresa? Perhaps we can answer this by looking at the special calling he had for her. Mother Teresa traced this call to the date of September 10, 1946. “It was on this day,” she wrote, “in the train to Darjeeling that God gave me the ‘call within a call’ to satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving Him in the poorest of the poor.”
During that train ride, Mother Teresa received a deep sense of how Jesus was thirsting for the poor, the dying, the forgotten. He was longing for their love, and he was longing to share his love with them. So many homeless and hopeless were easy prey for temptation and sin. So many sick and dying in the slums were longing for someone to give them a cup of cool water, a word of comfort, or a gentle embrace. But no one was helping them.
Mother Teresa sensed that God was calling her to care for these poor souls, both materially and spiritually. She sensed that by giving them the attention and love they craved, she could bring Jesus to them, and in the process quench both their thirst for him and his thirst for them. And she sensed that this calling would cost her quite a bit. It seems, however, that she was not expecting the cost to be as steep as it really was.
Not only would she bear the cost of becoming materially poor like the people she cared for. God wanted her to become spiritually poor as well. And so he “withdrew” from her so that she could meet these discarded, abandoned people as one of them in every way, feeling deeply their isolation, loneliness, and forgottenness. God remained “distant” from her so that she could feel deeply the thirst for love and affirmation that these poor ones knew. God made it feel as if he was rejecting her so that she could understand how alienated and isolated the poor felt.
“I Thirst.” In this spiritual union with the poor, Mother Teresa came to embody—and to experience herself—the thirst that Jesus has for all of us. Imagine the desolation of never seeing someone you love, even though you long with all of your heart to be with him or her. Imagine the sadness of having once enjoyed a person’s friendship only to feel now that that person has rejected you. This must have been how Jesus felt as he hung on the cross. This must be how Jesus feels, too, as he looks on the world and sees so many people who don’t know him or worse, have turned away from him.
This revelation of Mother Teresa’s inner darkness can be unsettling to us. After all, if a woman as holy and dedicated as this felt nothing from the Lord, what hope is there for the rest of us? But as unsettling as it may be, Mother Teresa’s story can also teach us much.
First, Mother Teresa’s story can teach us about the power of our own faith and trust. She never stopped believing in Jesus, even when it felt as if he had abandoned her. She never gave up on the Lord, and she never turned her back on the calling he gave her. She shows us that when we act in pure faith as she did, God will give us the strength we need to persevere and even succeed. Like Mother Teresa, we may not feel any affirmation from the Lord. But again like her, we can trust that if we have done all we can do, God will be pleased with us, and he will reward us.
Second, and perhaps most important, it can teach us how deeply Jesus longs for each of us. In her longing for the Lord, as well as in her determination to give of herself to everyone, Mother Teresa gave a human face to an important spiritual principle. Her ready smile, her eagerness to serve, and her determination in the face of interior darkness all show us how Jesus looks upon us. In a sense, our Lord feels dry every day because of our lack of faith. Every day, he suffers over the sins we commit, both large and small. And yet every day he pours himself out for us, hoping to win us back to himself just a little bit more. Mother Teresa’s faithfulness, as impressive as it was, is but a pale shadow of Jesus’ commitment to us.
May Mother Teresa’s life, her faith, and her unwavering love become for all of us an image of God’s love for us—and an example of the kind of love that we can all give back to him.