I have always admired Mother Teresa. Her life, like everybody's, knew struggle, adversity, joy, and sorrow. I met Mother Teresa in 1981 during the dedication of a peace garden located at the Franciscan seminary that I attended in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was in the United States, visiting her new community in New York City.
The secular press reported widely the “revelations” in Come, Be My Light, the book of her correspondence with her spiritual directors. She described in deeply moving words her struggles with faith, her doubts, and her sense of abandonment by God. All of this occurred at the very time her new community of the Missionaries of Charity was growing in numbers and their work with the outcasts and the dying was expanding.
She wrote to her spiritual director, “My own soul remains in deep darkness and desolation.” Still, Mother Teresa added, “I don’t complain—let Him do with me whatever He wants.” She willingly sacrificed the earlier consolations she had received for the challenge of living her life in pure faith.
On the surface, her emptiness and lack of consolation appear shocking, but in reality she was experiencing what Catholic spirituality describes as “the dark night of the soul.” There is no question that to suffer this for a 50-year period must have been a terrible trial. What it says is that this saintly nun, so dedicated to others, also bore a gigantic cross that only increased her holiness and union with God.
Unfortunately, some people who don’t know the theology or language of the spiritual life reacted by calling Mother Teresa a fake, a pretender, or even a liar.
A Deepening Faith
We know that she was never a fake or a liar. Actually, her faith would always grow deeper, even as the darkness seemed to grow. She said, “It is only blind faith that carries me through.” Remember, faith is believing what we cannot see or feel.
Her whole life was as honest and true as it could be. But what about the darkness, the doubts, and the dryness of her life where God seemed to be gone? We ordinarily equate the presence of God with deep feelings of certainty, almost as if you can reach out and touch God.
Mother Teresa’s entire being was to do the will of God and, in fact, that is exactly what she did so wonderfully. If we look at her influence, her wonderful religious community, and the tens of thousands of people she and her sisters have helped, we see that her life was an amazing journey with God.
But all those feelings and experiences are not actually God. They are the understanding and images we have of God. As a person seeks to draw closer to God, God begins to remove all those things that we think are God, but are only representations. As they are removed one by one, the closeness of God may seem to fade or disappear.
Light Pierces Darkness
The dark night of the senses and of the spirit is not punishment from God, but rather a sign of spiritual growth and reflects the paradox of the gospel: to die is to live, to live is to die, less is more and more is less.
Mother Teresa was not a fake; she did not lose her faith. In fact, her faith grew all the time while she was walking in darkness with the Lord. Her experience, however, shows that faith is the strongest when there are no feelings and reassurances. All saints speak of similar experiences.
From St. Francis of Assisi to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, saints and all those seeking union with God have experienced darkness and struggles, some more than others. But perhaps the most important example is what Jesus experienced during his own passion and death, hanging on the cross. In his human nature, he experienced an abandonment by God: “Why have you forsaken me?” Wasn’t his faith at the moment of deepest sacrifice the greatest ever?
An Inspiring Life
Some people may feel upset that Mother Teresa’s letters were published and not destroyed, as she had wanted. Two considerations are important.
First, a basic principle in spirituality states: God’s unique gifts given to a person are for the sake of the whole Church and not simply the individual who receives these gifts.
And second, if all the saints who died got their wish that their correspondence be destroyed, the Christian world would be without some of the most instructive and inspiring writings we could have. (Saints don’t always know what should or should not be published.)
Mother Teresa’s experiences will enlighten many people. I have read Come, Be My Light and have been deeply moved by her letters, her prayers, and her experiences as she relates them. In no way does this book seem like an invasion of her privacy. On the contrary, it presents what the Lord surely wanted her to share with the whole Church—though she was not aware of that as she wrote these letters. Saints are not holy for themselves, but for all of us, their sisters and brothers. I believe this book will become a classic in spirituality.
Mother Teresa’s letters show how her faith in Jesus was deepest even when he seemed very distant and often absent.