Much-loved by most of the world — and nearly all of it prior to her famed condemnation of abortion in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech — Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has once again taken center stage in world opinion. The upcoming publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk details private letters from Mother Teresa to her various spiritual advisors, confessors and to God himself, over the span of 50 years in which she is reported to have suffered what is known as the “dark night of the soul.”
In one plaintive missive to Jesus, she asks, “Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?” Time magazine’s David Van Biema gives a somewhat fair and balanced presentation of the matter in a piece this week, but appears concerned that the revelation will be misunderstood by many. He details how priests explained that in her 50 years of dryness:
[Mother] 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.
This is typical of some secular opinion on the subject of Mother Teresa’s dark night and her Catholic faith. While this information is not new — much of it was revealed in 2003 during the investigation for her Beatification, when many of her letters were made public — it is the first real notice of it in periodicals like Time.
Fascinated by the fact that the deeply religious can sometimes experience long stretches of spiritual dryness, Van Biema’s piece then morphs into a psychoanalysis of Mother herself. He also includes the obligatory quote from Christopher Hitchens — whose disdain for Mother Teresa is so obsessive that it may be he who is in need of the couch — which, for the benefit of all, I will exclude here. Van Biema seems mystified by a comforting 1953 letter from an early confessor in answer to her misgivings:
[Archbishop] Perier may have missed the note of desperation. “God guides you, dear Mother. 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?
Faith is not a “feeling,” it is a gift of divine grace. One need not “feel” God’s love so much as believe in it, trust in it and return it. This kind of love, which is more a product of the will than of the heart, is not the same as “like,” which is something over which you have no control, as in a preference for the taste of broccoli. And in the case of the divine Lover, the Christian recalls his ardor constantly when he sees the Cross, and his presence is demonstrated every day to Catholics in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. As the good bishop pointed out above, apparently these and other exterior facts were enough to see Mother through to the end of her race.
But God was always present to her, as she lived her life according to his commands. If you are ever blessed as I was last year, to go on a pilgrimage to Calcutta to work with her Missionaries of Charity and worship with them at their Mother House where Blessed Teresa is interred, you will see on the immaculately white walls there, the words of Christ himself: YOU DID IT TO ME and I THIRST. Her exhortation to her sisters:
I Thirst and You Did it to Me: Remember always to connect the two, the means with the aim. What God has joined together let no one split apart…Our Charism is to satiate the thirst of Jesus for love and souls — by working at the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor.
As Papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa explained in a homily: “You-did-it-to-me”: Mother Teresa pronounced these words distinctly on the fingers of one hand and said it was “the Gospel of the five fingers.” For Mother Teresa, Jesus who is present in the Eucharist, is present in a different way but equally real, “in the distressing disguise of the poor.”
Mother Teresa had been blessed early in her vocation with the gift of mysticism — visions of Christ — what Time‘s Van Biema calls “her spiritual topper.” Even though a thousand years is like a day with God, to Mother, those 50 years without intimacy with him must have been a great cross to bear, a dark night indeed. But in that she was able to see him in the eyes of the poor and receive his grace daily in the Eucharist, she was never really bereft of his presence; she simply couldn’t have carried out her mission were it otherwise.
Although it can sometimes be a great blessing, no one desires the dark night; indeed, in the last line of the Lord’s Prayer we plead every day that it not be visited upon us. But as is often pointed out, Jesus Christ had his own dark night on the Cross, where he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This of course, is his quotation of the opening line of Psalm 22, written by his human ancestor David, a man to whom the dark night was no stranger. But to cry out to God, as did David and Mother Teresa, is to acknowledge his saving power, in the manner of the Psalm’s conclusion:
And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you. The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought