Mother Teresa’s Dark Night
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 9, 2008
That’s as good a definition of a “saint” as any I’ve ever heard. That little girl got it right: saints are people with light shining through them. They are people whose very beings seem aglow—with the love and light of God, some of us would say. God’s light—God’s love—the light of faith—the radiance of hope—shines through them.
To many of us, in our own time, the person in our midst who most clearly seemed to reflect that saintly light was, no doubt, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In her work among the poorest of the world’s poor, there seemed to shine, to many of us, something of God’s light. The British writer Malcom Muggeridge repeatedly spoke about the light she cast—Mother Teresa’s “luminousness,” he called it, which he said was “like the haloes artists have seen and made visible around the heads of saints.”
She was a “living saint,” many of us believed, even back when she was still on this earth among us. Soon after her death in 1997, the process to make her an “official” saint of the Catholic Church began, and just six years later, in 2003, she was beatified, named “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta,” thus completing the first stage on the road to sainthood.
As part of the canonization process, a person’s life and work and writings are thoroughly scrutinized and reviewed. The process in Mother Teresa’s case produced a few findings which some people found quite surprising, and which many have even found confusing, perhaps even disheartening. It changed the way some people looked at her.
The main episodes in her life were already quite well known: She was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, of middle class Albanian parents in Skopje, which is today the capital of the independent Republic of Macedonia. As a child, she was fascinated by stories of the lives of missionaries, and by age 12, she was convinced that she should commit herself to a religious life. She left home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary. She never again saw her mother or sister.
She went first to the Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland to learn English, from where, in 1929, she was sent to Darjeerling in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. She took her first religious vows as a nun in May 1931, choosing the name Teresa after Thérèse de Liseux, the patron saint of missionaries, known by many as the “Little Flower of Jesus”. (It’s interesting that Mother Teresa’s original middle name—“Gonxha” is Albanian for rosebud; her mother’s name can be translated into English as “Rose”—and young Agnes was the “rose bud”—both of her biological mother, and her spiritual mother, Therese of Liseux, as it were.) Even though she became a revered saint and even a Doctor of the Church, Saint Therese is known for her practice of what she called the "Little Way." In her quest for sanctity, she realized that it was not necessary to accomplish heroic acts, or "great deeds", in order to express her love of God. The smallest deed, if done in love, reflects as much of God’s love as any great expedition.
This teaching of the “Little Way” would never be far from Mother Teresa’s heart. She took her solemn vows in 1937, while serving as a teacher at the Loreto convent school in eastern Calcutta. While she loved teaching, Teresa became was increasingly disturbed by the poverty she saw surrounding her in Calcutta. A famine in 1943 brought misery and death to the city, and the outbreak of Hindu/Muslim violence in August 1946 only aggravated the situation.
So it was that, on a train trip to her yearly spiritual retreat at the order’s Mother House in Darjeeling, she experienced a new and profound sense of calling. She described it as her “call within the call: "I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them,” she wrote later. “ It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith." Teresa began her missionary work with the poor in 1948, replacing her traditional Loreto habit with a simple white cotton chira decorated with a blue border. She adopted Indian citizenship, and ventured out into the slums. Initially she started a school on the outskirts of Calcutta, but soon ventured deeper and deeper into the city to minister directly to the most basic needs of the destitute and starving. Finally, in 1950, Teresa received permission from her superiors in 1950 to found a new order, the Missionaries of Charity. Its mission was to care for, in her own words, "the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." She began with 13 sisters in Calcutta in 1950; today the order has more than 4,500 nuns, active in 133 countries the world over.
On that same train trip to Darjeeling, and for about a year after, Teresa began to receive a series of “interior locutions”—she began to hear the voice of Jesus speaking to her directly, in her soul; and she conversed with him intimately. With utmost tenderness, she said, the Voice addressed her as “My own spouse” or “My own little one”. She, in turn, called him “My dear one” or “My dear Jesus”. In this sacred dialogue, it was as though Jesus was revealing his heart to her: his pain; his love; his compassion for all living creatures; his thirst to ease the burdens of all people, especially those who suffer most. He also revealed his plan to send her, Teresa, to them as a carrier of his love: “Come, come, carry me into the holes of the poor,” the Voice implored her. “Come, be my light.” Eventually, Teresa vowed never to refuse any request the Voice made of her. It was to be her lifelong covenant.
Teresa had experienced what is generally referred to as the mystical union with God; she had become one with the Divine; it was as though they were married, espoused to each other, one in intent; she had experienced directly, she said, the real presence of God. But soon after this mystical experience, it was as though God withdrew himself from her. For the next fifty years—right up until her death—Teresa would never again experience that warmth and ardor of the divine touch. “Having tasted the divine like a single day with a vanished lover,” suggests one commentator, “God’s absence seemed to her beyond the tortures of [nothingness].” It was a darkness “made more horrible by [her] vivid memory of the sun.”
But she had been espoused; she had made her vow to Jesus. And so, her work continued—and grew—and grew—until she became world famous, and her movement spread across the face of the world, and she was revered and honored as few men or women of her day.
But, as another clergyman has put it:
Mother Teresa was experiencing what the sixteen century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul”. For Mother Teresa, that “dark night” devoid of divine consolation, and warmth, and reassurance would last almost 50 years—nearly the entire period of her public ministry.
In 1960, she wrote to a priest she knew:
Atheists and secularists have had a field day with what they call Mother Teresa’s “crisis of faith”. They point to Mother Teresa’s chronicling of her experience of God’s absence as more “proof” (to them) that God just doesn’t exist. “See,” they say, “even Mother Teresa didn’t believe in God!” “Too bad for her that she didn’t just admit it to herself and kept at that grim, depressing work with dying beggars on the street and abandoned children in the slums of Calcutta, deluding herself that she was doing it for Jesus, and all along not realizing that the whole enterprise was for nothing. All that devotion, all that commitment, all that spiritual angst—for what? She could have done something much more rewarding, both financially and spiritually with her life. She was… wasting herself by living in that spiritual darkness for so long.”
Such is the way that this materialist culture of ours just doesn’t “get” the way of faith. The very idea that we would carry forward on our deepest vows—that we would do something fully and completely, even unto the end of our days—even when we weren’t “guaranteed” that it would succeed; even without the explicit assurance that it was worth doing; even when it didn’t “feel good” and when there was nothing “in it for us”—all this strikes the eyes of the world as absolute absurdity.
But it is precisely what men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit—and God’s love—in all faith traditions—have been doing from time immemorial. It is how what some of us call “the kingdom of God” (or what others might call the “reign of love”) gets poured forth over the face of this oftentimes dark and arid and depressing world.
“We walk by faith and not by sight,” St. Paul wrote. Which is why Blessed Teresa’s life is still a shining light for us to follow, now that we know more than ever about her interior life. That the most saintly one among us should have the greatest thirst for God’s warmth and light is but deeper testimony to the love that guided the work of her hands. When she felt abandoned by God, she decided the only truly religious response was to abandon her life fully to God. Thus, she let go completely of all the temptations and distractions this world and its Principalities and Powers offer us to lure us from the paths that lead to righteousness and justice. She let go of the allure of riches, the allure of fame, the allure of power—for having experienced union with the Ultimate (even for that briefest time in her life), she knew that all other “riches” were but snares and delusions.
That is a radical message for “our self-centered, ego-driven, materialistically-consumed society” to take in,” L.R. Kalajainen has written:. He continues: “We have lost the language or even the categories of thought to make sense out of those who do not live their lives for their own sake, but for heaven’s sake. Who needs heaven, when all our earthly desires can be so easily fulfilled… [by] a shopping trip to Boston for a new designer outfit or to Best Buy for a new iPod or video game to distract us?”
Or, as another observer has put it: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” makes a really lousy marketing slogan.
But Mother Teresa’s life bears witness to the fact that God did not forsake her. The world saw God through her. God shone all the brighter through this stooped and craggy saint. The world saw God (if only for a fleeting instant) in “Every child she cradled. Every leper she bathed. Every diaper she changed. It was all done by the hand of God.”
God never abandoned her. And she never abandoned God. “Come, be my light,” the Voice had said to her. And she would be. Even when it gave her no joy. Even when there was nothing in it for her. Even when, through most of her life, she shared the sufferings of Jesus in Gethsemane.
On the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa had experienced firsthand the most bitter physical poverty faced by any living souls in this world of ours. She came face to face with the most severe form of deprivations of the body imaginable.
Perhaps in her unquenchable thirst for God’s presence, she also knew something of the deepest poverty of this modern world: the poverty of spirit; the poverty of meaninglessness and hopelessness. Perhaps in her earthly ministry, she was called to serve the poorest of the poor on the streets and in their hovels. Perhaps, now, in her saintly ministry, she is called to serve all of us who hunger and thirst for the Spirit. As Deacon Greg Kandra has written: “her true legacy may not have been to the poor in the slums, but to the poor in spirit. Those [of us] who every day walk through the slums of their own hearts, feeling deserted and unloved.”
“You must keep smiling,” Mother Teresa used to tell her fellow sisters at her order’s houses of charity. “Always keep smiling,” she would say. Somehow, words that might seem trite coming from almost anyone else didn’t seem shallow coming from her. “Keep smiling” she told herself—as much as any others; keep manifesting God’s joy and God’s love in a world which needs those things more than any others.
May we, too, as unremarkable as we may feel we are—as dim as our light may seem in the reflection of saintly ones like Mother Teresa—may we, too, be bold enough and brave enough to answer our own inner calling—our own voice within: to be apostles of joy in this often joyless world; to reach out to this hurting world in compassion, in love, in peace, and in generosity. We may, each of us, possess only a small light. But may we uncover it, and let it shine, and be agents of hope and courage in the darkness of these days before Easter.