Mother Teresa’s Dark Night


Mother Teresa's Dark Night

Time Magazine called it a “50-year crisis of faith” and atheist Christopher Hitchens considers it further evidence for God’s absence. This last is ironic: why would Hitchens believe the testimony of someone he considers a fanatic?

It is not surprising that the media and unbelievers are confounded by the discovery that Mother Teresa experienced a relentless spiritual darkness, hidden from the world (and even from her own congregation), who saw only her characteristic good cheer and abundant good works. We expect this lack of understanding; they are “foolish and senseless people, who have eyes and see not, ears and hear not” (Jer 5:21).

But if we are honest, we don’t fully understand it, either.

The private writings of Mother Teresa, published in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, are profoundly revealing of the interior life of a modern saint, inspiring and even dramatic (I found it a page-turner!). But even those of us who love Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity may be somewhat disturbed by the depth of her pain and loneliness, and the lengthy duration of her interior trial.

Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., postulator for the cause of Blessed Mother Teresa’s canonization, offers a glimpse into the secret life of Mother Teresa—behind the dedicated apostolate, the tender service of the poor and forsaken, and her ubiquitous smile. He focuses specifically on three critical aspects of her spiritual life: the private vow to do whatever God asked of her (under pain of mortal sin) when she was still a Loreto nun, the mystical experiences that accompanied the “call within the call” (inspiration to found the Missionaries of Charity), and the nearly 50 years of spiritual “darkness.”

The call

For seventeen years, Mother Mary Teresa had been happily serving Christ as a Loreto Sister in Calcutta, and was headed to a retreat in Darjeeling, when she heard the “voice” of Jesus beseech her: “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be my light.” [1] Christ wanted Indian nuns, nuns who were like the poor themselves, “full of love nuns covered with My Charity of the Cross—Wilt thou refuse to do this for Me?

Because of her private vow never to refuse anything that Jesus asked of her, she immediately took action. Following proper channels, she went first to her spiritual director and then to the archbishop of Calcutta, Ferdinand Perier. Not knowing about her private vow, the archbishop at first thought Mother Teresa was generous and gifted, but also “hasty” and “a bit exaggerated, maybe excited.” Both her spiritual director and the archbishop urged her to continue to pray, to remain in obedience. The process of waiting seemed interminable to Mother Teresa, and she pestered the archbishop with letters, even insisting that it should not be difficult for him to approve immediately the founding of the new order. After all, she pointed out, the foundress of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary did not experience much trouble: “Overnight 20 nuns free to lead the Franciscan life. “But in their case the Bishop was the acting factor.” The archbishop chastised her gently and explained that the process was not as simple as she thought. “[M]y dear Mother, you must also take my side now and then.” Finally, after due prayer, reflection, and consultation with theologians, he discerned that the call was genuine and the work was approved.

After waiting for two years, on December 21, 1948, Mother Teresa went alone, with no money or followers, into the ravaged streets of Calcutta. There were plenty who preached the kingdom to the wealthy of India, but only the Missionaries of Charity would serve the poorest of the poor. “I went for the first time to the slums—my first meeting with Christ in His distressing disguise.”

Immediately, young women were drawn to the new congregation. Mother Teresa herself was a dynamo in the physically taxing apostolate and in forming her new members spiritually. She emphasized the importance of serving the poor with a cheerful disposition, of selflessly serving the Lord. She wrote to the archbishop, “I want…to drink only from His chalice of pain…”

She did not realize what this would entail.

The chalice of pain

Almost as soon as Mother Teresa started “the work,” as she referred to it, she began to experience an intense spiritual darkness: her heart was cold, empty. From the time she was a small child, she had had a special love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, but now she felt nothing. “How cold—how empty—how painful is my heart. –Holy Communion—Holy Mass—all the holy things of spiritual life—of the life of Christ in me—are all so empty—so cold—so unwanted.” She had hoped to identify with the poor, leading a life of absolute poverty—and she found that her interior life was like the lives of the poor she served: unwanted, unloved, forsaken.

“—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 and hurt my very soul.—”

Many readers will find encouragement in the fact that, when we experience interior trials and even desolation, we can steadfastly cling to our faith and remain firmly committed to serving God and others. But, for many others, even people of faith, the thought that Mother Teresa experienced such unrelenting interior desolation is deeply troubling.

Mother Teresa knew that she should not trust her feelings—the feeling of pain, coldness, and loneliness, the lack of sensory consolations. But her experience of darkness extended even further: “Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me…I long for God…and yet there is but pain…” Over and over she expressed this painful longing without sensing—or even knowing—God’s presence, yet her will was always firmly attached to God’s will, and she always remained certain that the “work” was God’s work. The private vow never to refuse God anything kept her going through this painful experience of God’s absence.

The dark night

Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors have proposed that she was experiencing the “dark night of the soul” as described by Saint John of the Cross. Mother Teresa’s writings certainly fit the description of the dark night. The purgative dark night of the senses detaches us from sensible things and prepares the soul for the prayer of union. The night of the spirit detaches us from even spiritual consolations, imperfections, and all self-love. The soul experiences a terrible longing for God which is all the more severe, if she has ever experienced a mystical union with God—which Blessed Mother Teresa did experience early on—and there are temptations against faith and hope, and an inability to pray.[2] It is an intense purifying of the soul, a purgatory on earth.

“If there is hell—this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God—no prayer—no faith—no love.—the only thing that still remains—is the conviction that the work is His.”

Mother Teresa found herself on many occasions unable to speak about the difficulty to her spiritual directors or confessors: “Our Lord has taken even the power of speech.” Perhaps this was fortunate, for as Saint Teresa of Jesus of Avila wrote about her own experience, it was often a “torture” to deal with confessors and spiritual directors. “Is it credible that she will be able to say what is the matter with her? The thing is inexpressible, for this distress and oppression are spiritual troubles and cannot be given a name.” (6th mansions ch i). [3]

Accept what He gives and give what He takes

In 1965, the Missionaries of Charity were recognized as a pontifical congregation (they received the Decree of Praise), and Mother Teresa wrote, “See what Our Lord does.He pours Himself on the little Society—and yet He takes every drop of consolation from my soul.”

Often she would tell her sisters “accept what He gives and give what He takes”

He took every drop of consolation, He took the joy from her soul and Mother Teresa, in turn, gave everyone she met–especially the poorest of the poorCHis consolation and joy, the light of Christ.

Seventh Mansions

Both Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross attest that the spiritual trials that afflict the soul in the dark night come to an end. Saint Teresa writes: “Ah, God help me! Lord, how Thou dost afflict Thy lovers! Yet all this is very little by comparison with what Thou bestowest upon them later” (6th mansions, ch xi). According to Saint John of the Cross, the purpose of the dark nights is to prepare the soul for the highest degree of contemplative prayer which results in the transforming union or spiritual marriage.

“[A]s we progress in prayer, we are gradually freed from interior disturbances and sufferings due to sin and imperfection. We recall that the two nights of purification are painful precisely because our selfish clingings are being burned away in the dark fire of contemplative prayer. When this work is finished, there is nothing to be stripped away, nothing to cause inner pain. The person is now purified…there are no distressing longings for the absent Beloved, for the obvious reason that He is now always experienced as present.” [4]

In Saint Teresa’s seventh mansions, God allows the soul to “see and understand something of the favor which He is granting it.” No more spiritual trials afflict the soul, but instead there is a certainty and confidence that God dwells within. The soul “perceives quite clearly that They [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] are in the interior of her heart.” “He will never fail, I believe, to give her the most certain assurance of His Presence” (7th mansions, ch i).

The major effect (and, in fact, the whole purpose) of the transforming union is that the soul forgets itself entirely and is totally abandoned to the will of God. Saint Teresa of Jesus says that while there is an absence of desire (even for heaven), there is perfect serenity, no further interior sufferings, and an ardent zeal for souls:

“Oh, my sisters, how little one should think about resting, and how little one should care about honours, and how far one ought to be from wishing to be esteemed in the very least if the Lord makes His special abode in the soul. For if the soul is much with Him…it will very seldom think of itself; its whole thought will be concentrated upon finding ways to please Him and upon showing Him how it loves Him. This, my daughters, is the aim of prayer: this is the purpose of the Spiritual marriage, of which are born good works and good works alone.” (7th mansions, chapter 4)

This makes me wonder: is it perhaps too facile to shrug off Mother Teresa’s nearly 50 years of unrelenting darkness as another example of the sanjuanist dark night? Surely Mother Teresa had been sufficiently purified of her attachments earlier in her spiritual journey. Most spiritual writers avow that it is important for the soul to understand that she is making progress. Why would God not have allowed Mother Teresa to experience some of this blessed assurance that the mystics all attest to?

If Mother Teresa did not experience the joys of the transforming union, she certainly showed its effects. The effects of the transforming union are a holy abandonment into the hands of God, abundant good works, great capacity to suffer for Christ, zeal for souls, serenity of spirit, and great charity towards neighbor. Mother Teresa certainly exemplified all of these effects abundantly in her life. Most notably, from the time of her “private vow” she never refused anything to God!

A different dark night

The answer may be that her “dark night” was not the purifying night described by Saint John of the Cross, but rather, as Kolodiejchuk suggests, a reparative “dark night.” With the Blessed Mother—and Christ himself—both of whom were without sin, Mother Teresa offered her darkness for the sake of souls. She wanted to join with the suffering Christ, as He cried out, “I thirst.”  Nonetheless, as Kolodiejchuk writes, “It was not the suffering she endured that made her a saint, but the love with which she lived her life through all the suffering.”

Loving God as He has never been loved

I am certainly not a theologian, but I would like to suggest that Mother Teresa had, indeed, progressed through the stages of prayer as described by Saint Teresa of Jesus, and must have come to the seventh mansions, the spiritual marriage. But she chose to live this marriage without the experience of her Beloved, the experience of His presence in her soul. Mother Teresa wrote that she wanted to “love God as He has never been loved.” It was for her “worth going through every possible suffering just for one single soul.” She was willing to offer Jesus the greatest sacrifice she could imagine—an eternity of His absence—if it would please him. As God himself took on the nature of man in order to save us, even to the point of total abandonment on the cross, so Mother Teresa wanted to become identified with the poorest of the poor—those who had no experience of Christ, the lonely and forsaken, those left dying in the streets.

Saint Therese of Lisieux once said that she wanted to spend her heaven doing good on earth. Mother Teresa (whose namesake was the Little Flower) offered to spend her heaven without Jesus, if it pleased him!

At the transforming summit, Saint John of the Cross says that the “soul kisses God.” And indeed, Mother Teresa confirmed that she experienced His kiss—except that Jesus kissed her from the Cross, so near that the crown of thorns hurt her: “Suffering, pain—failure—is but a kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss you.”

“Perfection consists in taking the place of Mary and doing the work of Martha at one and the same time” writes Adolphe Tanquerey in The Spiritual Life. Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity exemplify this, as she explained, “We are not social workers. We are contemplatives in the heart of the world. We are 24 hours a day with Jesus.”

This is precisely what Mother Teresa did throughout her life: she was totally dedicated to serving Christ in the poorest of the poor, the suffering, the forsaken, the lonely. She brought his light into the dark holes, she filled heaven with “slum people.”

She was elated to bring so many souls to Christ, and the price was her own experience of being forsaken by Him. “Can you imagine,” (she wrote about those dying from AIDs)—poor people entering Heaven from all sides.” At first, there were “no slums in heaven. –Now heaven is full of slum people. Jesus must be very happy to have those thousands coming to Him, with love from Calcutta.”

Blinded by the light

The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes the contemplative experience without stages or steps, in a way that seems to resonate with Mother Teresa’s writings. There seems to be an ever present bitter-sweetness in his mystical union with the infinite God. He always experiences his own separated existence, which gives rise to a deep, universal sorrow: that he is. This is not sorrow for his own sinfulness (though he indeed experiences this), it is the profound sadness of the lover who is separated from his beloved. So long as we remain on this side of heaven, this is the bitter-sweet truth.

“I sought him whom my heart loves—

I sought him but I did not find him.

I will rise then and go about the city;

in the streets and crossings I will seek

him whom my heart loves” (Song of Songs 3)

The unknown mystic writes about his experience of dark contemplation: “You may always choose to possess God through love, Whom no one can possess through knowledge. For myself, I prefer to be lost in this nowhere, wrestling with this blind nothingness…Yet to those who have newly encountered it, it will feel very dark and inscrutable indeed. But truly, they are blinded by the splendor of its spiritual light…” [5]

Mother Teresa experienced Christ “in the streets and crossings,” seeing Him always in the poor. “Although her love was very great it seemed little to her. Don’t be surprised at this. It is the way of all true lovers. The more they love the more they desire to love.”[6]

For those who are feeling abandoned by God, or merely stumbling along in the dark, Mother Teresa offers hope amid darkness and despair, for she is a saint of “darkness.” “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.”

Each day as Mother Teresa urged us, we can strive to “do something beautiful for God.” The whole purpose, after all, for dark nights and transforming union is precisely this: to do something beautiful for God. As Saint Teresa of Jesus succinctly put it, the way of prayer is “not for our enjoyment, but for the sake of acquiring this strength which fits us for service…bringing Him souls, in every possible way…” (seventh mansions, ch iv).

In a chiaroscuro painting, the dark subjects are dramatically lit by an unseen source of light. Mother Teresa likened herself to the pencil in the hand of God; her life was a chiaroscuro of light in the darkness of poverty and despair, with God Himself the unknown source of light.

Where is Jesus?

Toward the end of her life, a poignant moment is recalled by Bishop William Curlin, when Mother Teresa passed him a note during Holy Hour: “Where is Jesus?” the note said.

Perhaps the answer is best summed up by the unknown English mystic, who wrote two centuries before Saint John of the Cross:

“Finally there will come a moment when he experiences such peace and repose in that darkness that he thinks surely it must be God himself…yet to the last it will remain a cloud of unknowing.” [7]




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