Mother Teresa’s long dark night

Until a 2007 book, only a handful of people knew Mother Teresa's secret darkness

I’ve been working on an article for Leadership Journal on three people who experienced and thought carefully about something like the classic “dark night of the soul”: C S Lewis, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther. But the whole article must fit into 2,500 words, and the section on Mother Teresa has gotten out of hand, clocking even now, in a fairly refined form, the whole 2,500. So I am posting it here before cutting it down:

Almost every Christian thinker who has commented on the experience of divine absence and spiritual desolation called by John of the Cross “the Dark Night of the Soul” has concluded that the experience must have some spiritual usefulness. That’s one of the things that shocked the world when, in 2007, we discovered through a posthumously published book that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had undergone a severe, intense dark night that persisted through almost her entire ministry life, right up until her death.

It didn’t seem to make sense. Here was a person who, if anyone could merit the title during her lifetime, was thought of by almost everyone who knew of her as an exemplary saint. With our theology of a relational God, we would expect Him to smile benevolently down on such a person, even previewing some of his “Well done, good and faithful servant” in His behavior toward her in this life. And yet here it was, this agonizing decades-long Absence that darkened her whole life and left her only briefly, on one occasion.

What on earth sort of usefulness could such dereliction have for a person such as Mother Teresa? The editor of her letters makes it clear that it was not a “thorn” to rescue her from some sort of overweening pride—she had begun the ministry of the Missionaries of Charity based on a youthful vow that she would do everything God asked, submitting herself absolutely to His will. She was little inclined to pride, as all around her testified.

Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in 1910 of Kosovar Albanian stock in what was then the Ottoman Empire (now the Republic of Macedonia). Her father died when she was nine and she was raised as a Roman Catholic by her mother. By age 12, she had decided that she would commit herself to a religious life, and at the age of 18, she joined the Sisters of Loreto as a missionary, never again to see her mother or sister. After twenty years as a teacher at a convent school in Calcutta, Teresa found herself disturbed by the poverty of so many in that city. This intensified in a famine in 1943 and a 1946 outbreak of violence between Hindus and Muslims in that city.

On 10 September, 1946, Teresa experienced a special call to the poor and left the convent. In 1949, with a group of young followers, she founded a female missionary order—soon recognized by the pope and given the name “Missionaries of Charity.” Today that order—dedicated to serving the “poorest among the poor,” comprises more than 4,000 nuns and serves around the world, caring for every imaginable class of suffering people.

Mother Teresa died in 1997, and ten years later, in 2007, her letters to confessors (which she had asked repeatedly to be burned) were published, with commentary by order member Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. The bombshell unleashed by this book, titled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, was that the world’s best known Christian saint had lived for almost all of her ministry life under the shadow of an intense and painful Dark Night of the Soul.

This spiritual trial had started soon after her youthful vow to be obedient to God in everything, allowing Him to do with her anything he willed. Though she never divulged her experience of darkness to any of the order’s nuns, she wrote to first one confessor, then another, describing her painful experience in devastating detail. To Archbishop Périer she wrote, “He has destroyed everything in me. –The only thing that keeps me on the surface—is obedience.” Périer, according to her memoirist, failed to understand the nature of her experience, and he offered advice that missed the mark. He counseled her that the dark night was sent by God “as purification and protection against pride in the face of the remarkable fruitfulness of her work.”

John of the Cross had noted this same tendency: people gather like Job’s friends around the sufferer, insisting that the pain of God’s Absence could be attributed only to some hedge against sin—especially the spiritual sin of pride. But they are typically wrong, says John. And Teresa’s memoirist reports the same error in her case. It was not pride that triggered this prolonged experience of spiritual dryness. Rather, as her later confessor, the Jesuit priest Father Joseph Neuner, finally suggested, it was to intensify and aid her vocation to the rejected poor of India and the world that God brought upon her this experience of rejection by God.

After she first confessed to him the trials of her inner life, Neuner asked Mother Teresa to write down her experiences. This she did, opening up to him the tortured questions that had plagued her for decades: “Was she on the right path or had she become the victim of a network of illusions? Why had God abandoned her totally? Why this darkness whereas in her earlier life she had been so close to God?” Noted Neuner, “She had to lead her Sisters, initiate them into the love of God and into a life of prayer, which had been wiped out in her own life as she lived in total emptiness: Had she become a shameful hypocrite who spoke to others about the divine mysteries which had totally vanished from her own heart?”

Nothing expresses the intensity of this loss better than Mother Teresa’s own words: “Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—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.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

Neuner’s response was wise and to the point—and it freed Mother Teresa to continue her ministry in the assurance that this terrible experience of spiritual darkness was in itself both a confirmation and a magnification of the vocation God had given her: “My answer to the confession of these pages was simple: there was no indication of any serious failure on her part which could explain the spiritual dryness. It was simply the dark night of which all masters of spiritual life know—though I never found it so deeply, and for so many years as in her. There is no human remedy against it. It can be borne only in the assurance of God’s hidden presence and of the union with Jesus who in His passion had to bear the burden and darkness of the sinful world for our salvation. The sure sign of God’s hidden presence in this darkness is the thirst for God, the craving for at least a ray of His light. No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart. Thus the only response to this trial is the total surrender to God and the acceptance of the darkness in union with Jesus.”

Teresa responded with gratitude and recognition: “ ‘I can’t express in words—the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me.—For the first time in this 11 years—I have come to love the darkness.—For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a “spiritual side of ‘your work’” as you wrote.—Today really I felt a deep joy—that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony—but that He wants to go through it in me.—More than ever I surrender myself to Him.—Yes—more than ever I will be at His disposal.”

In other words, writes the editor of her letters, “she came to realize that her darkness was the spiritual side of her work, a sharing in Christ’s redemptive suffering.” The dark night was “an identification with those she served: she was drawn mystically into the deep pain they experienced as a result of feeling unwanted and rejected and, above all, by living without faith in God. Years before, she had been willing to offer herself as a victim for even one soul. She was now called to be united in the pain, not only with one soul, but with a multitude of souls that suffered in this terrible darkness.”

From then on, Teresa began to “love the darkness as an integral part of her call.”  Beneath the pain of Absence ran a deeper river of joy—a sense that she was in the center of her Lord’s will, serving the “poorest of the poor” in a profound way, through her own identification with the pain of Christ’s passion . . . and of their own rejection and loneliness. “The pain that never left her kept reminding her that Jesus was there, though all she could feel in ‘that unbroken union’ was His agony, His cross.”

At last, resigned to her unique and painful vocation, Mother Teresa wrote to her confessor Father Neuner, “‘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.’” This was the intensity of her desire “to reach every ‘dark hole’ and to light in each the light of God’s love. . . . Strengthened in the furnace of suffering, she was ready to continue her mission until the end of time.” In “the physical situation of my poor left in the streets unwanted, unloved unclaimed” she found “the true picture of my own spiritual life.”

For Mother Teresa, the Dark Night of the Soul was a unique and complete identification with the suffering of Christ within his poor, ill, and abandoned. “Her interior darkness” gave her “the capacity to comprehend the feelings of the poor” and to preach to all who would listen that “the greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty and disease.”

Finally, in the last decades of her life, through which the darkness continued unabated, Mother Teresa was able to accept her darkness as ““a gift from God intensifying her solidarity with those to whom she ministered. We hear it in the wording of her “mission statement” for the Missionaries of Charity, to care for, in her 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 identified loneliness, the sense of being unwanted and unloved, as a disease greater than any of those suffered by the poor. “Tuberculosis and cancer,” she said in a 1980 address to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, “are not the great diseases. I think a much greater disease is to be unwanted, unloved. The pain that these people suffer is very difficult to understand, to penetrate.” Yet through her own dark night, she understood it. And she associated it, as she did her own long darkness, with the passion of Christ: “This suffering is being repeated in every man, woman and child,” she continued. “I think Christ is undergoing his Passion again. And it is for you and for me to help them . . .” Says her editor, “Without her interior darkness, without knowing such a longing for love and the pain of being unloved, and without this radical id’n with the poor, MT would not have won over their trust and their hearts to the extent she did.”

Some of her critics have said MT taught and lived a twisted theology of suffering. It certainly seems that way from outside. I had those same feelings in reading the book of her letters: surely this life of hers went beyond devotion to masochism. Surely Christ suffered so we would not have to, and it is perverse to take upon ourselves such suffering, as if we are re-doing the crucifixion in ourselves. And she treated her dark night of the soul in a way I don’t find in Lewis, though in Luther—a thoroughly medieval man—we find echoes. She came to see it as a sacrificial suffering, a joining in Christ’s passion on behalf of the lost. It was not a fearful and regrettable (if God-sent) episode in her life that she wanted to get out of ASAP—as for Lewis. Rather, it was a discipline actively entered into, a way of refinement in the forge of suffering—as for John of the Cross.

As I read of Teresa’s life and spiritual suffering, I am reminded of that odd friend of C S Lewis’s, Charles Williams, who used to talk about “coinherence”—the possibility that a person could take on the suffering of another. Mother Teresa believed she was doing something like that, and so she resigned herself to a darkness that lasted almost her whole ministering life. And it was not, in the end, without consolations. In the last third of his book, Bryan Kolodiejchuk talks about her “deep and abiding joy,” even as she continued almost to the end of her life to record that she was feeling that same desolate feeling of the absence of God that she had undergone for so many decades.

What this resignation and peace in the mist of darkness looked like on the outside is expressed by a priest who met her late in her life, in the 1970s: Father Michael van der Peet. He wrote: “Whenever I met Mother, all self-consciousness left me. I felt right away at ease: she radiated peace and joy, even when she shared with me the darkness in her spiritual life. I was often amazed that someone who lived so much face to face with suffering people and went through a dark night herself, still could smile and make you feel happy. . . . I believe that I can say that I felt in God’s presence, in the presence of truth and love.”

By the end of that decade, the distressing thoughts that had accompanied her darkness in the 1960s had dissolved into a surpassing peace. “While the painful darkness persisted,” writes her letters’ editor, “a deep joy permeated her words and deeds.” Teresa had no doubt that when she and her sisters were with the poorest of the poor, they were in fact with Jesus. She liked to say “We are not social workers. We are contemplatives in the heart of the world. We are 24 hours a day with Jesus.” (286)


7 responses to “Mother Teresa’s long dark night

  1. Why were letters ever published!? She asked for them not to be and yet she was betrayed! How could someone go against her wishes!?!? Not someone who really actually loved her that’s for sure! How disgusting!

  2. This was so incredibly helpful to read as I am going through my own dark night of the soul. To know that God gave her a joy and an acceptance of her suffering gives me hope. Thank you.

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