Mother Teresa: ‘An extraordinary witness to fidelity’
Most people assume that saints are sustained by their vibrant faith, which carries them through toil and trouble. Mother Teresa worked heroically, despite letters revealing her secret ‘dark night’ of the soul
Mother Teresa – baptised Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu – was born in Albania in 1910. Her mother, Drana, used to care for an old woman living nearby who was ravaged by alcoholism and covered with sores. Drana washed and cooked for her. Years later, Mother Teresa would say that the woman suffered as much from her crushing loneliness as from her illnesses.
A Jesuit priest’s talk about the work of Catholic missionaries struck a chord in Agnes, who had dreamed of a religious vocation as early as the age of 12. In October 1928, at the age of 18, she entered the novitiate of the Loreto Sisters in Dublin. Three months later, Sr Mary Teresa set sail for India. She would spend the rest of her life there.
Her early years in India mirrored the lives of the other Loreto Sisters: she taught in a Catholic school run by the order in Calcutta and elsewhere. The mission of the Loreto Sisters focused on tackling poverty through education. It was as a teacher that she had her first experience of the living conditions of local children and their families. “It is not possible to find worse poverty,” she wrote.
In 1937, she made her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and, as was the custom for Loreto sisters, was now called “Mother Teresa”. A few years later, she made a private vow, with the consent of her spiritual director, to give God anything he may ask and not to refuse him anything.
On 10 September 1946, Mother Teresa began a long train ride to Darjeeling. She had grown exhausted from her work at the school and frequently fell ill. So her superiors sent her for a short retreat and some relaxation. It was on this train that she experienced what she described as a “call within a call”. Though she refrained from speaking directly about the experience during her lifetime (believing that it would focus attention more on her and less on God), after her death, when her “cause” for canonisation was begun, what happened on that train ride was finally discovered.
Letters to her spiritual director and her local bishop reveal that she experienced the rarest of graces, what spiritual writers call a “locution”. That is, she reported hearing words addressed to her from God. In a letter to Ferdinand Périer SJ, the Archbishop of Calcutta, she describes the words that would change the course of her life: “Wouldst thou not help?” Christ asked her to leave the convent and begin her new work with the poor.
Mother Teresa poured out her doubts and fears in prayer. She was already happy as a Loreto nun: how could she leave? She would be exposing herself to many sufferings and privations. She would be the “laughing stock of so many”. She would experience loneliness, ignominy and uncertainty. But the voice she heard in prayer was nonetheless firm: “Wouldst thou refuse to do this for me?”
For the next few weeks, Mother Teresa enjoyed a profound intimacy with God in her prayer, what St Ignatius would call “consolation”. After speaking with her Jesuit spiritual director, she decided to approach the archbishop for permission to leave the convent and begin this new venture with the poor. With his approval, she wrote to the Mother General of the Loreto Sisters and, later, to Pope Pius XII, for permission to leave her order. In April 1948, word arrived from Rome that her request had been granted.
She located a small house, where she began attracting the first of her sisters. Many other helpers, doctors, nurses and laypeople gathered around the new Missionaries of Charity to help them in their work with the poor. Eventually, she founded Nirmal Hriday, “Place of the Immaculate Heart”, in a building that had originally served as a pilgrims’ rest home for Hindus visiting the Kali temple next door.
Despite her charitable work and her welcome for people from all faiths, there was noticeable hostility towards this foreign Christian woman and her companions, who appeared to be pushing their way into Hindu territory. People threw stones at them and threatened them, and one man tried to kill Mother Teresa.
The rest of her life was characterised by non-stop activity and compassionate service to the poor: an endless procession of opening new hospices, travelling around the world to meet the members of her expanding order, and helping found an order of brothers, then priests, and then “co-workers” under the umbrella of the Missionaries of Charity.
Much of her story is familiar. But there is one facet of her life, revealed only after her death, that astonished even those who knew her well. And it is this hidden aspect that makes her an even more compelling figure, a saint for our times. The great secret was that shortly after her momentous train ride to Darjeeling, after a time of feeling intensely close to God, Mother Teresa experienced a spiritual darkness for the rest of her life.
Though the months after the train ride were filled with consolation, shortly thereafter and continuing until her death, Mother Teresa began to describe an “interior darkness”, a feeling of distance from God. To one of her spiritual directors she wrote that God seemed absent, heaven empty and, most difficult of all, her sufferings meaningless. She confided to Archbishop Périer: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
When I first read about this a few years after her death, I was stunned. In an article in the New York-based journal of religion and public life, First Things, entitled “The dark night of Mother Teresa”, the author Carol Zaleski drew on documents and letters compiled by Fr Brian Kolodiejchuk, of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, who has been responsible for advancing the process of Mother Teresa’s canonisation. The letters clearly show Mother Teresa struggling with what St John of the Cross called the “dark night”, a protracted experience of distance from God and an extreme “dryness” in prayer.
And for Mother Teresa, who had once felt God to be so close, this distance, this feeling of abandonment, was a source of confusion, bafflement and pain. “As far as we know,” Fr Kolodiejchuk is quoted as saying in the article, “Mother Teresa remained in that state of ‘dark’ faith and total surrender till her death.”
Years later I put the question to Fr Kolodiejchuk specifically: “Did it last for the rest of her life?” “Yes,” he said plainly.
It is fair to say that many assumed that the woman often referred to as a “living saint” spent her days blissfully aware of the presence of God. So Mother Teresa’s arduous service to the poor was therefore easier than it would be for the rest of us – because she had the constant comfort and assurance from God that the rest of us lack. As a result, we might conclude that we are not meant to do that kind of work. Leave it to those like Mother Teresa, for whom it comes more naturally. As it turned out, it was not any “easier” for Mother Teresa to work with the poor or to lead a Christian life than it is for any of us. It was harder than anyone could have imagined.
Many of us also believe that it is only we mortals who struggle with our prayer, who can find prayer dull or dry or boring, who wonder if God hears us, if God cares, if it’s worth the effort. How lovely it must be to be a saint, and to find prayer always easy and sweet and consoling! We are sure that all the saints had to do was close their eyes to be instantly rewarded with warm feelings of God’s presence. But the example of Mother Teresa shows us that, in the end, the saints really are like the rest of us and struggle in every way that we do, even where we would least suspect it: in the spiritual life. Sometimes they have to struggle even more.
With the help of her spiritual director, Mother Teresa came to view this painful darkness as the “spiritual side” of her ministry, a way of completely identifying with Christ, even in his feelings of abandonment on the Cross. “I have come to love the darkness,” she wrote in one letter, “for I believe it is a part, a very, very small part, of Jesus’ darkness and pain on Earth.” Now she, too, would experience what it meant to feel like the old, sick woman whom her mother had cared for years ago in Skopje. She would feel forgotten and unwanted. In this she would be able to identify more with the poor in their suffering.
Mother Teresa struggled intensely in her spiritual life. And this makes what she accomplished even more extraordinary. Her ministry, based as it was on a singularly intimate encounter with Jesus that would gradually fade into silence, is a remarkable testimony of fidelity. Nothing so binds me to Mother Teresa as this facet of her life, and I have found, when telling this story to others, whether in articles, in homilies, or on retreats, that nothing so deepens their appreciation of her holiness.
“If I ever become a saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness’,” she once wrote. In fact, I would say that St Teresa of Calcutta is the greatest saint of modern times. Why? Other saints have done what she has done: founded religious orders, worked with the poor, led lives of outstanding holiness. None, however, as far as I know, has done it without the benefits of consolation in prayer. It is an extraordinary witness to fidelity.
Some will wonder, “Why is Pope Francis canonising her now?” A somewhat worldly answer is that she is the perfect model for the Pope’s Jubilee Year of Mercy, exemplifying the Christian call for mercy. And she is indeed a patron saint for all who struggle in their spiritual lives. How ironic: the one whom everyone assumed had a rich life of prayer becomes a model for those struggling with their spiritual lives. For all those reasons she is a saint for our times.
But a more supernatural answer to “Why now?” is that thanks to her intercession, a miracle has been attributed – and a spectacular one at that, curing a man of several brain tumours. So the same God who created Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu has created a new saint. Why now? Because God, it seems, wants it.
James Martin SJ is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America. This essay is adapted from the new tenth anniversary edition of his book, My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press, 2016).