The disclosure that Mother Teresa spent long years of agony, unable to sense the presence of God, led many people to doubt the sincerity of her public writings and the genuineness of her vocation. Was she a saint, or merely someone like ourselves? Or maybe both?
Any doubts that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a true saint, a genuinely holy person, have been amply, if ironically, dispelled by revelations of her self-professed doubt and near life-long journey through “the darkness.” Even before her personal journal and letters were published under the title, “Come Be My Light,” a large number of articles on her plight appeared over the Internet and in news magazines, including a surprisingly sensitive cover piece in Time (Sept 3, ‘07, by David van Biema).
Many critics, it seems, have concluded that she was a “crypto-atheist,” and by implication, a hypocrite, professing joy-filled faith in her service to the poor, but in reality hardly believing in God. Some of these are non-believers, for whom such revelations concerning a woman on the way to official “sainthood” merely confirm their own rejection of the Church and its traditional system of belief. For others, who are themselves Christians, her “journey through the darkness” casts serious doubt on their own faith and throws them into spiritual turmoil. “If Mother Teresa can’t experience God in her life, then how am I to hold on to any sense of God’s presence and purpose in mine?”
Phrased this way, the question betrays a sad misunderstanding of both Christian sanctity and this particular woman’s personal experience. From St Paul (Romans 7; II Corinthians 6!) through St John of the Cross (“the dark night of the soul”), St Tikhon of Zadonsk, and on to St Silouan of Mount Athos, holy people within the Church have known fear, depression, suffering and hardship that not only tested their faith but at times made clear to them, if not to others, how fragile their faith really was. In critical moments or for long periods of agony, God was quite simply absent from their experience, silent to their appeals, unknown and unknowable in the secret depths of their grieving souls.
Yet it was in the midst of this darkness that Mother Teresa wrote profound and poignant words to her Sisters, and through them to each of us.
May we never forget that in the service to the poor we are offered a magnificent opportunity to do something beautiful for God. In fact, when we give ourselves with all our hearts to the poor, it is Christ whom we are serving in their disfigured faces. For he himself said, “You did it to me.”
“Something beautiful for God.” Malcolm Muggeridge titled his well-known book on Mother Teresa with this expression, which speaks eloquently of the motivating force behind her vocation. In his dedication to her, he says:
For me, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embodies Christian love in action. Her face shines with the love of Christ on which her whole life is centred, and her words carry that message to a world which never needed it so much.
In the midst of her darkness, her face, shining with the love of Christ, felt to her like a mask. To others, it radiated brightness, joy, love and hope. These gifts of the Spirit were transmitted to her Sisters, even to those who rarely had direct contact with her. One day in Tirane, the capital city of Albania (Mother Teresa’s country of origin), a friend took me to visit the local center of the Missionaries of Charity, the Catholic religious order that Mother Teresa founded in 1948. It was shortly before noon, the summer heat was oppressive, and small groups of old people, unkempt and in well-worn clothes, loitered about in the courtyard or sat, stooped over, on the balcony. A lone Sister was in the kitchen, struggling to pull out of the oven an immense tray of baked potatoes and vegetables. She was clearly exhausted—the heat in the kitchen made it hard to breathe, but the odor was delicious. She looked up as we knocked and walked in, then she greeted us with a smile of genuine welcome, even affection. “Come join us,” her eyes said. “We’re a family, about to take a meal together. Please come join us.” That meal, like so many others hosted by the Sisters of Charity, was an agape feast, an authentic eucharist, filled with shared warmth, smiles and cheerful talk. Yet most of those at table knew they were going to die within a matter of weeks or months. As in India, this was a place for the poor, the sick and the dying. And the guests in that house, the “family,” were blessed beyond measure by the presence of this young woman of the order, whose whole life was dedicated to their service, their needs, their suffering.
Occasionally God grants us the joy and simplicity of heart to pray easily and to believe without crippling doubt. For most of us, those moments are rare, and for long periods in our life they can be non-existent. God often keeps silent and leaves us in a state of spiritual solitude. Genuine faith, though, is grounded in the certainty that His absence is merely our perception of things, our short-sightedness, our stiff-necked blindness. More saints than we can imagine have spent years treading through a spiritual desert, feeling alone and abandoned. What makes people truly holy is not a perpetual inner state of joy, peace, hope and faith. It is caring for the needy when they themselves feel spiritually abandoned. It is offering a smile and a word of comfort to someone who is dying and otherwise would die alone. It is wiping saliva from their mouth, caring for their intimate and often disagreeable bodily needs, bearing the smell of their leprous flesh, or preparing their wasted body for an imminent burial.
These are the kinds of things Mother Teresa did, day and night, for many decades. To her, God may have felt absent. She may have agonized over her inability to perceive His hand as it opened to receive the souls of those for whom she cared. But in her pain and loneliness, she manifested the most important virtue of all: to believe despite her unbelief, and to shape her life accordingly.
“If this brings You glory,” she once wrote in a simple word addressed to Jesus, “if souls are brought to You—with joy I accept all to the end of my life.”