Mother Teresa

Who else is God but Yahweh,
Who else a rock save our God…

My wife, Alice, and I were traveling on a train ride through the Canadian Rockies when a friend inquired about Mother Teresa’s ‘dark night of the soul.’ The story of the saintly nun’s inner struggles had flitted to my attention a few years earlier when her private writings were posthumously published. The August 23, 2007 issue of Time magazine featured a cover story “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” suggesting surprise that this iconic figure who was “routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer…was living out a very different spiritual reality.” An article in Newsweek four days later by self-professed atheist Christopher Hitchins had been much less sparing, describing Mother Teresa as “a confused old lady, who [the Church] knew had for all practical purposes ceased to believe.” Like so many other things, I had forgotten these journalistic rants.

But I did have my own personal story to share, and as we passed golden aspens and gazed up at the majestic, rock-ribbed peaks surrounding us I recalled to our friend the time I had heard Mother Teresa speak.

Mother Teresa, called the “Saint of the Gutters” is one of the iconic figures of 20th Century Catholicism.
Mother Teresa, called the “Saint of the Gutters” is one of the iconic figures of 20th Century Catholicism.

In June 1982, three years after she had won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work among the poor, I had helped line up the ministers of different Christian groups for an ecumenical event at St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in San Francisco at which Mother Teresa was to speak. The ministers in their formal robes and stoles, contrasted starkly with the nun in her blue and white sari, and open-toed sandals. The seventy-two year old woman was so tiny, less than five feet, and her message that day — the sanctity of human life and the evil of abortion — was bravely chosen for this city of free-thinkers. I remembered her smile, her vigor, and the fact that a woman speaking in such a simple, forthright manner had brought thousands of people into the Cathedral that Friday morning.

But I could not answer the question about Mother Teresa’s doubt. As the train clicked along, we spoke about the fragile nexus between faith and feelings. But of the nun’s inner, darker side, we could only conjecture.

A few days later I obtained a copy of the collection of letters written by Mother Teresa to the priests who served as her spiritual advisors from 1946 to 1995, two years before her death. Entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the book reveals that for the first 30 years of her religious life she experienced the consoling presence of God. Then began a period of inner emptiness that never left her. For the final four decades of her life, Mother Teresa’s journey was characterized by suffering.

Writing to her confessor in 1961, she explained: “Father, I am not alone. I have his darkness – I have his pain – I have His pain – I have the terrible love for God – to love and not to be loved. I know I have – Jesus in that unbroken union – for my mind is fixed on Him and in Him alone…” For Christians who have prayed with Christ in the liturgical darkness of Holy Thursday, or meditate on his words uttered from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me,” this is familiar ground.

Not surprisingly, however, such sentiments are often seen as counter-cultural by a society that prefers to ignore evil and suffering. Mother Teresa did not do so. Reflecting on inter-religious violence in Calcutta in the mid 1960s, she wrote in a letter: “It will break your heart to see thousands of people left homeless just over night…. What harm sin can do? What a terrible world this is – without the love of Christ…why cause such pain to the poor. Pray for them.” She spoke as a person familiar with the world of millions of individuals who live on the primitive edge of existence.

Coming from this world of marginal survival, Mother Teresa saw no purpose in displays of ambition: “I am absolutely too small and empty,” she wrote. “Only Jesus can stoop so low as to be in love with one such as me.” On another occasion she explained: “Today I made a new prayer – Jesus I accept whatever you give – and I give whatever you take.” There is timelessness to her reflections. But she was not a modern.

Nor was Mother Teresa a doubter. Her writing is suffused with the presence of Christ. “Who is Jesus to me,” she asked at one point: “Jesus is the Word – to be spoken; Jesus is the Truth—to be told; Jesus is the Faith to be walked; Jesus is the Light – to be lit; Jesus is the Life – to be lived; Jesus is the Loved –to be loved.” The litany, written during a stay in a Rome hospital one year after I had seen her, continues in an embrace of suffering humanity: “Jesus is the Leper – to wash his wounds… Jesus is the drug Addict – to befriend him; Jesus is the prostitute — to remove from danger; Jesus is the Prisoner — to be visited; Jesus is the old — to be served.”

In her correspondence, some perceive a disconnect between the cheerful exterior and the inner struggles of this remarkable woman. She is condemned for not conforming to their model of saintliness. But compared to other great saints who experienced the black night of the spirit, she is one with them. Like St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of God, the Good News that Mother Teresa lived, was testimony that the infinite love of God expresses itself in, and not in spite of human suffering. And in this, the faith of Mother Teresa, this diminutive figure who claimed nothing for herself, towers as high as the granite mountains of the West.