The publication of the book Come, Be My Light (2007), containing many of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s letters to her spiritual advisors, provoked a good deal of discussion and, unfortunately, confusion as a result of hasty and superficial interpretations. Could Mother Teresa really have lost — or at least had doubts about — her faith? An essential key to understanding the meaning of Mother Teresa’s “darkness” is to examine it in light of her religious and missionary vocation, and to grasp how she lived a heroic life of faith and charity, sharing in Christ’s mission of saving souls.
The private writings of Mother Teresa do not constitute a biography, nor do they say everything about her interior life. Rather, they present several hidden aspects of her spiritual life that give us a hitherto unknown window into the profundity of her holiness. The first of these was the private vow she made in 1942, “binding under [pain of] mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’”
Four years later, after telling Mother Teresa in prayer what he wanted from her, Jesus referred to this vow. She wrote, “In all my prayers and Holy Communions He is continually asking ‘Wilt thou refuse?’” The manner and details of this “call within a call” to serve the poorest of the poor is the second hidden aspect of Mother Teresa’s life. Her letters disclose that in 1946 and 1947, she received locutions, visions and (most probably) had moments of spiritual ecstasy. Her confessor, Father Van Exem, wrote of her “continual, deep and violent union with God.”
Even though Mother Teresa knew the consolation of great intimacy with God, Jesus also declared that her “vocation is to love and suffer and save souls”; that she and her sisters were to be “victims of My love”; and that “if you are My own little Spouse — the Spouse of the Crucified Jesus — you will have to bear these torments on your heart.” Mother Teresa had no way of knowing at the time what exactly these words meant and how much she would have to suffer to fulfill this vocation and to become a “victim of love.”
Her mission in the streets of Calcutta began in earnest in 1949. During this time, the experience of darkness began again. She felt a terrible sense of loss, a great loneliness and the torment of thinking she was not wanted by God. Even more painful than this sense of loss was the pain of unfulfilled longing. “It is so painful to be lonely for God,” she wrote. We can only imagine how terrible this experience was for someone who, in her own words, wanted “to live only for love of Him.”
An important key to understanding Mother Teresa’s faith is the fact that she had already reached union with Jesus, the state of contemplative prayer. In his book Fire Within (1989), Marist Father Thomas Dubay explains that in this state of union, the person experiences consolation or the joy of union as well as moments of dryness and longing for even greater union. While Mother Teresa did experience consolation and joy, her faith was later characterized by extreme dryness and a very intense longing.
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Jesuit Father Joseph Neuner, who was a spiritual advisor to Mother Teresa, offered a key insight into Mother Teresa’s life in 1961. He said that Mother’s darkness was her way of union with Jesus and the “spiritual side of her work.” Mother Teresa often stated that the greatest poverty in the world today is to be “unloved, unwanted, uncared for” — and she experienced this with Jesus. In this regard, it is important to note that Mother Teresa did not have a crisis of faith — that is, a real existential or intellectual question, as if on an intellectual or volitional level she entertained the possibility that God really did not exist. Instead, Mother Teresa experienced a trial of faith and, even more, a trial of love.
Nonetheless, her faith, hope and love remained unshakable, even though she could not feel them. It was for this reason that Christ could share for so long and so intensely his most painful suffering –– the “torments of his heart” — that he underwent during his agony and crucifixion. And because Mother Teresa was so united to Jesus, she also identified with the spiritually poorest of the poor, sharing their spiritual destitution.
In the end, rather than being something negative in an otherwise holy life, Mother Teresa’s “darkness” was an important and essential aspect of her vocation to be a religious and a missionary. Mother Teresa, I believe, is one of the great mystics and, as others have said as well, among the great saints of the Church. For the love of Jesus and the poor, she accepted the pain of not experiencing God’s love.
In 1988, reflecting on Christ’s experience of abandonment on the cross, Pope John Paul II stated: “That lack of interior consolation was Jesus’ greatest agony.” We can say the same of Mother Teresa, who was sent to “proclaim the good news to the poor, the good news that God is love and that He loves each one of us” (cf. Lk 4:18). Indeed, Mother Teresa fulfilled the vocation Jesus gave to her — paradoxically while in darkness, to be his light.
Missionary of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk is the postulator of the cause for canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the editor of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007).
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