Mother Teresa’s decades-long “dark night”

Come be my light

“My Own Jesus,
[...expresses her pain and longing...]
Jesus, hear my prayer. If this pleases you, if my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation gives you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus do with me as you wish, as long as you wish, without a single glance at my feelings and pain. I am your own. Imprint on my soul and life the sufferings of your heart. Don’t mind my feelings; don’t mind even my pain, if my suffering separation from you brings others to you, and in their love and company you find joy and pleasure.

My Jesus I am willing with all my heart to suffer all that I suffer not only now, but through all eternity if this was possible. Your happiness is all that I want. For the rest, please do not take the trouble even if you see me faint with pain. All of this is my will. I want to satiate your thirst with every single drop of blood that you can find in me. Don’t allow me to do you wrong in any way. Take from me the power of hurting you…I am ready to wait for you through all eternity.”
– Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a letter to Jesus, (heard here) from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

The upcoming publication of the letters of Teresa of Calcutta, in which she expresses to God and to her correspondents her long “dark night” is generating a great deal of rhetoric from a “shocked” punditry, some of whom exhibit an almost willful misunderstanding of what she is expressing in her desolation. Some are accusing her of hypocrisy and atheism. Some would like to offer her words as evidence to shore up their own arguments in favor of unbelief, as Christopher Hitchens seems to do here, expressing a sort of harsh sympathy for this “confused old lady”: “She got what she wanted,” writes Hitchens, “and found it a crushing disappointment.”

I don’t think Teresa found in the answer to that incredible prayer above a “crushing disappointment,” but I think perhaps she was surprised at just how thoroughly her offering was accepted. I also think she offered herself again and again, throughout her life, throughout the stages of holiness and faith through which she traveled.

When one falls in love with the Lord, when one has drunk the milk and honey for the first (or the fiftieth) time and been refreshed by it, it is neither unusual nor difficult to pray the euphoric and Spirit-inspired words “Lord, take me as a living holocaust and use me until I am nothing but cinder and ash.” This is the romantic prayer of a lover, and many holy men and women have prayed it earnestly, ardently, using language similar to this passionate and mystical plea from Teresa, and they have been thus consumed. Many of them have – in that consumption – found themselves wandering in the desert or the dark.

I’m not sure I understand why everyone is so “shocked” by these revelations. Haven’t we known for a while that Teresa experienced an extensive and harrowing “dark night” – one unusual in scope and breadth? I wrote about it myself, in passing, here in 2005:

St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have both written of the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Mother Theresa of Calcutta and St. Therese of Lisieux wrote on it, as well. It seems to be a particularly scathing sort of dryness and loss that occurs at the unbreechable chasm between human and divine love. The suffering is very great. The blessing seems to be in that one only gets to that point – to that dark night – when one has advanced so far in love and in faith as to have perhaps exceeded human understanding…when perhaps all there is left is the ability not to praise or to do, but to simply be, and to be willing – humbly willing – to simply listen and be led, even to where – like Peter – you would rather not go.

People of faith understand this. People who are willfully resistant to its urgings do not want to understand it, and they jeer at it or try to misrepresent what this “darkness” is all about, but I don’t think you can be a serious, thoughtful Christian and not have doubt, not struggle, sometimes with faith. And for those who have given it all, have allowed themselves to be used up until they literally have nothing left to give, it seems to me that such dark nights would be unavoidable. I think our human capacity to love can only take us so far, and when we have reached the point where our love for God exceeds our ability to actually feel and comprehend and identify “love” – that’s when these saints see desperate days. My guess is they have simply transcended where human love can take them, but haven’t the tools to fully know “divine” love, and so they’re trapped in something unidentifiable and unknown – a place where they simply have to go on faith. If we learn in 10 years that John Paul II went through exactly the same sort of emptiness and darkness, I will not be surprised at all. In fact, I expect to hear exactly that.

And as for Teresa’s “shocking” letters, I anticipate finding within them a great deal of comfort. And in her carrying on and carrying forth – even through her trials and excruciating sense of loss – I expect I’ll find evidence of the workings of grace and sanctity. As Fr. James Martin writes in the New York Times, “…to conclude that Mother Teresa was a crypto-atheist is to misread both the woman and the experience that she was forced to undergo.”

Indeed. “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me” is not the cry of the atheist; it is the cry of the psalmist and the Christ. It is the cry of the believer. And scripture warns us that we will encounter a sense of abandonment, even in its most exalted and sensual poetry, in Chapter 3 of the Song of Songs:

I will rise then and go about the city;
in the streets and crossings I will seek
Him whom my heart loves.
I sought him but I did not find him.

Really, Teresa’s experience is analogous to the experience of a soldier who leaves a lover behind to go to war. Sure in the fidelity of the one whom his heart loves, he slogs through a long war, often with little-to-no contact with his beloved, but still believing in her, still doing his duty in faith and hope, while enduring the sort of loneliness and grief of which we can only guess. “I’m here, do you still love me? I keep going by believing that you do; when will you write? When will I hear from you?”

The Dark Night of the Soul is not about doubt; it is about enduring, faithful, slavish love.

In his excellent recent column, column, Michael Gerson notes Teresa saying, “If ever I become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ ”

We need that. The holy ones who go before us and reside by us in the “cloud of witnesses” teach us a great deal about the human experience of faith, in all its difficulty and challenges, in all of its grace and resonant glory. And we can ask them for their prayers and their lessons. In darkling times perhaps Teresa is meant to show us how to persevere through valleys fraught with difficulties on both physical and spiritual plains. You don’t walk through the physical desolation of Bombay and Calcutta and endure the scorn and exaltations of the world, without having it come into your spiritual side.

It is very easy – much too easy – to read about Teresa’s enduring struggles and respond with a jeering spite; it’s much easier than thinking about the mysteries of faith, grace and suffering. But maybe we need to think about them more than we do.

If you still doubt that desolation and dark nights are not uncommon to the Christian, I offer a few quotes and thoughts from other Christians, who give evidence that what Teresa experienced – admittedly on a grand scale – was what Christians find to be the stuff of faith:

“If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into!…I don’t believe in eternal life; I think that after this life there is nothing. Everything has disappeared on me, and I am left with love alone.” — St. Therese of Lisieux

“Is the Lord going to use you in a great way? Quite probably. Is he going to prepare you as you expect? Probably not. And if you’re not careful, you will look at the trials, the tests, the sudden interruptions, the disappointments ,the sadness, the lost jobs, the failed opportunities, the broken moments, and you will think, He’s through with me. He’s finished with me. He’s finished with me, when in fact He is equipping you.” — Charles Swindoll

Good Lord, what do you want of me,
What is this wretch to do?
What work is this,
This sinful slave, to do?
Look at me, Sweet Love,
Sweet Love, look at me,
What do You want of me?
Teresa of Avila

From Reader James C, two excellent quotes from fiction:

“Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
— The demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters


“I fell in love when I was 17, with God. A foolish girl with romantic notions about the life of a religious. But my love was passionate. Over the years my feelings have changed. He’s disappointed me. Ignored me. We’ve settled into a relationship of peaceful indifference. The old husband and wife who sit side by side on the sofa, but rarely speak. He knows I will never leave him. This is my duty. But when love and duty are one, then grace is within you.”
— Mother Superior in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil

Unsuprisingly, lots of folks online are writing about Teresa and her letters – here is a roundup and I’ll keep adding to it:

Deacon Greg Kandra brings us a very wise homily on Teresa and humility and writes, “…her life bears witness to the fact that God DIDN’T abandon her. The world saw Him through her.” That is a very inspired insight. Perhaps Teresa could not see him because he was so very near. And, he writes: “her true legacy – may not have been to the poor in the slums, but to the poor in spirit. Those who every day walk through the slums of their own hearts, feeling deserted and unloved.” Indeed. Please go read it – it’s much better than anything I’ve written here.

Brits at their Best brings us the story of Leonard Cheshire, who in some spiritual ways was a sort of male, English counterpart to Teresa

Charles Colson recounts His own dark night

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About Elizabeth Scalia