I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1981 during the dedication of a peace garden
located at the Franciscan seminary that I attended in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was in
the United States, visiting her new community in New York City.
Many of you saw the secular media’s reaction some weeks ago to the “revelations”
in Come, Be My Light, the book of her correspondence with her spiritual directors.
She described in deeply moving words her struggles with faith, her doubts and her
sense of abandonment by God. All of this occurred at the very time her new community
of the Missionaries of Charity was growing in numbers and their work with the outcasts
and the dying was expanding.
She wrote to her spiritual director, “My own soul remains in deep darkness and desolation.” Still,
Mother Teresa added, “I don’t complain—let Him do with me whatever He wants.” She
willingly sacrificed the earlier consolations she had received for the challenge
of living her life in pure faith.
On the surface, her emptiness and lack of consolation appear shocking, but in reality
she was experiencing what Catholic spirituality describes as “the dark night of the
soul.” There is no question that to suffer this for a 40-year period must have been
a terrible trial. What it says is that this saintly nun, so dedicated to others,
also bore a gigantic cross that only increased her holiness and union with God.
Unfortunately, some people who don’t know the theology or language of the spiritual
life reacted by calling Mother Teresa a fake, a pretender or even a liar.
We know that she was never a fake or a liar. Actually, her faith would always grow
deeper, even as the darkness seemed to grow. She said, “It is only blind faith that
carries me through.” Remember, faith is believing what we cannot see or feel.
Her whole life was as honest and true as it could be. But what about the darkness,
the doubts and the dryness of her life where God seemed to be gone? We ordinarily
equate the presence of God with deep feelings of certainty, almost as if you can
reach out and touch God.
Mother Teresa’s entire being was to do the will of God and, in fact, that is exactly
what she did so wonderfully. If we look at her influence, her wonderful religious
community and the tens of thousands of people she and her sisters have helped, we
see that her life was an amazing journey with God.
But all those feelings and experiences are not actually God. They are the understanding
and images we have of God. As a person seeks to draw closer to God, God begins to
remove all those things that we think are God but are only representations.
As they are removed one by one, the closeness of God may seem to fade or disappear.
of Spiritual Growth
The dark night of the senses and of the spirit is not punishment from God but rather
a sign of spiritual growth and reflects the paradox of the gospel: To die is to live,
to live is to die, less is more and more is less.
St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila wrote about these spiritual principles,
which are explained at www.danschrock.org/Contemplation.aspx.
Mother Teresa was not a fake; she did not lose her faith. In fact, her faith grew
all the time while she was walking in darkness with the Lord. Her experience, however,
shows that faith is the strongest when there are no feelings and reassurances. All
saints speak of similar experiences.
From St. Francis of Assisi to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, saints and all those seeking
union with God have experienced darkness and struggles, some more than others. But
perhaps the most important example is what Jesus experienced during his own passion
and death, hanging on the cross. In his human nature, he experienced an abandonment
“Why have you forsaken me?” Wasn’t his faith at the moment of deepest sacrifice the
Correspondence Is Inspiring
Some people may feel upset that Mother Teresa’s letters were published and not destroyed,
as she had wanted. Two considerations are important.
First, a basic principle in spirituality states: God’s unique gifts given to a person
are for the sake of the whole Church and not simply the individual who receives these
And second, if all the saints who died got their wish that their correspondence
be destroyed, the Christian world would be without some of the most instructive and
inspiring writings we could have. (Saints don’t always know what should or should
not be published.)
Mother Teresa’s experiences will enlighten many people. I have read Come, Be
My Light and have been deeply moved by her letters, her prayers and her experiences
as she relates them. In no way does this book seem like an invasion of her privacy.
On the contrary, it presents what the Lord surely wanted her to share with the whole
Church—though she was not aware of that as she wrote these letters. Saints are not
holy for themselves, but for all of us, their sisters and brothers. I believe this
book will become a classic in spirituality.
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, Mother Teresa’s letters show how
her faith in Jesus was deepest even when he seemed very distant and often absent.—James
Van Vurst, O.F.M.
This guest editorial is expanded from Friar Jim’s contribution to the free, biweekly Friar
Jack’s E-spirations (www.americancatholic.org/e-news/Friar