Happy Birthday Mother Teresa!
It seems an odd occasion to engage the spiritual bleakness described by Mother in her personal correspondence. The two portraits of Mother Teresa, one the familiar sister who was motivated by love of God, and the other that looked inward for God and saw only darkness are opposite sides of the sainthood coin.
Certainly the following statements are jaw-droppers:
“I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
“In my soul, I can’t tell you how dark it is, how painful, how terrible — I feel like refusing God.”
“Jesus has a very special love for you, [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”
Many have sought to use these, and many similar self-disclosures by Mother to suggest that she was a pious fraud. Many good, faithful Catholics have been shaken by these reports. What do they mean? Were there two Mother Teresas or a well-integrated woman of faith?
Beyond a doubt, the latter.
I know something of Mother’s struggle with faith. In the 1980’s when I worked at Covenant House in Times Square, it was one of New York’s little Calcuttas. The violence done to children’s souls by the sex industry, by the adults of their families and of society whose most sacred charge was their safety and well-being, simply beggared the imagination. The longevity of most workers was two years, so searing was the reality we dealt with daily. I managed to make seven years, having had three major burnout events and not a few crises of faith.
So I understand the blackness that settles into the soul when we decide to go toe-to-toe with Satan. I sometimes experience it in my pro-life advocacy, what Saint John of the Cross called “The Dark Night of the Soul”.
Don’t we all at some point?
But Mother’s was deep and enduring. Her cries were no different, no more an occasion of scandal than Jesus calling out to the Father on the Cross as He quoted Psalm 22:
“1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
8 “He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
Still the question remains: Why did Mother not see the face of God when she looked inward? The answer is remarkably simple. She saw that face in the millions of destitute, desperately poor and forgotten in the slums of Calcutta. She saw that face in the BILLIONS of babies aborted worldwide in the 20th Century. She perfected for us the admonition of Jesus in Matthew 25:
34″Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
The blackness within was God’s greatest gift to Mother Teresa. He meant it when He said that He identified with the poor and the least. This identification is so strong that God came to earth and told us the exact set of criteria by which we shall be judged. It may well be that God forced Mother’s vision outward, not just for herself, but for the benefit of the world.
The Church has had no shortage of saints whose prayer led them into ecstasies. Great stuff if you’re a monastic, but hardly practical for the layperson. Mother led us forward and revealed to us the path to sanctity for the common man and woman. She gave us the means to work at our salvation, consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.
Most importantly, she never lost faith. She never refused God or walked away. She never ceased praying. There is a lesson in that for all of us, especially in the pro-life movement.
The greatest of all Catholic theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas was elevated to Doctor of the Church, so profound and prolific was he. One day while saying Mass he had a vision of Heaven. Because of that vision he described his writings as “so much straw” and he never wrote again.
For her fidelity, for her selflessness, for her faith in that long Dark Night of the Soul, Mother now enjoys that beatific vision that so moved Thomas Aquinas. Her struggles teach us more about fidelity than all of her works combined.
Happy Birthday in Heaven Mother!