It should be no surprise that a Time magazine story is using the 10th anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa to suggest she doubted whether or not God existed. After all, to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus each year, national glossy newsweeklies regularly publish cover stories casting doubt on Jesus himself.
Time’s article, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” focuses on a few sentences in a few letters of Blessed Teresa published in a new book to suggest that behind her public persona of a believer was a tortured soul defined by her doubt.
The article focused on the book, Come, Be My Light by Missionary of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator of her canonization cause.
But the contents of the book are nothing new — the Register interviewed Father Kolodiejchuk on the same subjects in 2003. And Mother’s writings show that her faith was greater, not less, than we might have thought.
The more we learn about Mother Teresa, the more we discover that, even among the saints, she stands out. She was every bit as profound as her namesakes, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Many accounts of her life falsely describe a woman who was so moved by pity for the poor that she gladly devoted her life to their service. But she didn’t go gladly.
“How could I?” she said. “I have been and am very happy as a Loreto Nun. To leave that which I love and expose myself to new labors and suffering, which will be great, to be a laughingstock of so many, especially religious, to cling and choose deliberately the hard things on an Indian life, to loneliness and ignominy, to uncertainty — and all this because Jesus wants it, because something is calling me to leave all and gather the few to live his life, and to do his work in India.”
Her postulator said that her Yes was rewarded with a “real, close, intense union with Jesus in 1946 and 1947.” But then she experienced what Teresa and Thérèse had experienced: the agonizing feeling of abandonment by God that St. John of the Cross dubbed “the dark night of the soul.”
This spiritual dark night is nothing like the tortured doubts of “postmodern” man. It is the same experience as Jesus’ agony from the cross, when he said, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” and “I thirst.”
The difference between the doubt of a modern atheist and spiritual darkness is as distinct as the difference between a “Dear John” note and an “I miss you, Johnny” letter. These saints never cease having a relationship with God; on the contrary, their relationship grows more intense as they long to be reunited. They live the experience the Song of Solomon refers to: “I sought him whom my heart loves — I sought him but I did not find him.”
The dark night lasted as long as a year or two for Teresa and Thérèse. For Mother Teresa, it lasted 50 years. “Mother was sharing in the longing and sufferings of her beloved,” said the postulator of her cause.
And far from masking this aspect of her faith life, as the article suggests she did, Mother Teresa put the insights she gained from it at the center of her congregation’s spirituality. Missionaries of Charity chapels are adorned with only a crucifix and the words “I thirst” over the tabernacle.
“This seems to me the most heroic thing of her spiritual life,” said the priest. “Mother was not only sharing in the physical poverty of the poor, but also the sufferings of Jesus — his longing for union, as expressed in Gethsemane and on the cross.”
Her unique experiences are what make Mother Teresa such a powerful intercessor for the Church of the 21st century.
With the publication of her letters, it’s as if Jesus’ message, which was once just for Mother Teresa, is now for the whole Church.
Mother reported to a bishop in a 1946 letter how Jesus called her.
“You are afraid,” Jesus told her. “How your fear hurts me. Fear not. It is I who am asking you to do this for me. Fear not. Even if the whole world is against you, laughs at you, your companions and superiors look down on you, fear not. It is I in you, with you, for you.”
“You will suffer, suffer very much, but remember I am with you,” said another. “Only obey — obey very cheerfully and promptly and without any questions. Just only obey. I shall never leave you if you obey.”
Our age exaggerates physical beauty. But Mother Teresa’s is at the same time one of the most attractive and unattractive world-famous faces in recent memory. Ours is an age that detests hypocrisy — and Mother Teresa lived her call to serve the poor to the point of personal exhaustion, even being cheerful for their sake. Our age is skeptical about faith — but Mother Teresa kept her faith despite unimaginable spiritual and physical hardships.
Ten years after her death, Mother Teresa is inspiring us as never before.