Mother Teresa’s Dark Night Wasn’t a ‘Crisis of Faith’ — It Was the Height of Faith

COMMENTARY: The Lord commanded Mother Teresa to serve the last, the least, and the lost — and to stand at the foot of his cross in the darkness of a lifelong Good Friday

Pope John Paul II, right, holds his arm around Mother Teresa as they ride in the popemobile outside the Home of the Dying in Calcutta, India in Feb. 1986
Pope John Paul II, right, holds his arm around Mother Teresa as they ride in the popemobile outside the Home of the Dying in Calcutta, India in Feb. 1986 (photo: Anonymous / AP)

 St. Teresa of Calcutta won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her wholehearted service to the poor and suffering around the world, yet today conversations about her spirituality, while not overlooking her charity, tend to speculate about the interior darkness she experienced for almost 50 years. 

However, the time may have come to update the hermeneutic of her life and charism, as evidenced by several presentations given at a September colloquium hosted by the newly minted Mother Teresa Institute at The Catholic University of America and directed by Missionaries of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk and Father Mark Morozowich of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. 

Her spiritual mission is better understood today as a call to radiate the light of Christ in the darkness of human misery and poverty — a light that parallels the beauty of the shining Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil and the words, lumen Christi, proclaimed by the priest.

A few years after the death of Mother Teresa in 1997 a cache of letters was discovered in the footlocker of Jesuit Father Celeste Van Exem, confessor and spiritual director, and led to the shocking revelation that she had suffered for decades from a terrifying desolation. Our smiling and cheerful “saint of the slums” was abruptly cast into the company of atheists, agnostics and spiritual cynics by popular media sources while, sadly, the urgent injunction she had received from the Lord to “come be my light,” was overlooked or misunderstood. 

In religious circles, St. Teresa of Calcutta’s darkness was immediately associated with the mystical and poetical writings of St. John of the Cross as expressed in The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Some of her letters speak of the deep and lasting spiritual pain she experienced, as in this example from 1959:

“That darkness that surrounds me on all sides — I can’t lift my soul to God — no light or inspiration enters my soul.” 

Yet, while the spirituality of Carmel contextualizes some of the elements of her dark night, it is also true that both she and her religious community, the Missionaries of Charity, modeled their way of life on the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Young Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu was an active member of Sacred Heart Parish in Skopje, Macedonia — which was then part of the Ottoman Empire — and participated in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The confraternity promoted Ignatian spiritual principles adapted to young people and encouraged service-oriented apostolates. This early formation prepared her for consecrated life in the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sisters of Loreto) founded in the 17th century. 

In 1942 Mother Teresa made an unusual private vow to “give God anything that he may ask” and “not to refuse him anything.” This special inspiration can be linked, in part, to her daily examination of conscience and discernment of spirits as found in the spiritual practices of St. Ignatius and Loreto. From childhood, Gonxha was instructed to seek God’s will in all things, and her intention “not to refuse him anything” might be rephrased as “to always discern the will of God.” Her private vow was made four years before her “call within a call,” also known as Inspiration Day by Missionaries of Charity.

On Sept. 10, 1946, while traveling by train from Calcutta to Darjeeling for her annual retreat, she had a mystical experience that anointed her with the charism and spirituality of the Missionaries of Charity. The graces she received continued for almost two years and ceased only when she had the necessary canonical permissions to depart — and dressed in her blue sari, she walked into the slums. A simple image from her third interior vision (Letter of Dec. 3, 1947), is paradigmatic of this new charism:

“I saw a very big crowd — all kinds of people — very poor and children were there also … they were covered in darkness. Yet I could see them. Our Lord on the Cross. Our Lady at a little distance from the Cross — and myself as a little child in front of her. … We were both facing the Cross.”

Her First Rules, drafted during the novena preceding Pentecost 1947, give meaning to this particular vision. Her “general end” (aim) was “to satiate the Thirst of Jesus on the Cross for love and souls” (cf. John 19:28). Her “particular end” (means) was service to the poor in the spirit of Matthew 25:40 — “Whatever you did to one of these least ones, you did it to me.” 

My presentation at the Mother Teresa Institute’s colloquium sought to encourage theological discussion of Mother Teresa’s spirituality from the perspective of this third interior vision in relation to the Paschal Mystery. I listened to several other papers that touched on themes connected to her darkness, Holy Saturday and the resurrection. The presenters appeared united in their desire to examine her mystical experiences from a wider theological perspective that explains her darkness in the context of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, which also opens new avenues for future study and research. 

The image of a childlike Mother Teresa standing beneath the Cross with Mary and the poor has become something of a locus theologicus for the Missionaries of Charity. The vocation to remain with Mary wherever Jesus is suffering in his mystical body today reflects the spiritual ideal of Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est:

“Love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God” (15).

How then are we to interpret her interior darkness? The spirituality of Mother Teresa reveals the darkness in several different forms. For instance, the synoptic gospels recount the actual darkness of Good Friday afternoon that overshadows all who are present near the Cross. St. Teresa of Calcutta made a daily choice to stay here in the spiritual darkness: “Let us always remain with Mary our Mother on Calvary near the crucified Jesus …” (CBML, p. 42). Therefore, the interior darkness cannot be separated from her mission to persevere in the “night” of Jesus’ ongoing crucifixion in his suffering poor. She chose to remain near his Cross, in the darkness, until her death. 

A different type of darkness is revealed on Holy Saturday and the Descent into Hell. The Lord commands Mother Teresa to “go out and search” for the last, the least, and the lost. He says: 

“They (the poor) don’t know Me – so they don’t want Me. You come – go amongst them – carry Me with you into them – how I long to enter their holes – their dark unhappy homes” (CBML, p. 98). 

The “dark holes of the poor” reflect their moral poverty by not knowing or loving Jesus. Thus, she is asked to “descend” into the “living hell” of the poorest of the poor. Jesus asks Mother Teresa to radiate his light in the darkness of their suffering when he says: “Come be My light” (CBML, p. 98) This is the light of the resurrection revealed on Easter Sunday. Hence, the spiritual itinerary of St. Teresa of Calcutta beautifully parallels the Paschal Mystery that includes both darkness and Light. She and her followers become a living “Lumen Christi” that seeks to illumine the hearts of the poor. 

Father Robert William Conroy, M.C. is Vicar General of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in Tijuana, Mexico.