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Mother Teresa and the ‘dark night of the soul’

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Catholic News Service

Over the past several decades, Mother Teresa of Kolkata became a household name.

Blessed Teresa of Kolkata is pictured in a prayerful moment in Hong Kong in this March 2, 1993, photo. To a spiritual director, Mother Teresa wrote, "Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness." (CNS photo/Thomas Cheng, EPA)
Blessed Teresa of Kolkata is pictured in a prayerful moment in Hong Kong in this March 2, 1993, photo. To a spiritual director, Mother Teresa wrote, “Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness.” (CNS photo/Thomas Cheng, EPA)

Arguably, Blessed Teresa was the most famous Catholic in the world, popes providing her only close competition. Her tiny stature, blue-trimmed sari and ever-present smile were globally recognizable.

And yet, for all that, Mother Teresa became something of a cliché, even perhaps to many Catholics. “Mother Teresa” was a phrase that described the unattainable. She was the epitome of otherworldly sanctity, of charity that went beyond the grasp of ordinary people.

Dorothy Day famously remarked, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” and perhaps at some level, despite our reverence for her, we dismissed the saint of Kolkata.

Because by putting her so completely on the saint pedestal, we were able to give ourselves a pass. We loved having a Mother Teresa in our world. We just knew we could never be a Mother Teresa.

Revelations following her death have changed that for many. In 2007, a book titled “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” presented a whole different perspective on her life. It showed her 50-year crisis of faith as seen through revelations to her spiritual directors and superiors. Perhaps her struggle for sanctity was more closely aligned with ours than we imagined.

Suddenly, we realized that her ever-present smile was not the product of some vision only she could see. It was the effort of a woman committed to loving Christ totally in others despite each day encountering what St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, described as “the dark night of the soul.”

This darkness, this feeling of the absence of God, is nothing new to many saints — or to many of us. St. Teresa of Avila experienced years of darkness. Jesuit Father Patrick Howell pointed out in a 2007 column in the Seattle Times that Teresa of Avila spoke to God thus: “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, describes the desolation many of us experience, but also the consolation God offers us through evidence of his presence.

Yet for Mother Teresa, this sense of desolation and darkness went on almost relentlessly. How did she continue to love God so deeply through this 50-year crisis?

David Scott, in his book “The Love That Made Mother Teresa,” said the nun “lived in a spiritual desert, panicked that God had rejected her, or worse, that he was there in the dark hiding from her.”

To a spiritual director, Mother Teresa wrote, “Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness.”

Mother Teresa’s biography is well-known to Catholics. Born in Albania, she studied with the Loreto Sisters in Ireland and taught in their Kolkata (then Calcutta) school. Her organizational skills led to her becoming the school’s principal.

Then famously, she experienced “a call within a call.” This involved the interior visions and touches by God that we associate with saints. With permission, she left the school and dedicated her life to God’s poor.

But the consolation of God’s presence left her. We ask, why? Here is where our own faith challenge begins. Why did God choose to test Mother Teresa, like metal forged in fire?

Father Howell says, “Night signifies that which comes upon us and takes us out of our own control. … For ultimately, John of the Cross contends, God heals in darkness. In the dark night, God quietly purges the soul of narcissism and self-centered desire so that one’s entire soul is centered on the Other.”

Ultimately, Mother Teresa responded to God in the most selfless way. Like us, she experienced doubt. Like ours, her faith was tested.

As we near her canonization, it’s this Mother Teresa to whom we pray — not the Mother Teresa of the easy smile, but the Mother Teresa of the dark night.

Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.