Saint Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night” (Part I of II)
What did it mean for her? What does it mean for us?
Even though Mother Teresa’s experience of spiritual “darkness” has been known for several years, the full publication of her private letters in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light–The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” drew worldwide media coverage [a few years ago].
TIME Magazine did a cover story on it, prominent articles appeared in The New York Times and other major publications, and numerous TV and radio interviews were conducted.
Some secularists chose to interpret her talk of darkness as a sign of hypocrisy and even accused her of not really believing in God. Only a very superficial and partial reading of these letters could have occasioned this interpretation. Some believers were disturbed and confused to hear of her prolonged experience of aridity or emptiness in her relationship with God. Some thought the letters were so disturbing it was a mistake to publish them.
This last concern is understandable, but unfounded. The letters in question are part of the official record compiled in the process of canonization and are generally made public. And by now we should realize that efforts to “edit” the life or writings of a saint (as the sisters of Thérèse of Lisieux tried to do in the case of their sister’s writings) only detract from the awesome witness to holiness to be found therein, albeit sometimes in unexpected and disturbing ways. I think we will see in the long run that the publication of these letters and the widespread media attention, even with its imperfections, will bear great fruit.
An Unimaginable Depth of Holiness
Having read the entire book–which includes all of Mother Teresa’s available letters and the sensitive and expert commentary of Missionaries of Charity priest Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk–I am left awestruck at the depth of Mother Teresa’s holiness. Her faith and her heroic service were more profound than I ever imagined.
It is certainly true that while she received remarkable communications from the Lord and deep spiritual and sensible consolation at the beginning of her mission, for almost 50 years Mother Teresa was left almost totally bereft of such consolation. She carried out her mission with almost no affective experience of God’s love and presence.
She could see the fruit that her work was producing. She could see that when she spoke to her sisters and others that they came alive and grew in the experience of God’s love. But she herself, for the most part, felt only emptiness.
During the first 10 years of this “darkness,” Mother Teresa was deeply troubled by it and sought to understand what was happening by consulting a few trusted priests. She wondered if this prolonged darkness was a sign of her great sinfulness and imperfection. Some of the advice she received was helpful, but it wasn’t until she met Fr. Joseph Neuner, a Jesuit working in India, that she came to grasp some of the special meaning of her suffering.
A Different Kind of Dark Night
Fr. Neuner explained to her that this wasn’t the typical “dark night” as described by St. John of the Cross–that it wasn’t just for her own purification, but rather it was a special gift that God was giving her to participate in the sufferings of Christ, particularly in Jesus’ own sense of abandonment during His agony in the garden of Gethsemane before His Crucifixion. Mother Teresa was forever grateful to Fr. Neuner:
I can’t express in words the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me. For the first time in these 11 years I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a “spiritual side of ‘your work’” as you wrote. Today really I felt a deep joy; that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes, more than ever I will be at His disposal. (p. 241)
In fact, Mother Teresa had prayed for just such a participation in the agony of Christ years earlier. As a young woman, she had resolved “to drink the chalice to the last drop.” After the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, she again resolved “to drink only from His chalice of pain and to give Mother Church real saints” (p. 141).
The understanding Mother Teresa received from Fr. Neuner gave her a measure of peace and even joy. However, it didn’t take away the pain of not being able to experience the sensible and spiritual consolation of God’s love and favor. For Mother Teresa, this often seemed to be on the verge of unbearable.
In his 2003 Advent Meditations to the Holy Father and the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa summed up well the reasons God led Mother Teresa by this unusual path. The publication of the full text of the letters and the commentary of Fr. Kolodiejchuk confirms this interpretation.
I discuss the unique experience of Mother Teresa in terms of her “dark night,” as interpreted by Fr. Cantalamessa, and its relationship to the “ordinary dark nights” as taught by John of the Cross in chapter 17 of my book on the spiritual tradition, The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints.
In part II, we will talk about her spiritual formation and how to identify the roots of spiritual aridity.
Editor’s Notes: This post originally appeared in Lay Witness Magazine, November/December 2007. Used with permission.
Ralph Martin is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (2013), as well as Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012) and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006).
Art: Mother Teresa of Calcuta [sic], portrait painting by Robert Pérez Paulou, 1 January 1994, CC, Wikimedia Commons.