September 18, 2014

Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Dark Night of the Soul

By Msgr. M. Francis Mannion *

I have just finished reading a fascinating and engaging book that is both theologically profound and simple in style – a book I recommend highly to all readers. It contains previously unpublished letters of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and is entitled, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The book is edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of the cause of Mother Teresa’s canonization. The book made it to The New York Times best-seller list.

The book reveals a side of Mother Teresa’s spirituality that was not generally known while she was alive, that is, that she experienced for much of her life what has historically been described as a “dark night of the soul” (an expression most notably associated with St. John of the Cross). Mother Teresa lived for long periods with an agonizing sense of God’s absence and emptiness of soul. This experience of divine absence accompanied her extraordinary mission which constituted one of the most remarkable ministries among the poor in Calcutta and throughout the world.

In one of her letters, Mother Teresa summarizes her experience as follows: “There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no zeal. Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place.”

This may shock people of a sunnier spiritual disposition, and has led some atheists (like the bombastic Englishman Christopher Hitchens) to accuse Mother Teresa of hypocrisy and to feel vindicated in their own lack of belief in God. She was, after all, they said, an atheist just like them.

However, the “dark night of the soul” Mother Teresa experienced was as far from atheism as one can imagine. Atheists typically feel quite comfortable in their disbelief in God and are in no way troubled by it. Their sense of God’s absence is undergirded by the more fundamental belief that God does not exist and that religion generally is the source of the worst evils of the world.

The Christian (or other religious believer) who experiences a sense of God’s absence in his or her life is often highly committed to the life of faith, has a strong belief in God’s existence, and—in the case of Mother Teresa—practices a demanding life of self-sacrifice and service.

Do Christians generally share in Mother Teresa’s experience? Certainly not everyone does. My own experience as a confessor and spiritual director for over 40 years tells me that more people feel this way than is often admitted. To have doubts of faith, to experience periods—even long periods—of spiritual emptiness, is the lot of more people than we might think. More likely people who share Mother Teresa’s state of soul do so for briefer periods of their lives.

As I mentioned, some people will look upon Mother Teresa’s self-revelations as an exhibition of hypocrisy. But, of course, they are not. To be a hypocrite is to say one thing and to do something else, to lack coherence between inner conviction and outward action.

Mother Teresa’s extraordinary charity was driven by a deep commitment to finding Jesus in the poorest of the poor. Her prayers were profoundly sincere and represented a constant struggle to find Christ in the Eucharist and the other sacraments.

Those who find spiritual darkness in their lives will benefit greatly from reading this collection of Mother Teresa’s touching and heart-searching letters (available from Doubleday, $15.99).

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul parish in Salt Lake City. He holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America. He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Societys journal, Antiphon. At the invitation of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago he founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.