Written by Ines Angeli Murzaku Ph.D.
On August 23, 2007, TIME magazine published excerpts of the private journals and letters of Mother Teresa depicting her crisis of faith and her almost 50 years without sensing God’s presence. TIME’s author, David Van Biema, asked: What does her experience teach us about the value of doubt? The late Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa’s harsh critic, refers to these letters as “scrawled and desperate documents” from a “troubled and miserable lady” who tried to recruit others “to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.” (Newsweek, 8, 28, 2007). To conclude that Mother Teresa was “a crypto-atheist,” who was perfectly knowledgeable that there was no God but lacked the decency to admit it, cannot be farther from the truth. This is to misconstrue the woman and the mystical experiences she underwent. Moreover, it is exactly this doubt and the life-long “thirst” for God that make Mother Teresa become St. Teresa of Kolkatta. Mother Teresa is real, approachable, and earthly as she herself desired to be: “If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of darkness. I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
Doubt goes hand in hand with faith. Doubt is an ingredient of faith or an element of faith (Paul Tillich) and is by no means a modern problem. Abraham doubted his faith during the famine in Canaan; Sarah and Abraham laughed in doubt at God’s promise for a son; St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ own disciples doubted resurrection; St. Peter was not immune to doubt either. Yet there is a deeper, more profound mystical experience which is called the dark night of senses and the dark night of the soul, terms coined in the 16th century by St. John of the Cross. In the Christian East, this stage where the “perception” of grace is withdrawn is called God-forsakenness (Elder Sophrony). For Mother Teresa, in comparison to other saints including St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose vision she emulated, it was an unusual, decades long and unique mystical experience. However, undergoing the dark night of the soul is not unusual. St. Faustina tasted wilderness and spiritual abandonment for more than a year; St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina felt “dark clouds gathering in the heavens of my soul that not even a feeble ray of light can penetrate;” or St. Gemma Galgani, the young Italian mystic who is otherwise known as the Saint of the Passion of Jesus, experienced darkness; St. Silouan the Athonite’s soul was plunged into darkness and he was convinced that God had abandoned him, when God appeared to him saying: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not!”
Mother Teresa and other saints went through three stages of spiritual perfection: purgative; illuminative, and unitive in their journeys to holiness. These temporary stages are requirements which mark the souls’ maturation and preparedness for heaven. The ascetic Fathers of the East have considered these stages as tests athletes undergo to perfect the soul and learn humility. The dark night of the senses happens at the end of purgation, when God purifies the “candidate” of the world’s attachments – emptiness and dryness is felt in prayer as well. Instead, the dark night of the soul happens at the end of the illumination, which is the last stage leading to union or divinization. During the dark night of soul God eradicates any remnant of sin and self-love. The soul falls in a dark abyss, desolation when it gets real taste of hell. Without this testing stage, one cannot be united with Christ. These stages are a must for ascetic progress; in reality they are paradoxical expressions of God’s love (Elder Sophrony.) The fact is that Mother Teresa stood and endured through all these trials with smile on her face and performing exceptional works of charity and love.
Mother Teresa accepted darkness as part of her life’s journey and her intimate internalization of the cross, which she considered a gift. She was not clinically depressed, confused or traumatized by the loss of her father early in age. In fact, she radiated light and joy and showed no signs of despair because she was confident that Jesus would come again and fill her emptiness. In a way it was He who emptied her to fill her again. As she herself wrote, I have come to love the darkness. The fact that she did not want to talk about her childhood is an indication of her internalizing the cross of losing her father and later in life her mother Drane and sister. In the 60 according to her brother, Lazër Bojaxhiu, Mother Teresa had asked for help from and possible intervention of the American president John F. Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, French president Charles de Gaulle and the King of Sweden Gustaf VI Adolf to visit her mother and sister in Albania. In spite of high level diplomatic interventions, the Albanian communist government of Enver Hoxha did not grant a permission to Mother Teresa to visit Albania and say good bye to her sick mother. This painful event joined the cross and that dark night of the soul that Mother Teresa was undergoing. In her fashion, she internalized this loss as part of her journey.
Mother Teresa’s darkness is not failure in her faith commitment. Instead, this is fortitude and profound faith to overcome trials. Mother Teresa’s personal writings, like St. Augustine Confessions, will be a classic in mystical and empirical theology. Unlike other saints, who might bear little resemblance to real people and their daily problems of faith and doubt, Mother Teresa will be one of us. She is profoundly human and profoundly saintly and with her light will illuminate other paths to sainthood.
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Bio: Ines Angeli Murzaku Ph.D., is Professor of Religion at Seton Hall University. Her research has been published in multiple articles and five books. The most recent is Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics (Routledge 2016) <http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415819596/>. She has worked for or collaborated with various media outlets nationally and internationally including Radio Tirana (Albania) during the Cold War; Vatican Radio (Vatican City) and EWTN (Rome) during Eastern Europe upheavals in the 90's; Voice of America and Relevant Radio (USA), The Catholic Thing; Crux – Taking the Catholic Pulse etc.
Photos: CNS photo/courtesy Catholic Relief Services & CNS photo/KNA