Revelations about Mother Teresa’s ‘dark night of the soul’ and the emptiness of faith she had experienced do not make her less of a saint. In fact, they make her part of a larger spiritual tradition ‘Father, how come, I don’t hear a tinge of shock or even surprise in your voice after hearing this unbelievable revelation?’ said the-then CNN correspondent in India, Satinder Bindra, in 2000 after he found out how spiritually tormented Mother Teresa had been, even doubting at times whether she was possessed by the Eucharist spirit.
Like Bindra, there are millions who hold Mother Teresa in awe and, at the same time, have little familiarity with 2,000 years of Christian traditions. They seem to be stunned by the latest revelations made in Father Brian Kolodiejchuk’s book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. Father Kolodiejchuk is Mother Teresa’s postulator, an official who petitions for a person’s sainthood and collects supporting materials.
The tenth death anniversary of Mother Teresa last week came with questions regarding her “constant crises of faith” in a life that was closely watched by the world. Her crisis of faith, or what 16th century mystic John of the Cross described as, the “dark night of the soul”, which has been experienced by many holy persons, is revealed through letters written by the Mother to her spiritual directors, superiors and colleagues over 46 years as a missionary of charity. “Despite the Mother’s appeal to those she had written to that they should be destroyed, if they are preserved and are now being brought to public scrutiny, it means that those ‘negative’ sounding letters have something profound to say, not only about Mother Teresa but also about the implications of deep spirituality and attachment to God through faith,” says Archbishop Vincent M. Concessao of Delhi.
The feeling of being abandoned by God is not only a phenomenon observed in Christian saints, though it is in the Church that one would find them best documented. It is the desire for an intimate union with God and the tormenting experience of complete spiritual ‘dryness’ that can be said to be a sine qua non for any spiritual giant. Gautama, before he became the Buddha, went through excruciating and prolonged moments of loneliness and questioning. The Jesuit Francis Gonsalves of Vidyajyoti Theological College, citing another example, explains, “Meera Bai, so deeply in love with Lord Krishna and not being able to experience that perfect union with her beloved Lord, shed tears bewailing, ‘Ghayal ki gati ghayal jaane’ (only the wounded can experience the grief).”
Mother Teresa confided only in a few people about the deep spiritual darkness that she began experiencing soon after she had founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity. She was also aware that her experience of being forsaken by God was only mirroring what her Lord had experienced when he cried out on the Cross to God, “Eli Eli Lema Sabachtani? (Father, Father why have you forsaken me?”)
Among the spiritual directors who finally helped her make sense of her ‘darkness’ was the Austria-born Jesuit theologian Joseph Neuner, now 99 and residing in Pune. He advised her three things: “a) That there was no human remedy for it and that she should not feel responsible for it, b) That feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and her very craving for God was a sure sign of His hidden presence in her life and, c) That the absence of God was in fact part of the spiritual side of her work for Jesus.” Thus a Catholic, well versed in spirituality, would not be stirred by Mother’s state of spiritual emptiness.
For those of us who often go through bouts of ‘atheistic’ experiences and try to find deeper meaning into our religious lives, Mother Teresa’s revelations come as a boost to pursue ever more ardently the path to holiness, all the while being totally human.
Dominic Emmanuel is Director of Communication, Information Bureau of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese