My own dark night of the soul in Calcutta
A new book of the letters of Mother Teresa, edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Missionaries of Charity priest who is responsible for presenting her case for sainthood to the Vatican, reveals that the founder of the Missionaries of Charity suffered for years with what St. John of the Cross termed “the dark night of the soul.” The letters between Mother Teresa and various spiritual directors and confessors are compiled in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday 2007). They are vivid, heart-wrenching pleas to a God whose presence she no longer feels when she prays. Mother Teresa’s experience of spiritual dryness doesn’t mean she didn’t believe in God, said Dr. Janet Cousins, a scholar of Christian mysticism. Instead, Cousins and others said, it means she, like a litany of Catholic saints, was tormented in her prayer life, tasting a bit of what Christ experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the Cross.
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love—and now become as the most hated one—the one—You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart—& make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. —I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
—addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated
Striking a Chord
It’s liberating to learn that a woman who dedicated her life to following Christ had doubts and felt alienated from Him. If she struggled with faith, there must be hope for the rest of us, who are so much flabbier in our attention to spiritual concerns. Mother Teresa’s use of the terms “coldness” and “emptiness” strike a chord for me.
In 1995, as a sophomore at Fordham University, I was part of a volunteer team that visited Calcutta, now called Kolkata, to work with the Missionaries of Charity for two weeks over Christmas break. We stayed in a Jesuit residence and kept the Missionaries of Charity schedule: rising for prayer a 5 a.m., celebrating daily Mass and caring for dying people in Mother Teresa’s first hospice for much of the day. In the evening we joined the nuns in an hour of silent adoration of the Eucharist. At night the 12 college students and our chaperone reflected on the day, speaking
quietly over a flickering candle as we sat cross-legged in a circle. A major part of the Missionaries of Charity ethic, as we understood it at least, was acceptance. Resignation. God knows what He’s doing. Don’t fight it, just empty yourself for Christ. A lot of our prayer was not about listening for God’s voice, but about finding silence.
The work was simple and profound. We bathed people who were dying of tuberculoses or HIV/AIDS, massaged their tired bodies with oil, brushed their hair and simply sat with them so they would not be alone. These were forgotten people. Kolkata is a bustling and vibrant city with a proud history of religious tolerance, a modern downtown, an educated middle class and a strong progressive political history of grass-roots action. But the little corner of Kolkata we visited was desperate. It was dominated by the Temple to Kali, the Hindu deity associated with Death and Darkness. Scores of people slept on the street. Sick and special needs children were abandoned at a Missionaries of Charity orphanage. Women tortured by their husbands and rejected by their families found their way to the hospice to die with some love.
There were a lot of things that Mother Teresa didn’t do and there are plenty of legitimate critiques of her mission. She cared lovingly for the poor, but she never asked why they were poor. When powerful world leaders wanted their picture taken with her or praised her as a saint, she never challenged them about why they supported an economic and political system that created misery. But what she did she did with simple love: seeing the face of God in a distressing disguise and opening her arms to provide some comfort.
I went to Kolkata in the midst of one of my periodic depressions. After a semester studying philosophy of knowledge, mystical theology and post-modern literature, the depression I would later learn how to manage had became a full existential crisis. Nothing was real or true.
God was worse than dead. God was made up. But still I longed for the holy.