A Saint’s Dark Night
By JAMES MARTIN
The New York Times
Published: August 29, 2007
THE stunning revelations contained in a new book, which show that Mother Teresa doubted God’s existence, will delight her detractors and confuse her admirers. Or is it the other way around?
The private journals and letters of the woman now known as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta will be released next month as “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” and some excerpts have been published in Time magazine. The pious title of the book, however, is misleading. Most of its pages reveal not the serene meditations of a Catholic sister confident in her belief, but the agonized words of a person confronting a terrifying period of darkness that lasted for decades.
“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss,” she wrote in 1959, “of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not existing.” According to the book, this inner turmoil, known by only a handful of her closest colleagues, lasted until her death in 1997.
Gleeful detractors may point to this as yet another example of the hypocrisy of organized religion. The woman widely known in her lifetime as a “living saint” apparently didn’t even believe in God.
It was not always so. In 1946, Mother Teresa, then 36, was hard at work in a girls school in Calcutta when she fell ill. On a train ride en route to some rest in Darjeeling, she had heard what she would later call a “voice” asking her to work with the poorest of the poor, and experienced a profound sense of God’s presence.
A few years later, however, after founding the Missionaries of Charity and beginning her work with the poor, darkness descended on her inner life. In 1957, she wrote to the archbishop of Calcutta about her struggles, saying, “I find no words to express the depths of the darkness.”
But to conclude that Mother Teresa was a crypto-atheist is to misread both the woman and the experience that she was forced to undergo.
Even the most sophisticated believers sometimes believe that the saints enjoyed a stress-free spiritual life — suffering little personal doubt. For many saints this is accurate: St. Francis de Sales, the 17th-century author of “An Introduction to the Devout Life,” said that he never went more than 15 minutes without being aware of God’s presence. Yet the opposite experience is so common it even has a name. St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, labeled it the “dark night,” the time when a person feels completely abandoned by God, and which can lead even ardent believers to doubt God’s existence.
During her final illness, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th-century French Carmelite nun who is now widely revered as “The Little Flower,” faced a similar trial, which seemed to center on doubts about whether anything awaited her after death. “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into,” she said to the sisters in her convent. But Mother Teresa’s “dark night” was of a different magnitude, lasting for decades. It is almost unparalleled in the lives of the saints.
In time, with the aid of the priest who acted as her spiritual director, Mother Teresa concluded that these painful experiences could help her identify not only with the abandonment that Jesus Christ felt during the crucifixion, but also with the abandonment that the poor faced daily. In this way she hoped to enter, in her words, the “dark holes” of the lives of the people with whom she worked. Paradoxically, then, Mother Teresa’s doubt may have contributed to the efficacy of one of the more notable faith-based initiatives of the last century.
Few of us, even the most devout believers, are willing to leave everything behind to serve the poor. Consequently, Mother Teresa’s work can seem far removed from our daily lives. Yet in its relentless and even obsessive questioning, her life intersects with that of the modern atheist and agnostic. “If I ever become a saint,” she wrote, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ ”
Mother Teresa’s ministry with the poor won her the Nobel Prize and the admiration of a believing world. Her ministry to a doubting modern world may have just begun.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest and the author of “My Life With the Saints.”