The Darkness of Mother Teresa — Part 1

[This book review essay was originally published in Quaker Theology, Issue #19. It is presented here, with minor revisions, in two parts. This is Part One, which focuses on Mother Teresa’s Catholic theo-psychology. A link to Part Two, which focuses more on critiquing her work, can be found at the end of this part.]

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. 404 pp. Image Doubleday, 2007. $14.99.

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, by Christopher Hitchens. 98 pp. Verso, 1995. $17.95.

Time Magazine Cover 2007

“Eternity,” wrote William Blake, “is in love with the productions of time.” A Roman Catholic – especially one who was formed in the pre-conciliar Church of the early twentieth century, as was Mother Teresa – would surely agree with that, but she would not stop there. The Catholic sees time sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity. Time is itself the production of eternity, and eternity, like the Light shining in the darkness,[1] is present within but not constrained by time. Time passes; the eternal is: “Jesus Christ, yesterday, and to day; and the same for ever.”[2] And the Catholic Christ, the eternal creative Logos, is in love, in his divine-human way, with his productions in time – with human souls.

When the Logos takes flesh in Jesus Christ, and when Christ suffers torture and death in order to at-one the human with the divine, his act occurs in time and yet is not of  time. The agony of the eternal Christ, the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world,[3] is eternal: his divine suffering is unending. Indeed, his very nature is kenotic, or self-emptying, love.[4] Because his redemptive sacrifice is eternal, it can be effectively re-presented in the Mass,[5] which makes him physically present with “the faithful,” who participate in his eternally-present kenosis when they are joined to him in self-sacrificial love.[6]

Furthermore, as a member of Christ’s “mystical body,” the Catholic is privileged, like Paul, to “fill up” by her own suffering “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ … for his body, which is the church”[7] – as some who were educated by nuns, with their frequent advice to “offer up” our pains in union with the suffering of Jesus, will remember. Through the suffering that accompanies kenotic love, the Catholic Christian participates in “the ever-continued sacrificial activity of Christ in Heaven.”[8] That may be heresy to Christians whose ideas about time and eternity differ, but it is at the heart of Catholic spirituality. The Catholic is called to carry her cross daily in union with the suffering Christ, sharing in his sacrifice and participating thereby in the salvation of souls. To be set aside, consecrated, to do nothing else is the calling of the Catholic “religious,” a person who lives under vows such as poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability; a person whose life is formally and conspicuously dedicated to the service of Christ in/as the Church.

It was to that exalted calling that 18-year-old Agnes Bojaxhiu, later to be known as Mother Teresa, was responding when she left her native Albania and traveled to Ireland in order to join the Loretto Sisters.[9] In her letter of application to Loretto, Agnes expresses her “sincere desire [to] become a missionary sister, and work for Jesus who died for us all.” Other than to serve in India, she tells Mother Superior, Agnes wants nothing more than to “surrender myself completely to the good God’s disposal.” As a Catholic, she knows that such surrender is the embrace of a life of suffering in union with the eternally-wounded “Sacred Heart”[10] of Christ.

Agnes’s application to the Loretto Sisters is one of many letters in Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, a collection mostly of her private correspondence, much of which she had requested be destroyed, with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.[11] It was through the publication of Come Be My Light in 2007 that the world learned that Mother Teresa, known for her tireless work for the poor, her ready smile, and her seemingly unshakable faith, had almost continuously for about 50 years felt bereft of God and beset by doubt. Brian Kolodiejchuk wants to explain the apparent contradiction in acceptable hagiographical terms. In fact, it’s his job to do so.

Kolodiejchuk is hardly a disinterested editor and commentator: a priest of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa, he is director of the Mother Teresa Center and the official postulator, or advocate, for the “cause” of her canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church. As postulator, a role no doubt made easier by John Paul II’s abolition of the ancient office of the “Devil’s advocate,” Kolodiejchuk presents Mother Teresa’s life and writings with the aim of proving her sanctity. And while the contents of her letters are challenging, given that the persistent spiritual dryness she describes can even take the form of loss of belief in God and heaven, he doesn’t fail to produce an edifying explanation.

As have others who’ve followed him, Kolodiejchuk offers the concept, made famous by the 16th-century Carmelite John of the Cross, of “the dark night of the soul,” an experience of spiritual purgation that precedes union with God, to account for Mother Teresa’s interior emptiness. However, because union with God early on was followed by the extraordinary duration of Teresa’s “night” of spiritual deprivation, he finds it necessary to stretch and ultimately redefine that concept. Following Mother Teresa herself, Kolodiejchuk will claim that Teresa’s “dark night” experience was uniquely redemptive rather than purgative: Christ was allowing her to share in his atoning suffering on the cross.

But the dark night concept, however creatively applied, is not the only possible explanation for Mother Teresa’s experience. A less hagiographical reading of her correspondence suggests other, less forced, explanatory frameworks. Perhaps the most comprehensive is this: the strong-willed Mother Teresa knew what she wanted and made sure that she got it, despite increasingly deep doubts about the truth of her faith. And what she wanted was sainthood as classically defined in the Catholic Church: the sacrifice of “everything” for Jesus and for the salvation of the souls he loves, a sacrifice recognized and applauded by God and Church.

Comments in the media about the book tend to give the impression that Mother Teresa’s spiritual difficulties began only after she had founded her new order, the Missionaries of Charity. That is understandable: there is little documentation from the time before she got the idea of the order, and Teresa herself states in a letter that her spiritual darkness began “in [19]49 or [19]50.” Certainly, too, the post-1950 difficulties are startling, afflicting as they do a religious figure who is increasingly famous worldwide as the tireless and deeply committed foundress of a religious order dedicated to serving “the poorest of the poor.” But a careful reading of Come Be My Light reveals that Teresa’s “difficulties against faith”[12] began much earlier, only temporarily stopping when, significantly, Jesus began to speak to her in September of 1946.

Teresa’s later difficulties appear to be the exacerbation of her earlier doubts. It may be that her outwardly unshakable certitude about both her “vocation” (i.e., her “calling,” her career) and conservative Catholic ideology, as well as her framing of her doubt and aridity as a saint’s “dark night,” were aspects of a kind of compensatory reaction, a transformation of unacceptable feelings into their opposites. Doubting that Jesus existed, Teresa began to hear his voice, addressing her “with utmost tenderness”[13] and asking that she perform a very specific and public service for him. But that intimacy with Jesus would be short-lived, and the doubts would return all too soon.

We don’t know exactly when the doubts began, whether they were present at the beginning of Teresa’s religious career or began after she entered Loretto. But doubting or not, Agnes Bojaxhiu was received into the Loretto Sisters community in 1928, and her request to be assigned to a mission school in Bengal was granted. She arrived in Calcutta in early January of 1929. On the way, aboard ship, she wrote a self-conscious poem, “Farewell,” some excerpts from which will give us the flavor of the sense of self and vocation to which she clung throughout her career.

… I am leaving old friends
Forsaking family and home
My heart draws me onward
To serve my Christ.

… Bravely standing on the deck
Joyful of mien,
Christ’s happy little one,
His new bride to be.

In her hand a cross of iron
On which her Savior hangs,
While her eager soul offers there
Its painful sacrifice.

O God, accept this sacrifice
As a sign of my love,
Help, please, Thy creature
To glorify Thy name!

… Fine and pure as summer dew,
Her soft warm tears begin to flow,
Sealing and sanctifying now
Her painful sacrifice.[14]

Agnes, soon to become the bride of Christ through her religious vows, has already given herself to him in spirit and shares in his redemptive work. She is, therefore, not despite but because of the twice-mentioned “painful sacrifice,” “joyful of mien, happy”; indeed, she asserts that the sacrifice is offered eagerly. Moreover, it is offered on the same cross on which Christ hangs. She is on her way to “doing the same work which Jesus was doing when he was on earth.”[15]

The paradox expressed in that “eagerly” captures the apparent mystery of Mother Teresa’s life: despite intense and almost continuous inner suffering, her interactions with others led people to believe – in context, of course, of her reputation – that she was a joyful person. But the mystery is dispelled if we recognize that the experience of simultaneous happiness and anguish of spirit was not only her lot but also her desire, a crucial part of the identity she chose for herself as a Catholic nun destined for sainthood in the mystical tradition of one of her namesakes, the Carmelite saint Thérèse of Lisieux. As early as 1937, the year of her profession of lifelong vows, Mother Teresa wrote of a sister nun that “[Sister Gabriella] works beautifully for Jesus – the most important is that she knows how to suffer and at the same time how to laugh. That is the most important – to suffer and to laugh.” The letter concludes with this: “[E]verything is for Jesus, so … everything is beautiful, even though it is difficult.”[16] Later she would write that

Cheerfulness is a sign of a generous and mortified [a good quality for a Catholic] person who[,] forgetting all things, even herself, tries to please God in all she does for souls [note souls and not people; that is significant]. Cheerfulness is often a cloak which hides a life of sacrifice, continual union with God, fervor and generosity. A person who has this gift of cheerfulness very often reaches a great height of perfection. For God loves a cheerful giver [2 Cor. 9:7] and He takes close to His heart the [formally consecrated persons known as] religious [whom] He loves.”[17]

Teresa not only accepts suffering but embraces it as a sharing in the divine kenosis of Christ and as a gift of reparation to him. She is happy to suffer: the world can be brought to God and his salvation through suffering, salvation is itself effected by suffering, and her own redemptive suffering reduces Christ’s – for he grieves each time a soul is lost to hell through sin. For a Catholic such as Teresa, suffering (given by God along with the “grace” of embracing it in the right spirit) is a privilege, and intense, long-term suffering is a sign of special favor from God. Teresa will be privileged to hang on the cross in perpetual agony with Christ, sharing in his work of saving souls. He is her beloved: how could she do otherwise? And her complete self-surrender to God through suffering will raise her above the run-of-the-mill Catholic into the realm of sainthood. By means of such devices as voluntary suffering and a special, secret vow of total submission to God’s will – a will revealed not only mediately through superiors (to whom she had already vowed obedience) but also directly to her by Jesus – she will induce God, she thinks, to grant her that destiny.

If serving God by saving souls through suffering was the principal conscious desire of Teresa’s life, the controlling metaphor of her life was that of spiritual marriage: through her vows as a nun, she became the bride of Christ. And through her extraordinary private vow, made five years after her ritual marriage to Jesus, she would bind Christ even more closely to her. Explaining that “I wanted to give God something very beautiful,” she “made a vow to God, binding under mortal  sin,[18] to give God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.'”[19] Presumably, the vow, which was made with the permission of her spiritual advisor, was ratified by Christ/God. In effect, it says to God, If I don’t do anything and everything that you want me to do in this world, you must abandon my soul to everlasting torment after death. It also requires that God be quite clear about his wishes, as if Teresa might have known, at least subliminally, that Jesus would speak to her.

To this observer, it seems evident that the new vow was Teresa’s way of ensuring that, despite her earlier but still-binding vow of obedience to her religious superiors, she would be able to do what she wanted – felt led, as Quakers might say – to do. But it is evident, too, that she took the private vow quite seriously and at face value, expecting God to reciprocate. What Teresa expected in return for that vow is summarized in a statement she made to her nuns in 1959:

To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself. I for God and God for me. I live for God and give up my own self, and in this way induce God to live for me. Therefore to possess God we must allow Him to possess our soul.[20]

Mother Teresa initially wanted nothing less from the transaction than the possession of God, and it appears that, for a while, she felt that she’d found a way to get and retain that. But by the time she made that statement in 1959, Teresa was learning the painful lesson that she was able neither to induce nor to possess her divine spouse. She had committed herself to giving Christ all that she could for a lifetime, but, contrary to her expectation, he did not return the gift. Like an emotionally abusive husband, he demanded her abject devotion and self-sacrificing service but then withdrew his love and companionship. I for God but God not for me. In large part, Come Be My Light is the story of Teresa’s attempt to cope with that perceived abandonment, which was evidently the return, in power, of her earlier doubts.

According to Teresa herself, speaking in letters that she wanted destroyed, Christ had been quite literally vocal, explicit, and insistent about his demand that she dedicate her life to saving souls of the poor, but after she had complied publicly and irrevocably, he spoke to her no more. Worse, he left her completely alone, withdrawing even the sense of his presence, leaving her to doubt his very existence and, therefore, the value of her life’s work. It seems that Teresa was paying the price of getting what she wanted most: even more than to enjoy Christ’s companionship, Teresa wanted to attain recognized sainthood by founding an order and by suffering for Jesus. When the “difficulties against faith” began to recur as the former goal was achieved, she was blessed with the ultimate torment for a life-long bride of Christ: divine spousal abandonment, the supreme test of love. Withstanding even that, she would prove that she could, as she said with patent if unconscious egotism, “love Him as He has never been loved before.”[21] She would love him even if he did not exist.

[Please click here for Part Two, which includes my review of Hitchens’s book. Comments should be posted under Part 2 — they have been disabled for Part 1.]


[1]    John 1:5. All Bible verses quoted in this review are from the Catholic Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate.
[2]    Hebrews 13:8.
[3]    Revelation 13:8.
[4]    Philippians 2:6-8.
[5]    See Council of Trent, Session XXII, I –
[6]    See 1 John.
[7]    Colossians 1:24.
[8]    See Note 5, above.
[9]    The Loretto Sisters are formally known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary: see
[11]  The letter of application is found on page 14 of the book.
[12]  Come Be My Light, p. 59.
[13]  Ibid., p. 44.
[14]  Ibid., pp. 16-17.
[15]  Ibid., p. 19.
[16]  Ibid., pp. 24-25.
[17]  Ibid., p. 33.
[18]  A “mortal” sin is one that, unforgiven, results in the soul’s condemnation to hell for eternity.
[19]  Come Be My Light, p. 28.
[20]  Ibid., p. 29.
[21]  Ibid., p. 47.