05 June 2003

Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul

The late Mother Teresa (1910-1997) seems a likely candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the first steps in this official recognition have been taken. The vast majority of Christians the world over could hardly help but admire a woman who devoted her life to the service of God in ministering to the poor, the sick and the dying in the slums of Calcutta. Thus the following article is all the more astonishing and even disturbing: "The Dark Night of Mother Teresa." According to author Carol Zaleski:

Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death.

It seems Mother Teresa, who had quite literally seen Jesus and heard his call to her to serve him in this unique way, was thereafter deprived of the sense of his presence for the remaining half century of her life. Yet so confident was she of his call that she persevered and became a shining model of God's grace in a life lived in his service. God's grace was there, as was his strength, but the sensible, emotional sense of his presence was gone. The remainder of her life was nothing less than a trial of faith. Zaleski again:

The dark night of Mother Teresa presents us with an even greater interpretive challenge than her [earlier] visions and locutions. It means that the missionary foundress who called herself “God’s pencil” was not the God-intoxicated saint many of us had assumed her to be. We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. How else could this unremarkable woman, no different from the rest of us, bear to throw her lot in with the poorest of the poor, sharing their meager diet and rough clothing, wiping leprous sores and enduring the agonies of the dying, for so many years without respite, unless she were somehow lifted above it all, shielded by spiritual endorphins? Yet we have her own testimony that what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God’s presence.

This is perhaps a reminder to all of us believers that God's grace does not always have a sensible side to it. We do not always feel God's presence, but he is with us all the same. The assurance of salvation in Jesus Christ and his call to us comes from scripture, as proclaimed in the church and celebrated in the sacraments. All of this may be accompanied by a "subjective experience of ecstasy," but not necessarily. In fact, this is almost certainly the exception rather than the rule for most of us. Yet the call to serve God remains and the strength he gives us comes amidst the (mostly) ordinary trials of an ordinary life.

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