Saints

Looking Back at Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night”

The Dark Night of the Soul is not about doubt; it is about enduring, faithful, slavish love

Portrait de Mère Teresa.

The news of Mother Theresa’s upcoming canonization signaled a good time to recall some of the beata’s more inspiring words. It’s a good time to remember too that a life of heroic faith — derided by unbelievers as one “needing a crutch” to get by — is rarely easy, and never all sweetness and light. There is nothing easy in these words:

“My Own Jesus,

[expresses her pain and longing …]

Jesus, hear my prayer. If this pleases you, if my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation gives you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus do with me as you wish, as long as you wish, without a single glance at my feelings and pain. I am your own. Imprint on my soul and life the sufferings of your heart. Don’t mind my feelings; don’t mind even my pain, if my suffering separation from you brings others to you, and in their love and company you find joy and pleasure.

My Jesus I am willing with all my heart to suffer all that I suffer not only now, but through all eternity if this was possible. Your happiness is all that I want. For the rest, please do not take the trouble even if you see me faint with pain. All of this is my will. I want to satiate your thirst with every single drop of blood that you can find in me. Don’t allow me to do you wrong in any way. Take from me the power of hurting you … I am ready to wait for you through all eternity.”

—Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a letter to Jesus, from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

The 2007 publication of the letters of Teresa of Calcutta, in which she expressed to God and to her correspondents her long “dark night of the soul” generated a great deal of rhetoric from a punditry that professed itself to be “shocked” at the notion. Some of them exhibited an almost willful misunderstanding of her expressive desolation. Some called her a hypocrite or tried to get people wondering whether the beata was a secret atheist. Some of the more forward atheists, like the late Christopher Hitchens, tried to offer Mother Teresa’s words as a kind of proof of the validity of their own unbelief, expressing a harsh sympathy for this “confused old lady”: “She got what she wanted,” writes Hitchens, “and found it a crushing disappointment.”

I don’t think Teresa found in the answer to that incredible prayer above a “crushing disappointment,” but I think perhaps she was surprised at just how thoroughly her offering was accepted. I also think she offered herself again and again, throughout her life, throughout the stages of holiness and faith through which she traveled.

St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila both wrote of the “dark night.” St. Therese of Lisieux wrote on it, as well. It seems to be a particularly scathing sort of dryness and loss that occurs at the unbreechable chasm between human and divine love, and the suffering is very great. The blessing seems to be in that one only gets to that point — to that dark night — when one has advanced so far in love and in faith as to have perhaps exceeded human understanding of both, when perhaps all there is left is the ability not to praise or to do, but to simply be — and in that state of being, simply listen, and be led, even to where — like Peter — you would rather not go.

For those who have given it all, have allowed themselves to be used up until they literally have nothing left to give, it seems to me that such dark nights would be unavoidable. Perhaps our human capacity to love can only take us so far, and when we have reached the point where our love for God exceeds our ability to actually feel and comprehend and identify “love” — that’s when saints like Mother Teresa see desperate days. Perhaps they have simply transcended where human love can take them, but being merely human haven’t the tools to penetrate any more deeply into knowing “divine” love, and so they’re trapped in something unidentifiable and unknown — a place where they simply have to “go on faith.”

Indeed. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” is not the cry of the atheist; it is the cry of the psalmist and the Christ. It is the cry of the believer.

Really, Teresa’s experience is analogous to the experience of a soldier who leaves a lover behind to go to war. Confident in the fidelity of the beloved, he slogs through a long war, often with little-to-no contact with the one he loves, but still believing in her, still doing his duty in faith and hope, while enduring deep loneliness and even grief. “I’m here; do you still love me? I keep going by believing that you do; when will you write? When will I hear from you?”

The Dark Night of the Soul is not about doubt; it is about enduring, faithful, slavish love.

The holy ones who go before us, and reside by us in the “cloud of witnesses,” teach us a great deal about the human experience of faith, in all its difficulty and challenges, in all of its grace and resonant glory. In our own darkling times perhaps Teresa’s experiences are meant to show us how to persevere through valleys fraught with difficulties on both physical and spiritual plains.

The dark night, in the paradoxical way of God, may be an unfathomable gift.

Of Related Interest:


10 Inspiring Quotes from Mother Theresa Uttered with love, her words are nevertheless direct and often downright challenging

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