“I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer … Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. Love – the word – it brings nothing. I am told God lives in me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
When Mother Teresa penned those words in 1957, she could have had no idea people would still be pondering them over half a century later. In fact, it was her hope that no one other than her spiritual director would ever read them. However, as the cause for her beatification began in 1997, a book was released containing that letter and many more detailing Mother Teresa’s decades-long battles with doubt, loneliness, and feelings of being abandoned by God.
Those familiar with the traditions of Catholic mysticism quickly recognized Mother Teresa’s anguish as part of what St. John of the Cross coined the Dark Night of the Soul, a time of intense spiritual aridity experienced by many Christians, often as a necessary stage for their spiritual growth. For many, the fact that Mother Teresa’s Dark Night lasted for so long, that she was constantly besieged by such feelings but heroically continued doing God’s work, was just one more testament to the depth of her faith. Others, however, reached quite a different conclusion. For them, Mother Teresa’s letters were a sign that she had simply lost her faith altogether. The makers of the new film, Mother Teresa & Me, appear to be in that latter camp.
Mother Teresa & Me relates the story of Kavita, a young English woman who travels to visit family in Calcutta after she is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend/boss when he learns she is pregnant. Feeling emotionally and spiritually adrift, Kavita is further confused when her Hindu aunt suggests she look into the life of Mother Teresa. Reluctant at first, Kavita’s interest is finally piqued after her aunt takes her to visit a hospital run by the Missionaries of Charity.
Interspersed throughout all of Kavita’s soul-searching are black and white flashbacks to Mother Teresa’s near-futile efforts to care for the needy of India. The film in fact begins with the embattled nun desperately searching for food amidst the corpse-littered streets of Calcutta during the infamous week of long knives. It is here amongst such horrors, the film implies, that Mother Teresa renounced her faith in God. And yet, she persisted in her work despite constant overwhelming feelings of confusion and loss. For Kavita, this is an eye-opening revelation, and one which inspires her to quit wallowing in self-pity and start planning a future for herself and the unborn child she was considering aborting.
When the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light was published, bringing to light Mother Teresa’s lifelong spiritual struggles, America magazine speculated it would “be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.” That seems to be the understanding of Mother Teresa as offered by this film.
Mother Teresa & Me presents the beleaguered nun not as a person of heroic sanctity, but rather as a sort of secular saint who, despite no belief in God, still chooses to do “godly” things. This is perhaps a well-intentioned effort to make Mother Teresa more relatable to non-Christians, but it belies the fact that in her letters Mother Teresa also noted that, despite her doubts, her mind and heart was habitually with God and that she had an unbroken union with Him. She may have struggled, but ultimately, she maintained her belief. Mother Teresa & Me is an admirable effort and does have things of worth in it, but its misunderstanding of its central figure leaves it short of the film it could have been.
Mother Teresa & Me is playing in select theaters this week.