A Graced Bewilderment: The Dark Night of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
Fr Paul Murray, OP
Professor of Spiritual Theology, Angelicum University, Rome
A reflection based on the recent book, I Loved Jesus in the Night
What was the mystery of the darkness endured by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta for so many years? The text which follows by Fr Paul Murray, OP, Professor of Spiritual Theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, is based, for the most part, on a recent book entitled, "I Loved Jesus in the Night", Teresa of Calcutta: A Secret Revealed (Darton Longman and Todd, England, Paraclete Press, USA, 2008).
Mother Teresa died on 5 September 1997. Since then new information has begun to surface concerning the details of her own interior life. And this information has surprised and even shocked many of those who lived close to her for years, and thought they knew her well. For it now emerges that, in marked contrast to the shining, external radiance of Mother's presence among us, her inner world (the unseen, hidden places of her mind and heart) were, for many years, and to her own great bewilderment, caverns of a seeming emptiness, zones of an almost total darkness. No wonder she could exclaim in a letter written once to a priest: "If I ever become a saint — I will surely be one of 'darkness'". This darkness was not an experience of depression or despair. Rather it was the shadow cast in her soul by the overwhelming light of God's presence: God utterly present and yet utterly hidden. His intimate, purifying love experienced as a devastating absence and even, on occasion, as a complete abandonment. On 17 May 1964, she described the state of her soul with these astonishing words: "To be in love and yet not to love, to live by faith and yet not to believe. To spend myself and yet be in total darkness".
And again, some years earlier, on 28 February 1957, she wrote: "There is so much contradiction in my soul. — Such deep longing for God — so deep that is painful — a suffering continual — and yet not wanted by God — repulsed — empty — no faith no love — no zeal... Heaven means nothing — to me it looks like an empty place... yet this torturing longing for God".
Apart from the revelations concerning the "dark night" which Mother Teresa endured for so long, one other remarkable secret has come to light since her death in 1997, a secret which, with characteristic modesty, she tried for years to keep hidden. It now appears that, as well as being a woman of enormous practical kindness, Mother Teresa was also the recipient of a series of mystical visions and locutions. She experienced these graces immediately, or almost immediately, before beginning her work in the slums for the poorest of the poor. Jesus was asking her directly, and in a most vivid way, to change her life utterly, and asking her also to establish a new religious Society or Community of Nuns: "I want Indian Nuns, Missionaries of Charity, who would be My fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children". At that time, the year was 1946, Mother Teresa wrote: "In all my prayers and Holy Communions He is continually asking, `Wilt thou refuse...?". Alarmed at the thought of what was being asked of her, and conscious of her own littleness and weakness, Mother Teresa replied: "My own Jesus — what You ask is beyond me — I can hardly understand half of the things you want — I am unworthy — I am sinful — I am weak". But, by way of response to these words, at some point later in the interchange between them, she hears Jesus saying to her: "You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use you for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?" And again: "Fear not. It is I who am asking you to do this for me — Fear not — Even if the whole world is against you, laughs at you, your companions and Superiors look down on you, fear not — it is I in you, with you, for you".
The fact of being chosen for this particular work, in this particular way, was a matter of continual astonishment to Mother Teresa. I remember her remarking on three or four occasions: "In this age, more than in any other, God wants to use nothing!" "Nothing" I discovered, as time passed, was a word she liked to use a lot. On another occasion she declared: "Father Paul, when you discover you're nothing, rejoice!" Here, as much as the accent of joy, the note of liberation is telling. For what Mother Teresa means by "being nothing" is in no way connected to the cold imprisonment of self-mistrust, or to what is called nowadays "low self-esteem". It is true Mother Teresa always approached God in deep poverty of spirit. But, at the same time, with an equal profundity of spirit, she trusted absolutely in his love for her. Yes, there were trials she had to undergo, and there was darkness to be endured. But, for all that, she was his "little one," his spouse, his beloved. At the close of a strikingly beautiful meditation, composed when she was seriously ill in hospital in June 1983, she wrote: "Jesus, I love with my whole heart, with my whole being. I have given Him all, even my sins, and He has espoused me to Himself in tenderness and love".
A Saint of Darkness
Those who had the privilege of meeting Mother Teresa during her life, or of hearing her speak, knew they were in the presence of a woman who possessed great certitude with regard to matters of faith. How, then, are we to explain those writings of Teresa of Calcutta which, at times, seem to suggest profound doubt about God's very existence? One pointer towards an understanding, I would suggest, is a comment John of the Cross makes in The Ascent of Mount Carmel in which he highlights the dual and paradoxical nature of faith. He writes: "though faith brings certitude to the intellect, it does not produce clarity, but only darkness". This darkness is a trial for every believer. For, in spite of the certitude which faith brings, the act of faith itself is always opaque and resistant to reason. It is a radical, affirmative assent to truth, but it is not a direct seeing. Its assent, no matter how confident and sustained, is always obscure. And this fact inevitably awakens in the believer a certain "mental unrest". Even the "ordinary" believer can feel, at times, like an unbeliever. And this feeling often develops into a profound anguish as soon as the darkness of the night of faith begins to deepen. But even in the most profound night of faith, the terrible feeling of no longer being capable of believing in God does not represent for the individual believer a loss of faith, or even what is sometimes referred to nowadays as "a crisis of faith". On the contrary, it is a stage of radical purification, a graced bewilderment, a rite of passage towards an even deeper communion with God.
Many hundreds of letters were written by Teresa of Calcutta during her lifetime — thousands of pages. But, on the subject of prayer, there is one brief statement, in one of the letters, I find particularly moving. It is a comment which betrays a depth of spiritual intimacy, a hidden supernatural love, for which there are almost no words. She writes: "My love for Jesus keeps growing more simple and more, I think, personal... I want Him to be at ease with me — not to mind my feelings — as long as He feels alright — not to mind even the darkness that surrounds Him in me — but that in spite of everything Jesus is all to me and that I love no one but only Jesus" (19 June 1976).
What is noteworthy about this passage, and there are many comparable passages in the "private writings" of Mother Teresa, is that, in spite of being profoundly disturbed by the "darkness" surrounding her at this time, the bewildered "saint of darkness" does not turn in on herself like a melancholic, or like someone suffering from depression. Instead, her whole preoccupation is with caring for her Beloved, concentrating first and last on his comfort not her own, turning to her hidden Master and Lord with a quite remarkable tenderness; and, in spite of the devastating trial of darkness and aridity, behaving towards God, as St John of the Cross once expressed it, "solicitously and with painful care".
Understanding the Darkness
"People say they are drawn to God — seeing my strong faith. — Is this not deceiving people?" More than once, in her private writings, Mother Teresa put this question to herself, and with manifest bewilderment. The root cause of her bewilderment was the marked contrast between, on the one hand, the fountain or river of blessing which seemed to pour out, through her, to others from God and, on the other hand, the utter coldness, darkness, and aridity of her own interior spirit. On one occasion, to a particular friend, she confessed: "when I open my mouth to speak to the sisters and to people about God and God's work, it brings them light, joy and courage. But I get nothing out of it. Inside it is all dark and feeling that I am totally cut off from God". It would appear then that, with regard to the question of her darkness, Mother Teresa herself remained confused for many years. On 8 November 1961 she wrote: "I don't know what is really happening to me". And again, earlier in the same year: "My very life seems so contradictory". No wonder she could, on one occasion, find herself praying: "Jesus, don't let my soul be deceived — nor let me deceive anyone".
Given the reality of her own interior anguish, it clearly took a huge effort, on the part of Mother Teresa, to keep her hope and her courage alive every day, and to keep smiling. But what a devastating experience to have to bear, day after day, the apparent split or contradiction between her smiling exterior self, on the one hand, and on the other, her inner heart's deep unhappiness. Was there, as some commentators have recently suggested, so utter and complete a split here between image and reality, that her life in the end, in spite of its acknowledged virtue and sheer goodness, assumed almost the form of a deception, a kind of hypocrisy? Was the joy which, on the outside, brought manifest blessing and encouragement to so many people across the world, a false joy, a forced joy? Or was there, in spite of the darkness and coldness within,something of light and warmth there also, a hidden joy, a fire of love unseen, unfelt — even by Mother Teresa herself — an emotion not of the heart but of the spirit, and yet something so strong and so alive, it found expression, and over and over again, in the simple, unaffected radiance and warmth and joy of Mother Teresa's presence? I have no doubt whatever that the latter hypothesis is the correct one. But if that is indeed the case how, it needs to be asked, is it possible for two opposite conditions of soul, namely great affliction and great joy, to be present together simultaneously in someone like Teresa of Calcutta?
One of the most helpful answers to this question has been given by Pope Paul VI. He points out that the Christian believer can, in fact, "have two hearts: one natural, the other supernatural". Accordingly, very different things such as affliction and joy "are not only possible together", he writes, "but compatible". And he says further: "the Christian can at one and the same time have two different, opposite experiences which become complementary: sorrow and joy". Thus we can say that, with her natural heart, or at the level of ordinary feeling, Mother Teresa experienced utter and complete desolation. But, at a much deeper level (at that level where supernatural grace is most at work), she was aware of being intimately united with the will of God. "[T]here is in my heart," she writes, "a very deep union with the will of God. I accept not in my feelings but with my will".
Well worth noting, in this context, is a short passage from a Christmas letter Mother Teresa wrote in 1959. In it we can see, and with wonderful clarity, the three separate dimensions of Mother Teresa's experience: first, the simple delight she takes in the joy of others around her; second, her heart-rending awareness of the terrible darkness and loneliness within; and, third, her astonishing joy at being one with the will of God. She writes: "Thank God all went well yesterday, sisters, children, the lepers, the sick and our poor families have all been so happy and contented this year. A real Christmas — Yet within me — nothing but darkness, conflict, loneliness so terrible. I am perfectly happy to be like this to the end of life".
Mother Teresa did, as we know, continue to suffer intensely her dark night until the very end. But her attitude to the experience underwent, in time, a significant change. Gradually, she came to regard the darkness not only as a share in Christ's passion but also, in some sense, as "the spiritual side of her apostolate". She wrote: "I have come to love the darkness — For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth". And to her friend, Bishop William Curlin, at their last meeting in 1995, she remarked, and repeated several times: "What a wonderful gift from God to be able to offer Him the emptiness I feel. I am so happy to give Him this gift". For Mother Teresa the gift was "wonderful," first of all because it underlined her intimate communion with God. But also because she realized that her experience of the dark night, her feeling of being unloved and unwanted, could help in some way to unite her more closely with the poorest of the poor. She wrote: "Let Him do with me whatever He wants... If my darkness is light to some soul... I am perfectly happy". And again: "The physical situation of my poor left in the streets unwanted. unloved, unclaimed — are the true picture of my own spiritual life".
Dark night of the soul/ dark holes of the slums
We are often inclined to forget that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, as well as being an "icon of holiness" for people all over the world, was also a woman of flesh and blood. Speaking about herself, on one occasion, she remarked: "By nature I am sensitive, [I] love beautiful and nice things, comfort and all that comfort can bring — to be loved and love". How much it must have cost her, therefore, to endure that long dark night of feeling so unloved and unwanted. But what a relief, finally, to begin to realize that it was precisely because of the darkness of her dark night that she was able, in the end, to carry something of the light of Christ into the "dark holes of the slums". In her life of prayer, in her inner life, God appeared, for years, to be so completely remote it was as if he had abandoned her. Nevertheless, without the least hesitation she was able to assert, and with simple gratitude: "[W]hen I walk through the slums or enter the dark holes — there Our Lord is always really present".
What drew countless numbers of people to love and admire Mother Teresa, over many years, was the manifest joy which shone in her every gesture. But, in the light of the new revelations concerning her "darkness", I think it is probably true to say that we find ourselves closer to her now than ever before, and in a way which is totally new and unexpected. In particular, with regard to those among us who feel bewildered, at times, or even completely lost, but who are determined to keep walking along the path of faith, Teresa of Calcutta has become a source of enormous encouragement, a truly remarkable example of steadfastness and hope.
A Spirit of Joy
Although completely focused on her vocation to serve the poorest of the poor, and endowed with a great deal of common sense, Mother Teresa was never staid or standoffish. She possessed, in fact, a very lively sense of humour, and few things pleased her so much as the exuberant joy she witnessed, again and again, in the young women who had come to join her Congregation to work for the poorest of the poor. Concerning one group of MC aspirants, for example, whom she had visited just before setting out on a train journey in 1966, she wrote: "The Epiphany Aspirants — 34 — young healthy full of zeal — make the house vibrate with laughter. I have had little chance to enjoy their company — but I can hear them even in the train — as my heart and mind is [are] very close to them". Over the years I noticed that Mother Teresa was always the first to catch a joke in a homily or to see the humour in any given situation. Writing to a friend, on one occasion, from whom, it would appear, she hoped to receive a letter — and soon —she made the following "complaint": "When I write regularly — the sisters say I am in the 1st class, if less 2nd and 3rd class. When I neglect them they say I am in Zero class. I think I will put you also in Zero class if you don't write"! Again, something of Mother Teresa's sharp wit and great good humour is apparent in a comment which she made during a talk delivered in 1981: "...once I was asked, What will you do when you will not be Mother General any more? I said, 'I am first class in cleaning toilets and drains'"!
At this point there comes into my mind, a story which Mother Teresa told me once in Rome. It was at the convent at Dono di Maria. Mother Teresa had come first to Confession in the small convent chapel. But then we had an opportunity afterwards to meet just outside the chapel sitting at a small table. The "story" she told me was not really a story in any ordinary sense of the word. It was, in fact, the account of a dream which she had had many years before. As she was telling me the details of the dream, Mother Teresa didn't laugh outright at any stage, but there was, I noticed, laughter in her eyes from start to finish. Here is the dream as she told it: "One night during the first months of my work in the slums of Calcutta, I had a dream it was like a vision. All of a sudden I found myself at the gates of Paradise. And I was delighted, filled with joy. But just as I was about to walk in through the gates, St Peter came out and blocked my way. 'You can't come in here', he said, 'There are no slums up here!' I was furious with Peter. And I said to him at once: 'Alright, I will go back. But I'm going to return here, Peter. And I'm going to fill this heaven of yours with all of my people from the slums!".
This meeting with Mother Teresa took place on 26 October 1994. One week earlier I had been asked to say early Mass for Mother and about six or seven other people in the tiny chapel at Dono di Maria. That was on the 19 October 1994. A mere nine years later Mother Teresa was beatified in St Peter's Square just a few hundred yards away from the convent chapel. By coincidence, the date of the beatification was also the 19 October.
A Gift, a Blessing
Standing there that day in St Peter's Square, together with thousands of other people — among them groups of poor and handicapped people accompanied by the sisters — I had time to reflect back on the mystery and meaning of the life and holiness of this remarkable woman. What, finally, I asked myself, was revealed in Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? What was the nature of the radiance which shone, and with such telling force and beauty, through her life and her work? And I thought: Well, if there is one word which can answer this question, it is the word "love". But, then, there came into my mind at once another word, an unexpected word, the word "emptiness".
What I mean by "emptiness" is that Mother Teresa was so free of the weight of self that, when you met her, you almost had the feeling that she was coming towards you — not because she was so full and you were so empty, but because, in that moment, for her you were the one person in the world she most wanted to meet. You were her son or her daughter or her brother. And you were also Christ, her hidden brother. And she was coming towards you, as if to lean on you, for a moment, or as if somehow she might find rest in your presence. In all my life, I think, I never met anyone with such a radiant lightness of being as Teresa of Calcutta. In her every gesture, there was revealed not simply her own great goodness and strength of character but also something of the unimaginable kindness and goodness of God. In the end it was, I believe, this shining within her — and shining through her — of the utter humility and beauty of God which was her greatest gift to those who were fortunate enough to have come to know her, however briefly. I make this point here because, with regard to such illumined or shining knowledge, all of us are among the needy and the beggars, all of us are the poorest of the poor.
Over the years, there were many things Mother Teresa said which I found memorable, things I saw quoted in books and articles, and things I heard from her own lips. But standing there, that day, in the brilliant sunlight of St Peter's Square, there was one small phrase more than any other, which I remembered out of the past, one plain but wondrous statement which sang into my heart: "Father Paul, God is love!".
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25 November 2009, page 10
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