And the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness cannot comprehend it.
Three years after my radical conversion from postmodern secular humanist to fledgling believer, I went to Calcutta to volunteer for two months at Mother Teresa’s children’s home (Shishu Bavan). I wanted to understand what she meant when she said their work was not social work but religious work. Abraham Heschel once wrote that the true prophets of God “ceaselessly shatter indifference.” They are “reluctant messengers” who allow God to speak through them imploring us to return to him in “a world that is not so much devoid of meaning as deaf to meaning.” Mother Teresa was one of these prophets. And even though we learned this week that she will be formally declared a saint on September 4, like all prophets, Mother Teresa suffered.
I often arrived early those days in 1996 for the 5:30am Mass and prayers; I wanted to sit near Mother Teresa. I studied her out of my own spiritual hunger, admiration, and curiosity. My first thought as I settled on the floor of the chapel was to wonder why she had chosen two of Jesus’ last words – “I thirst” to write over the cross in their chapel (indeed in all their chapels). Mother said it was because Jesus was thirsting for souls. But it seemed in her countenance every morning that Mother was the thirsty one. Since the first book I read after my conversion outside of the Bible was by St. John of the Cross, I made some uneasy peace with this.
John of the Cross taught that after the dark night of the soul, the most faithful would ultimately enter a dark night of the spirit wherein mystical visitations would end, and they would sense God’s absence. He would then abide not outside, but within their souls: “They harbor in the midst of the dryness and emptiness of their faculties, a habitual care and solitude for God accompanied by grief or fear about not serving Him. It is a sacrifice most pleasing to God – that of a spirit in distress and solicitude for his love. . .it begins to kindle in the spirit divine love.” True to his insights, Mother Teresa’s early mystical experiences did disappear, and she did grieve that she had somehow displeased our Lord.
Throughout her life Mother prayed for three things: to share in his Passion, to be a saint (humble and meek), and not to refuse him anything. God granted her all three. As a young woman she would fervently pray, “to drink ONLY from His chalice of pain.” The Lord graciously arranged a few confessors who understood that through her dark nights she actually was sharing in the Passion of Christ and the sufferings of the poor.
St. Paul described the same suffering, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Eventually Mother wrote to one confessor, “For the first time in this eleven years – I have come to love the darkness – for I believe now that it is a part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a ‘spiritual side of your work.’”
Fortunately for her, these few confessors understood that her condition was spiritual not psychological. Had her dark night been psychological depression, as some have suggested, she would have been listless, negative, resentful, hopeless, anxious, and lacking in energy and focus. But as the postulator for her sainthood, Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, notes: “Instead of stifling her missionary impulse, the darkness seemed to invigorate it.” Most of us, who experienced working with the Missionaries, even for short periods, know in our hearts that we could not have maintained it. Their love and stamina was born of surrender, loss and God’s grace. Mother once said, “The less we have, the more we give. Seems absurd, but it’s the logic of love.”
There is only one test of true discipleship – did her life bring glory and honor to Jesus? Did her darkness produce light? Indeed, the presence of Christ in her was often tangible. Some mornings, with no forethought, we would cluster in her path after Mass and lower our heads in hopes she would reach out and touch us. People came from all over the world and from all walks of life just to see her, to have her touch their babies, born and unborn. Every ounce of Jesus that flowed through her, Mother gave away to those of us who came with only our poverty.
Mary Poplin, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is a professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of the books, Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me and Is Reality Secular?