Not long ago, I heard a person ask how we can admire Mother Teresa so much after her admission that she lived so long and intensely with a sense of God’s absence. Questions like these have arisen following the publication of ‘Come Be My Light’ (2007), essentially a collection of her writing prepared by Brian Kolodlejchuk. Realizing that the question persists, I want to respond to it. Mother Teresa’s experience can be understood when two things are combined.
First, the general ebb-and-flow of the spiritual life. It is a pseudo spirituality that projects perpetual positiveness. Years ago, I began to pay attention to the stories of people whom I admired (ancient & modern, dead & living) who shared their experiences of spiritual dryness and the more profound experience of the dark night of the soul. Suffice it to say that these saints helped me to see that struggle and fluctuation are signs of true spirituality, not the absence of it. In this general sense, Mother Teresa bore witness to genuine Christian spirituality, standing among “the great cloud of witnesses” who do the same.
But there is a second factor to be seen–and one that some misinterpreters of her experience either ignored, or failed to see. And that is the fact that early in her Christian life, Mother Teresa prayed to be given the heart of Jesus–a heart (as you will recall) that included his prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When Mother Teresa’s prayer was answered, she understood that a depth of forsakenness was given her–a depth that would produce an amazing empathy for the suffering and dying, and a compassion to care for them.
We all participate in the first level, but fewer experience the second level. What we see in Mother Teresa is the kind of life that occurs when someone experiences the pain of “forsakenness” and turns it into solidarity with the sufferers, and service to them in Jesus’ name.
Thankfully, we do not have to descend to such depths to love and care for others. But let us also give thanks for those who have lived on that level, and whose lives (far from being a contradiction of faith) actually illustrate a profound level of faith–a level which shows us the heart of Christ himself.