A missionary of love and hope to the entire world, Mother Teresa profoundly shaped my understanding of the Christian faith. She provided a model of what Christ calls each of us to be and do. Every day of her life, no matter where she was or what she was doing, she lived her faith.
But to be honest, Mother Teresa’s faith always seemed to me a bit simplistic, and I was unable to resonate with her complete and unquestioning assurance. I never understood how she managed to work among the poorest of the poor and to wash the bodies of lepers and AIDS patients without asking “Why?” or questioning God’s role in their suffering. But in recent days, I have discovered that she in fact had her share of doubts.
On Oct. 14, National Public Radio aired Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s interview with Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the chief advocate of Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood. Kolodiejchuck stated that letters written by Mother Teresa to her superiors reveal that she experienced years of spiritual darkness.
The time of darkness began in 1948, the year that Mother Teresa began her new work in India. It came after two years of intense and ecstatic spiritual experiences that began while she traveled by train to the Himalayan region of Darjeeling.
On the train, she heard God calling her to devote herself to “the poorest of the poor” and to live among them. Teresa then petitioned the Catholic Church for permission to follow God’s calling and to set up a convent in Calcutta. During the two years in which she prepared to begin her new work, Teresa had numerous vivid and clear visions of Jesus. Jesus spoke to her and revealed himself to her in profound ways.
In 1948, the plans were completed for her work, and Teresa began her ministry in the streets of Calcutta. Shortly after she started this new work, however, the visions stopped and never returned. The incredible union she had experienced with Jesus completely disappeared, and Teresa was bereft. She felt that God had abandoned her, and she wrote of her tremendous pain in letters to her superiors.
Kolodiejchuk read one letter in which she wrote: “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer. The darkness is so dark and I am alone.” In another letter, Teresa wrote of the “terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
Mother Teresa’s letters reveal that this darkness, this feeling of rejection and abandonment, continued throughout her life. She never again had an ecstatic spiritual experience. She never again felt that close, intimate union with Christ that she had experienced in 1946.
What is truly amazing about these new revelations about Mother Teresa is that this woman who knew spiritual emptiness, loneliness and darkness still continued to give herself so completely to those around her. She never stopped loving people or seeking to meet needs. She never stopped doing the work of the kingdom. She lived every day in faithful obedience to God.
When I heard this story on NPR, I was floored. In all the things I have read over the years about and by Mother Teresa, I found no clue that she had experienced great despair. I never knew that she felt distanced from God. Yet knowing that she had her doubts and her times of great questioning have made me love and admire her even more.
In a column I wrote last year about my admiration for Mother Teresa, I closed with these words spoken at her funeral by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state:
“Mother Teresa of Calcutta understood fully the gospel of love. She understood it with every fiber of her indomitable spirit and every ounce of energy of her frail body. She practiced it with her whole heart and through the daily toil of her hands. She crossed the frontier of religions, cultural and ethnic differences, and she has taught the world this lesson: it is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Knowing how she lived out her faith and now knowing of her spiritual struggle, I know that this small Catholic nun will forever be my greatest hero.
Pam Durso is associate director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.