Mother Teresa, “the night” Accepted as a Gift

From Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa:

 What happened after Mother Teresa said ‘yes’ to the divine inspiration that called her to leave everything in order to serve the poorest of the poor?

The world learned a great deal about what happened around her – the arrival of her first followers, ecclesiastical approval, the dizzying expansion of her charitable activities – but until her death, no one know what happened inside her.

This is revealed by her personal diaries and the letters she wrote to her spiritual director, now published by the postulator of the cause of her canonization. I do not believe that the custodians of these letters, before deciding to give them over to be printed, had to overcome the fear that these might disturb or even scandalize their readers. Far from diminishing Mother Teresa’s stature, they instead increase it, placing her beside the greatest Christian mystics.

“With the beginning of her new life in service of the poor,” writes Jesuit Fr. Joseph Neuner, who was close to her, ” an oppressive darkness came over her.” A few brief passages are enough to give us an idea of the weight of the darkness in which she found herself: “There is so much contradiction in my soul, a deep longing for God, so deep that it hurts, a constant suffering – and with this there is the feeling of not being wanted by God, rejected, empty, without faith, without love, without zeal… Heaven means nothing to me; it seems a hollow place.”

It is not hard to recognize immediately in Mother Teresa’s experience a classic case of what the scholars of mysticism, after Saint John of the Cross, usually call the dark night of the soul.

Johannes Tauler gives a startling description of this state: “Then we are abandoned in such a way that we no longer have any awareness of God, and we fall into such anguish that we no longer know if we were ever on the right path, nor know if God even exists, or if we ourselves are alive or dead. And so an anguish besets us that is so strange, it seems as if everything in the entire world were joining together to afflict us. We no longer have any experience or awareness of God, but everything else seems repugnant to us as well, and it seems we are trapped between two walls.”

Everything indicates that this darkness stayed with Mother Teresa right up until her death, with a brief pause in 1958, when she was able to write triumphantly: “Today my soul is full of love, full of inexpressible joy and an uninterrupted union of love.” If at a certain point she almost does not speak of this night anymore, it is not because it was over, but because she had learned to live within it. Not only had she accepted it, but she recognized the extraordinary grace that it held for her. “I have begun to love my darkness, because I now believe that it is a part, a tiny little part, of the darkness and suffering in which Jesus lived on earth.”

The silence of Mother Teresa

The most fragrant flower of the night of Mother Teresa is her silence about it. She was afraid that by talking about it she would draw attention to herself. Even the people closest to her suspected nothing, right until the very end, of her interior torment. According to her instructions, her spiritual director was supposed to destroy all of her letters, and if some of these were spared, it was because with her permission he had made a copy of them for the archbishop and future cardinal Trevor Lawrence Picachy, and these were found among his papers after his death. Fortunately for us, the archbishop refused to comply with the request to destroy them, which was even made to him personally by Mother Teresa.

The most insidious danger for the soul that is in the dark night is that of realizing that she is, in fact, in the dark night, in what the great mystics before her had experienced, and that she is therefore part of a circle of privileged souls. With the grace of God, Mother Teresa avoided this danger, hiding her torment from everyone under an ever-present smile. “Always smiling, is what the sisters and the people say of me. They think that inside I am full of faith, trust, and love… If they only knew how true it is that my joyfulness is nothing but a cloak I throw over my emptiness and misery!” A saying of the desert Fathers says: “However great your sufferings may be, your victory over them lies in silence.” Mother Teresa put this into practice in an heroic way.

Not just purification

But why did this strange phenomenon of the night of the soul last practically her whole life? Here there is something new compared with the experience and accounts of the spiritual masters of the past, including Saint John of the Cross. This dark night cannot be explained solely through the traditional idea of passive purification, what is called the “purgative way’, the preparation for the illuminative and unitive way. Mother Teresa was convinced that in her case, her ego was particularly hard to overcome, since God was constrained to keep her for so long in this state.

But this was certainly not the case. The endless night of some modern saints is the means of protection that God has invented for the saints of today who live and work under constant media attention. It is the suit of asbestos for those who must walk amid the flames; it is the insulation that prevents the electric current from surging and causing short circuits.

Saint Paul said: “Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me” (2 Cor. 12:7). The thorn in the flesh that was the silence of God was shown to be extremely effective for Mother Teresa: it shielded her from any sort of elation in the midst of the great noise the world was making about her, even at the moment she received the Nobel peace prize. “The interior suffering that I feel is so great,” she said, “that all the publicity and all the talk of the people has no effect on me.” How far from the truth is Christopher Hitchens in his vituperative essay “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” when he makes Mother Teresa out to be a product of the media age!

And there is an even deeper reason that explains these nights that extend through an entire life: the imitation of Christ, participation in the dark night of the soul that enfolded Jesus in Gethsemane, and in which he died on Calvary, crying: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Mother Teresa came to see her trial more and more clearly as a response to her desire to gasp, together with Jesus on the cross, “I thirst”: “If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation from you give you even a drop of consolation, my Jesus, then do with me what you will… Impress the suffering of your heart upon my soul and my life… I want to quench your thirst with every last drop of blood you can find in me. Don’t be concerned about returning soon: I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.”

It would be a grave mistake to think that such people’s lives are nothing but gloomy suffering. In the depth of their souls, they enjoy a peace and a joy that are unknown to the rest of mankind, arising from the certainty – stronger in them than their doubts – that they are living according the will of God. Saint Catherine of Genoa compares the suffering of souls in this condition with that of Purgatory, and says that it “is so great that it can be compared only to that of Hell,” but that there is in it a “tremendous contentment” that can be compared only to that of the saints in Paradise. The joy and serenity that radiated from Mother Teresa’s face was not a mask, but rather the reflection of the profound union with God she experienced within her soul. She was the one who was “deceived” about her condition, not the people.

At the atheists’ side

Today’s world has hatched a new category of people: atheists in good faith, those who experience the silence of God as a painful burden, who do not believe in God and yet do not boast of this, experiencing instead existential anguish and an absolute lack of meaning; they too, in their own way, live in a dark night of the soul. In his novel “The Plague,” Albert Camus calls them “saints without God.” The mystics exists above all for them; they are their companions on the road and at table. Like Jesus, they “have sat at table with sinners and have eaten with them” (cf. Luke 15:2).

This explains the passion with which certain atheists, once they have converted, have thrown themselves into the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Leon Bloy, the writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, and many others plunged into the writings of Angela da Foligno; T.S. Eliot, into those of Julian of Norwich. Here they found the same landscape that they had left behind, but this time illuminated by the sun. Few know that the author of “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Beckett, read Saint John of the Cross in his free time.

The word “atheist” can have an active or a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also someone who is rejected by God – or at least feels himself to be. The first case is one of culpable atheism (when it is not in good faith), while the second is an atheism of suffering or expiation. In the latter sense, we can say that the mystics, in the night of the soul, are a-theists – without God – and that on the cross Jesus, too, was an a-theist, one without God.

Mother Teresa wrote words that no one would have expected from her: “They say that the eternal pain that souls suffer in Hell is the loss of God… In my soul, I experience precisely this terribly pain of damnation, of a God who does not want me, of a God who is not God, of a God who in reality does not exist. Jesus, I beg you to forgive my blasphemy.” But one realizes that her a-theism was of a different character, marked by solidarity and expiation: “In this world that is so far from God, that has turned its back on the light of Jesus, I want to help the people by taking on some of their suffering.” The clearest indicator that this atheism is of a completely different nature is the inexpressible suffering that it provokes in the mystics. Ordinary atheists do not go through this kind of agony because of their atheism!

The mystics have come within a step of the world where people live without God; they have experienced that dizzying plunge. Mother Teresa again writes to her spiritual father: “I was on the verge of saying ‘No’… I feel like one of these days something inside me will have to snap.” “Pray for me, that I do not reject God in this hour. I do not want this, but I am afraid I could do it.”

For this reason, the mystics are the ideal evangelizers in the postmodern world, where people live “etsi Deus non daretur,” as if God did not exist. They remind the honest atheists that they are not “far from the kingdom of God,” that in just one leap they could be on the side of the mystics, passing from nothing to everything.

Karl Rahner was right when he said, “In the future, Christianity will be mystical, or it will not exist at all.” Padre Pio and Mother Teresa are the response to this sign of the times. We must not underestimate the saints, reducing them to channels of grace, or merely good examples.

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