Mother Teresa’s Dark Night of the Soul

Posted: Sep 04, 2007 12:00 AM
Mother Teresa’s Dark Night of the Soul

In Christopher Hitchens’ wickedly iconoclastic book The Missionary Position, Mother Teresa is portrayed as a self-satisfied dogmatist who never entertained any doubts. She was a “true believer” of the fanatical type. In his latest book God Is Not Great, Hitchens is at it again, depicting believing Christians like Mother Teresa as sharing the dangerous certitudes of the Islamic terrorists. Not only are all believers extremists, in Hitchens’ caustic analysis, they are also poseurs who claim to know what cannot be known.

The latest revelations about Mother Teresa, featured in the current issue of Time, completely explode Hitchens’ thesis. Time based its article on a new book which contains correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of several decades. She confessed to a spiritual adviser that within her heart “the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” In a 1955 note she remarked, “The more I want Him, the less I am wanted…Such deep longing for God—and…repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.” In one of her letters, addressed to Jesus, she wrote, “Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love---and now become as the most hated one…You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved…So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be a God—please forgive me…I am told that God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Time interprets these anguished ruminations as a “startling portrait in self-contradiction,” as if Mother Teresa was one person in public and another in private. Hitchens cannot resist further digs, and he makes a complete about-face in his reading of Mother Teresa. Once he viewed her as an inflexible dogmatist; now he depicts her as a secret unbeliever who knew that “religion is a human fabrication,” comparable to the latter-day Communists who paid lip service to the official ideology but couldn’t abide it any longer in their hearts.

Here we see how atheist prejudice results in a breakdown of reason. Hitchens cannot bring himself to say, “I thought she was a self-satisfied dogmatist. I have to try to understand her all over again.” Earlier he condemned her for having no doubts; now he uses her doubts to suggest that she never really believed what she publicly espoused. Time cannot get beyond its cognitive dissonance that a sincere Christian may harbor uncertainty and anguish over a long period of years.

But Mother Teresa’s heart-wrenching self-examination is entirely familiar to thoughtful Christians. For instance, her insistent theme that she is being forsaken by God recalls Christ’s plaintive cry on the cross, “Why have You forsaken me?” From Augustine to Luther to John of the Cross, there is a whole body of Christian literature that sounds exactly like Mother Teresa. In John’s Dark Night of the Soul, for instance, the initial exhilaration of conversion is followed by a “dark night of the senses” that is “bitter and terrible to taste.” Even so, this suffering is nothing compared to what follows, the “dark night of the soul” in which “the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast and felt itself being devoured.” John interprets these travails as the purification of the sinful part of man, so that he is ready for the holy eternal embrace of God.

From Christian classics like these we learn that, contrary to atheist propaganda, believers don’t claim to “know” God. That’s why they are called “believers.” To be a believer means, “Even though I do not know, I have faith.” Nor do believers, however devout, experience God on a constant basis. There is a big chasm that between the terrestrial and the transcendental, and a terrible silence usually separates the two. A glimpse or foretaste of eternity, this is all that we get, if we’re lucky.

The greatness of Mother Teresa is that even when she was deprived of the spiritual satisfactions of feeling God’s presence in her life, she did not waver, she soldiered on. She was not deterred in her mission. And what she didn’t have by way of feeling, she compensated for by way of will. In doing so, she teaches us all something about love: it is not merely a sentiment, to be set aside when feelings come and go, but rather a decision of the will. That she did what she did in exchange for the love of God is astounding enough. That she did it all even when this love was invisible to her—if this does not constitute saintliness, I don’t know what does.