Mother Teresa's Dark Night Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Wednesday, 24 October 2007 11:34

Michael Gerson, a journalist writing for the Washington Post, wrote a short piece on Mother Teresa's letters published last September. I remember there was consternation on the part of some folks who believed that Mother Teresa would not have wanted her private pain to be so public. And yet, they may be exactly what we in the developed world need to hear. Christians in the US and other affluent nations are used to comfort and physical blessings, and it's natural to presume that these are signs of God's favor. Many are the times I've had pastoral counseling sessions with people who told me they were losing their faith because they or loved ones had encountered misfortune, because God didn't seem to be answering their prayers, or because some aspect of the Gospel or the Church's teaching based on the Scriptures seemed difficult or "out of touch with reality."

Perhaps we Western Christians need to hear of Mother Teresa's personal sorrow and sense of abandonment. It makes her decision to follow Christ's call to her all the more poignant. Gerson seems to cut to the heart of the matter as he describes how Mother Teresa came to understand her own suffering in a profoundly Christian way. A selection of his article follows. The entire article can be linked in the title of this post....

Eventually, on the evidence of the letters, Mother Teresa made peace with her darkness, identifying her own anguish with the suffering of her Savior and the suffering of the poor. "Now it does not really seem so hard," she eventually concluded. But she never regained the subjective religious experiences of her youth. "If ever I become a saint," she said, "I will surely be one of 'darkness.' "

There are lessons in this complicated spiritual life -- that holiness has more to do with obedience than spiritual feelings; that faith can coexist with suffering and doubt; that sainthood can be harsher and more difficult than we imagine.

But Mother Teresa's sense of abandonment raises a deeper issue. Assuming, for a moment, that she was not self-deluded in her calling, what kind of God would set such a difficult path -- ministering to lepers and outcasts for a lifetime -- and then withdraw his presence? Mother Teresa herself seemed to struggle with this unfairness: "What are you doing My God to one so small?"

There is no easy answer here, but the question is central to the Christian faith. Other noble religious traditions promise serenity, detachment from striving and release from the suffering of the world. Christianity, in contrast, teaches that grace is found in the worst of that suffering, and through a figure who despairs of God's presence in his parting words. This anguish is not convenient -- "Why hast Thou forsaken me?" is hardly the best religious marketing slogan. But for millennia this abandonment has offered hope that God might somehow be present even in shame, loneliness and betrayal, even on the descending path of depression, even in the soul's hardness and doubt, even in the silence of God himself -- and that all these things may be the preface to glory.

Through her pain-filled letters, Mother Teresa offers this assurance: Even when all we have to offer is ashes, and all we feel is emptiness, something beautiful may come of it in the end. But her decades of lonely sorrow are not an easy source of comfort. And Graham Greene might have been speaking of this abandoned mystic when he wrote: "You can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone the . . . appalling . . . strangeness of the mercy of God."