It shocks us, but yet it shouldn't — that Mother Teresa experienced what the faithful call "the dark night of the soul.” Her "dark night” was for several decades — TIME Magazine called it a crisis of faith. But I prefer the former term. Why? Because it's a more accurate description of what she experienced.
She had doubts and confusion, but still labored on in the quest to lift people's spirits — people the world had seem to have forgotten. She did not sense God's presence in her life, yet she still carried out his mandate to look after the poor. She felt at times that Jesus had abandoned her or was absent from her life, and yet she got up early every morning to be a beacon of hope to thousands of dejected and hopeless people in Calcutta. If anything, this "dark night" points to a greater faith than any of us will ever experience.
These new revelations about her spiritual famine were revealed in letters Mother Teresa wrote to her confessors over the years. They seem to start just as she embarked on her service to the poor. She wrote in 1948:
"I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul."
The letters are compiled in a book called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, due out in September. Some say that history will judge this volume on the same plane as St. Agustine's, Confessions or Thomas Merton's, The Seven Storey Mountain. These are works by devoted mystics, who only climbed the heights of faith after being at the lowest valley of despair and disbelief. What it tells us all is that our wondering and questioning is part of the human experience and does not mean God is not there. If anything, it may show that he is.
In fact, that's what brought Mother Teresa some solace from her emptiness. According to the TIME article, she had written to the Rev. Joseph Neuner about her spiritual predicament. He wrote back telling her that “there was no human remedy for it (that is, she should not feel responsible for affecting it); that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being here, and her very craving for God was a 'sure sign' of his 'hidden presence' in her life; and that the absence was in fact part of the 'spiritual side' of her work for Jesus."
What Mother Teresa experienced, and what the rest of us searching souls in the world experience, is a human trait known as "feel it-itis." That is, unless one can feel God's presence in my life, he or she can't be certain that he's there. In effect, we use finite human measurements to determine the presence of an infinite being. If I feel lonely or abandoned, that must translate into an absent God. If I feel happy and fulfilled, that might mean God is blessing me.
The irony is, we may never know what truly our blessing is or what our curse is. Things that hurt us may in fact create a path for great healing and joy. And sometimes, things that give us momentary jubilation may in fact bring long-term suffering. How are we to know which? Sometimes even knowing God or at least his purposes spelled out in religious texts may give some indication. But in the long run, most of us are simply left with the instruction to trust and have faith. And in that statement, there is no room for feelings. Proverbs 3:5 makes it very plain: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Of course that's much easier said than done. Our feelings are the main motivator for most of our actions, good or bad.
And we like to think someone like Mother Teresa, who served the poor diligently, must have loved God with all of her heart, every moment of her life. Certainly, that must be the only way she could live among the diseased and dejected of this world. Only by the power of God and belief in his presence could anyone do what she did. But it doesn't mean that she could feel his guiding hand as she held out hers to an old man dying in a gutter. It's the classic case of "footprints in the sand." The hurting person asks God why in times of great distress, he saw only one set of footprints in the sand. God answered, "During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you."
Perhaps it was the same for Mother Teresa; her "darkness" and "emptiness started, after getting permission from the Vatican to start the Missionaries of Charity.
Or maybe there's another reason. Why would she feel abandoned just as she attained her goal of serving Jesus in this unique way? The Rev. James Martin, editor of the Jesuit magazine America , has an interesting explanation in the TIME article. He relates Mother Teresa's soul predicament to a spouse who must stay constant even during hard times. Martin said, "Let's say you're married and you fall in love and you believe with all your heart that marriage is a sacrament. And your wife, God forbid, gets a stroke and she's comatose. And you will never experience her love again. It's like loving and caring for a person for 50 years and once in a while you complain to your spiritual director, but you know on the deepest level that she loves you, even though she's silent and that what you're doing makes sense. Mother Teresa knew that what she was doing made sense."
That would explain the human obligation. But what about God's seeming “silence”? His motives might best be explained by Sister Nirmala, who succeeded Mother Teresa as head of the Missionaries of Charity. She believes that Mother Teresa's feelings of abandonment were "a path God chose, for her deep interior purification and transformation."
The operative word here is “interior” — because, what is on the inside of us all is always what is hidden to our fellow human beings, is the only part that God sees and judges. We, in our individualistic and materialistic culture, focus on exterior qualities to determine whether people are worthy of adulation. If someone is particularly beautiful, they are valued a little higher than someone that doesn't quite live up to society's standards of good looks. If someone is wealthy, they may immediately hold a place of respect. Or, if someone seems to be totally selfless and giving, then they are honored with awards and accolades.
One keen observer remarked that Mother Teresa understood that the work she toiled in daily was God's handiwork, but the world saw it as hers. And she wrote to her confessor in 1959 that she wanted the letters to be destroyed, because she thought that if the letters became public "people will think more of me — and less of Jesus."
That doesn't sound like a woman who lost her faith. It sounds like a woman of profound faith, who understood that feelings can mislead. And that in the end, lasting love and devotion must first be an act of the will, not of the emotions.• E-mail Lauren Green
Lauren Green serves as a religion correspondent for the FOX News Channel. Prior to this, Green served as a news anchor for “Fox and Friends,” where she provided daily news updates and covered arts for the network. You can read her complete bio here.