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Mother Teresa's surprising secret: Exemplar of saintliness often felt abandoned by God

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2003

As the Roman Catholic world prepares for Sunday's beatification of Mother Teresa, she is being revered as a missionary to India's poorest of the poor, someone whose close relationship with God seemed obvious from her willingness to undergo incredible hardship.

''If we went to them (the poor) with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed,'' she once explained. And following her own admonition, Mother Teresa's perpetual smile was as integral to her image as the weathered face and blue-trimmed white robe.

But exterior sunniness masked an astonishing secret known to a handful of clergy counselors but no other close colleagues that was revealed only through research for her sainthood candidacy.

Mother Teresa was afflicted with feelings of abandonment by God from the very start of her work among the homeless children and dying persons in Calcutta's slums. From all available evidence, this experience persisted until her death five decades later, except for a brief interlude in 1958.

Though ordinary Christians might assume the holiest people exist in continual divine ecstasy, the phenomenon of darkness feeling keenly aware of God's silence or absence has occurred among numerous saints and mystics through the ages. Specialists in spirituality emphasize that this should not be confused with loss of faith in God.

Paradoxical as it seems, confidants say that Mother Teresa came to understand such suffering was a necessary aspect of her heroic vocation.

 

A Sister of Charity walks through the women's ward at the Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying Destitutes in Calcutta, India, Oct. 10, 2003. Mother Teresa took her own pity for the outcast and turned it into a cottage industry in this predominantly Hindu nation. Thousands of volunteers of all religions flock to the dozens of Mother Houses in India each year to tend to the destitute and the dying.

AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel

Her interior struggle is known to us through surviving letters from the 1950s and 1960s to her spiritual directors, along with the priests' recollections about her later years.

In 2001, the Revs. Albert Huart and J. Neuner, Jesuits in India, discussed Mother Teresa's experience in the journals Review for Religious (of St. Louis) and Vidyajyoti (of New Delhi).

The Rome-based postulator, or chief advocate, of her sainthood cause, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk of the Missionaries of Charity, also analyzed the material for the online Zenit News Agency late last year.

While bleak statements did not predominate in Mother Teresa's private writings, they occurred repeatedly:

''I am told God lives in me and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul,'' she wrote.

At another point: ''I want God with all the power of my soul and yet between us there is terrible separation.'' And again: ''Heaven from every side is closed.''

And this one remarkable cry from the heart: ''I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.''

Kolodiejchuk said in an interview that her words are only shocking if they are thought to be ''a real doubt of faith,'' which he vigorously denies. And Neuner believes that the very words demonstrate faith in God's reality: ''We cannot long for something that is not intimately close to us.''

The divine silence was especially excruciating for Mother Teresa because she enjoyed vivid experiences of God's love and immediate presence in 1946, when she was called to enter the slums and leave behind the comforts and joys of teaching at a convent school.

She never wavered in the conviction that God in Jesus Christ directly commissioned her ministry. She said she distinctly heard his voice say, ''I want to use you for my Glory. Wilt thou refuse?''

Mother Teresa asked her counselors never to reveal her inmost thoughts. Nonetheless, release of the quotations is justified, Huart wrote, because the experience of mystics ''is meant not primarily for themselves but for the good of the whole church.''

The revelations are unusual, however, because they came so soon after Mother Teresa's 1997 death, the result of Pope John Paul II putting her on a uniquely fast track to sainthood.

Carol Zaleski of Smith College noted in First Things magazine that ''accounts of divine darkness'' occur from Christianity's early centuries. In one version, God's light is so blazingly absolute that his glory is veiled in a dark ''cloud of unknowing.''

The ''dark night of the soul'' was famously depicted by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spaniard. But Zaleski likens Mother Teresa's experience to that of her namesake St. Therese of Lisieux, who died in 1897 at age 24 suffering a ''night of nothingness'' and yet trusting God amid doubt.

Sister Mary Frohlich, who teaches spirituality at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union, says feelings of divine abandonment sometimes signal depression that requires psychological counseling. But she says Mother Teresa obviously lacked such symptoms as inability to enter into relationships and activities.

To Frohlich, all human relationships, such as those of parents and spouses, include ''great pain and disappointment'' at times. The same is true for peoples' experience of God.

Those ''who radically dedicate their lives to relationship with God have a more radical experience,'' she says.

After examining Mother Teresa's life, Kolodiejchuk says that she believed the worst poverty wasn't material but total abandonment by other people, the state of those she was called to reach.

Christianity teaches that Jesus endured crucifixion for the sins of all people, and that he cried from the cross about God's abandonment. Similarly, Kolodiejchuk says, for this woman who loved God above everything else, loss of the divine presence was the ultimate sacrifice that emptied her soul but mysteriously energized her mission.

Perhaps, he suggests, ''Mother Teresa will become the patron saint of the lonely and those feeling unwanted and unloved.''



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