Mother Teresa lived the latter part of her life in the global media glare. But the secrets of her soul remained invisible to all but a few. In the West a sentimental view of her took hold. Many regarded her as a wonderful little nun with a touchingly simple relationship with God. But this cosy consensus was shaken in 2007, when it was revealed that she had suffered a “dark night of the soul” for almost half a century.
Even those familiar with “dark nights” from the lives of the saints found it difficult to take this in. Mother Teresa was, at her death in 1997, arguably the most famous Catholic in the world. She had comforted thousands of “the poorest of the poor” in their last moments. She had founded the Missionaries of Charity, one of the world’s most dynamic new religious orders. She had even won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet for 50 years she had felt a spiritual “darkness and dryness”.
This astonishing disclosure was immediately misunderstood by her detractors. They accused her of hypocrisy: of promoting faith when she herself had ceased to believe. But her spiritual agony did not imply atheism. On the contrary, it showed the depth of her relationship with God. For according to St John of the Cross and other Carmelite writers, the “dark night” is a painful mark of spiritual maturity.
It is vital that we retain this complex view of Mother Teresa after she is canonised on Sunday. As stained-glass windows and statues of St Teresa of Calcutta appear in our churches, we will be tempted, once again, to sentimentalise her. But it would be a great injustice to see her as a saccharine saint – not only to her, but also to us. For we do ourselves a disservice when we regard saints as totally unlike us. It is easy to see Mother Teresa as wholly “other”: to focus on her exotic dress, her deeply lined face, her supernatural courage, her gruelling work ethic. But instead we should see her as a saint for the struggling: a saint for us.
If she was able to be faithful despite 50 years of spiritual testing, then we can surely remain true to the faith amid our lesser trials. If she was able to comfort the afflicted despite her inner turmoil, then so can we. If she was able to perform works of mercy despite illness and daily stresses, then with God’s help we can too.
Mother Teresa recognised that her inner torment was not, in the end, meaningless. “If my darkness and dryness can be a light to some soul,” she once said, “let me be the first one to do that.” She is also reputed to have said: “I’m not going to sleep in heaven, but I’m going to work harder in another form.” We shouldn’t be afraid to take her up on that promise when we face our own “darkness and dryness”.
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