Mother Teresa died in 1997, and burst again onto the world stage 10 years later with publication of her letters and writings in Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. The book caught the world’s spotlight as writers seized on newly revealed secrets about her spiritual struggles and deep interior darkness. The anti-God lobby said the revelations proved God does not exist. Writer Christopher Hitchens called her “a confused old lady [who] ...ceased to believe.”
But, of course, there’s more to her story than that.
What was her situation? How did a girl from Skopje in Macedonia (now Albania) become a universally acclaimed saint? The Christian answer is immediate: She dedicated her life to God’s people through Christ. She saw Jesus in every situation, in every person. That still doesn’t answer how she did it.
If Mother Teresa stopped believing in God, was she clinically depressed? Or, was she depressed because of spiritual struggles or other experiences? Did she experience the “Dark Night” known to mystics? In this Update, we’ll take a look at some of the themes in her writings that have led to so many questions.
Dark Night, often called “dark night of the soul,” is popularly understood as a feeling of abandonment, but it is more complicated. St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite friar and friend of St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century, wrote of how God works in the souls of mystics. Souls invited into Dark Night, he wrote, realize they just can’t pray anymore.
Not only does prayer cease, but those experiencing Dark Night lose the joy of the spiritual journey. But they hang on tightly to their commitment to Christ. This Dark Night is really only understood in the light of faith, through Scripture. St. John of the Cross points out two phases in this condition: Dark Night of the Senses and Dark Night of the Spirit, in his two classic writings The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.
Dark Night of Senses and Spirit
St. John’s signs of Dark Night of the Senses show that God is asking the soul to let go of self-directed mental prayer. Mother Teresa suffered this demand. She wanted to keep praying, but couldn’t—and worried she was abandoning her spiritual life. Then, just as St. John describes, things went from bad to worse: Darkness spread, and consolations disappeared.
Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors told her God might well be inviting her to deeper union, but it doesn’t seem she understood God’s actions. But even without emotional satisfaction, she spent time alone simply being present to God.
St. John of the Cross writes of a next stage toward mystical union, the Dark Night of the Spirit, when the memory, the intellect and will are purified. Overall, the soul experiences a deeper sense of abandonment, secretly assuaged by the dark contemplation it suffers, and as the theological virtues of faith, hope and love deepen.
The “darkness” of Dark Night comes in part because the soul is blinded by the bright light of wisdom. As it adjusts to the light, it gradually sees past sins and present inabilities. Overall, says
St. John, the soul feels as if it is “being undone” and lost in interior darkness.
Loss of God
The most disorienting part of Dark Night is the painful loss of God. While the experience of the loss is real, echoing other losses, the soul is also invited to give up all “knowledge” of God—all analogy, all experience, all understanding, in order to be freed to meet God.
Letting go of ideas of God means letting go of ideas of self, and that combined loss brings crisis. Yet even with this darkness, Mother Teresa lived an apparently joyful exterior life, dedicated to her many works. That is key to the evaluation of her interior life.
Early on, Mother Teresa understood God’s word in her heart directing her to eventually found the Missionaries of Charity. She wrote: “After reading the life of St. Cabrini—the thought kept on coming—why can’t I do for Him in India what she did for Him in America?”
Her wonderings soon became concrete, and she began to work in the slums of Calcutta, certain “God wants me to give myself completely...to God in the poor.”
As her mission grew more difficult, she was tempted to turn back. She wrote Calcutta Archbishop Ferdinand Périer, “There is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’” She suffered darkness deeply: “In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is terrible separation. I don’t pray any longer.”
Still, she kept trying to pray: “I want to speak—yet nothing comes—I find no words to express the depths of the darkness. In spite of it all—I am His little one—I love Him....”
Eventually, Mother Teresa grew accustomed to her condition and wrote: “I do not know how deeper will this trial go—how much pain and suffering it will bring to me. This does not worry me any more. I leave this to Him as I leave everything else.”
Despite her loss of interior solace: “...there is such a deep loneliness in my heart that I cannot express it....” She wrote: “I want it to be like this for as long as he wants it.”
Mother Teresa’s Mystic Dark Night
Here is the mystic being led more deeply into the mystery of God. She senses deep abandonment precisely because of that awareness. Eventually, the mystic realizes that all cherished notions of God are inadequate. It is the sudden and deep realization that all ideas about God are lacking that sometimes sends the soul into a depressive free fall.
The suffering is not over the loss of God, but rather the loss of deeply held notions of God. Hence, the “darkness” which mystics describe in poetic language as “the blinding brightness of Being,” pervades the psyche. Only as the individual releases his or her conceptions of God does resolution appear.
Mother Teresa grew to love the darkness. “For the first time in these 11 years—I have come to love the darkness—for I believe now that it is a part—a very, very small part—of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”
We cannot pinpoint Mother Teresa’s total experience of Dark Night—it is an intimate, personal experience. However, by her own admission, she eventually grew to accept the darkness, writing: “Let Him do with me whatever He wants as He wants for as long as He wants if my darkness is light to some soul—even if it be nothing to nobody—I am perfectly happy to be God’s flower in the field.”
We can see here Mother Teresa coming to a truce of sorts with her experience. We can assume through gleanings of other writings that her prayer once was filled with the meditation of her early training. Hence, her inability to practice this “discursive” (rational, thought-out) meditation, combined with a loss of appetite for other spiritual practices, would have hit her especially hard.
We can never know precisely when her experience of Dark Night of the Senses intersected with her experience of Dark Night of the Spirit, but her writings show her memory, intellect and will beginning, at least, to be purified by theological hope, faith and love.
The Dark Night of the Spirit, marked by passive dark contemplation, seems evident. The writings we have give further evidence of this deeper purification, although we do not have substantial evidence of her painful growth in interior insight. St. John of the Cross likens that to a log as it meets flame. In this “purgative contemplation,” St. John writes, the soul is stripped “of the habitual affections and properties of the old self to which the soul is strongly united, attached and conformed...” and purged of “all contrary qualities.”
Mother Teresa’s pain is evident: “As for myself, I just have the joy of having nothing—not even the reality of the Presence of God. No prayer, no love, no faith—nothing but continual pain of longing for God.”
Even so, she remained convinced she was doing God’s work. As her life and ministry progressed, and her fame grew, Mother Teresa became increasingly circumspect in writing about her interior life and struggles. But, it appears that beginning in the 1960s and through to the end of her life, she was more at peace with her lack of feelings in prayer.
Her Increasing Fame
In 1970, 27 years before she died, Mother Teresa’s fame exploded through Malcolm Muggeridge’s BBC-TV documentary and 1971 best-selling book, Something Beautiful for God. Muggeridge begins his book: “I should explain, in the first place, that Mother Teresa has requested that nothing in the nature of a biography or biographical study of her should be attempted.” Mother Teresa grew increasingly private as her fame increased.
Her humanitarian work grew along with her international fame. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She won India’s highest honor, the Bharat Ratna, and the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom. Albania awarded her its Golden Honor of the Nation in 1994.
We know little of her interior life during these final decades. After her death, in 1999, Archbishop Périer of Calcutta, with whom she had corresponded, appointed her spiritual director, Jesuit Father Josef Neuner, as Theological Censor on the commission preparing her case for beatification. Some years later Neuner wrote he was thoroughly convinced of the divine origin of her vocation and mission. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003.
One of the questions the news media asked is, “Was Mother Teresa depressed?” Are people who suffer these signs really saints? St. John of the Cross says other, non-spiritual things—like “melancholia”—can cause the marks of Dark Night and must be eliminated before making any spiritual judgment.
Mother Teresa wrote: “That darkness surrounds me on all sides—I can’t lift my soul to God—no light or inspiration enters my soul...what do I labour for? If there is no God—there can be no soul.”
In over 40 published writings, Mother Teresa bemoans her “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture.” At one point she says her suffering makes her doubt the existence of God. Was this depression?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, says diagnosis of depression requires two weeks with five or more specific symptoms, including a depressed mood and a loss of interest or pleasure: 1) constant depressed mood; 2) lack of enjoyment or pleasure in most activities; 3) unaccounted-for weight loss; 4) sleeplessness or over-sleeping; 5) demonstrated restlessness or marked slowness; 6) daily fatigue; 7) daily feelings of worthlessness or excessive inappropriate guilt; 8) diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness; 9) thoughts of death or suicide.
Mother Teresa clearly suffered, but her symptoms seem tied to her relationship with God. For example, in an undated letter, she wrote: “The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my Faith?”
A Psychological Portrait
So what else was going on? Was her spiritual struggle influenced by her early life? We know she didn’t speak about it, and she asked her biographer, Eileen Egan, to omit anything about her early life and family. But, now we know more.
Agnes Gonxha, who became Mother Teresa, was born in Skopje on August 26, 1910, the youngest of three children. Her father was an entrepreneur and political activist who was assassinated when she was nine. The tragic prominence of her father’s death remained deep in historical silence until her own prominence brought it to light, against her wishes.
How did this tragedy impact her spiritual identity?
While psychology is important, it cannot reduce her mystical experiences to a simple cause, although it may help explain her feelings of abandonment by God.
Would the loss of her father condition her sense of being abandoned by God? Mystic experience is not a by-product of grief; the mystic’s loss is another type of bereavement. Psychology wonders if the mystic is reliving earlier feelings. Theology, on the other hand, suggests that God’s grace may be building upon a natural event.
As Mother Teresa grieved the absence of her beloved God, she may have recognized the depth of young Agnes’s grief at the loss of her beloved father. If the young Agnes’s suffering is reflected in the adult Mother Teresa, perhaps she had to give up any “fatherly” image of God to be free to meet Being as Being.
Might this not have been an example of what St. Thomas Aquinas called “grace building upon nature”?
Our religious tradition helps us to conclude that Mother Teresa suffered, but was not clinically depressed. We can be certain that she was invited to Dark Night, at least of the Senses and probably of the Spirit, which brings union with God.
We know that she suffered physical (and possibly emotional) exhaustion from her tireless work. Those could be both effect and cause of her difficulties in prayer. Yet, we know she accepted the darkness and increasingly delivered herself to hopeful abandonment.
Her prayer—even in darkness—propelled her to greater missionary zeal, so detached that all her energies were directed at God and God’s will. Her thirst for God mirrored Christ’s thirst for souls; her suffering at her lack of feeling in prayer mirrored Christ’s passion. The Christian hope is that her embracing darkness brought her to eternal light.