And What It Can Teach Us About the Christian Life
What does it mean to be a saint? Looking back at the late 20th century, many people, if asked to name someone who was clearly a saint, would immediately think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the humble nun who dedicated 50 years of her life to serving the poorest and most wretched souls in the gutters of India. Indeed, the Catholic Church has beatified Mother Teresa, and the process of her canonization is proceeding.
Most people, however, also assume that being a saint means living in the assurance of God’s love. And, for many saints throughout history, it has. But some of the greatest saints—especially those devoted, as Mother Teresa was, to Christ on the Cross—have suffered through what Saint John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul”: a sense of loss, of abandonment, of the absence of God. The dark night is not the same as a lack of belief, though it may be a lack of faith, that supernatural grace and theological virtue that Saint Paul describes in Hebrews 11:1 as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
And, for almost the entire 50 years that she devoted to her Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa suffered the dark night of the soul.
In 2007, Time ran an exclusive story on the release of a collection of Mother Teresa’s correspondence, entitled Come Be My Light, in which the saintly nun repeatedly describes her spiritual torments to her various confessors and superiors.
The excerpts published by Time are heart-wrenching, but they can only begin to give us a taste of how much Mother Teresa suffered.
No one knows why God allows some Christians—especially great saints—to suffer such doubts, though Time notes that militant atheists such as Christopher Hitchens are happy to claim them as proof that there is no God.
But in Mother Teresa’s case, we might consider that her dark night began immediately after Christ Himself spoke to her and asked her to found the Missionaries of Charity, and she received permission to do so. In other words, when she began to work with those who have no hope—the lost, the forsaken, the abandoned—she began to feel the emptiness in her own soul.
Saint John of the Cross saw the dark night of the soul, not as an actual abandonment by God, but as an expression of His love, that helped perfect the soul by purging it of all of its remaining attachment to spiritual faults and earthly things. While she could not see it herself, perhaps Mother Teresa’s dark night was her reward for submitting herself fully to the will of her Lord.