Time magazine has posted a lengthy article that discusses what might be made of this lengthy dark night of the soul that lasted even longer than the 45 year one endured by St. John of the Cross.
The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."
That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. "The smile," she writes, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love," she remarks to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'" Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and the author of My Life with the Saints, a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa's doubts: "I've never read a saint's life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented." Recalls Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light's editor: "I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa's Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her."
Postscript: This morning I clicked around on other blogs looking at the ways in which Christians are interpreting the revelations about Teresa. One blog sums it up saying we can't guarantee spiritual experiences, but must cling to Christ's promises and God's character. He goes on to say that we have the "hope of mercies that are new every morning amidst a long dark night."
I couldn't help but ask: What new mercies? A 66 year dark night doesn't really include daily morning new mercies, does it?
Another blog (by Ruth Tucker - author of Walking Away from Faith which I've read) said, "There were times when Mother Teresa was tormented. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can come to terms with the belief and unbelief that coexists in our lives and know that we are not alone. Our prayer is simple: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."
What? I'm astounded at the idea that from the excerpts we read, someone could say that "it doesn't have to be that way." The reports so far (we'll read more when we have context and the book) is that it was that way for Teresa... unabated (except for a five week hiatus) in 66 years. I didn't have the impression that unbelief was the chief characteristic of her crisis. It was more existential in nature: how can a Christian devoted to God's service reconcile the absence of God's presence when companionship, new mercies, Real Presence (in the Eucharist) have been promised to the faithful yet denied to her?
And how useful is the prayer, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief" if you've never experienced his help in decades? What does that even mean?
I do consider Teresa heroic. Jon said this morning that it makes him admire Teresa for her courage to continue helping people which overcame her personal need to disclose her despair (and possibly end her work). She kept her despair well-concealed and confessed it only to those who were spiritually responsible for her.
Still, I'm sure more reminders that we are not to abandon hope that God will make "himself" known to us will flow in, utterly missing the point - Teresa didn't experience God for most of her life, felt despair because of it, yet kept at her mission anyway.