Her Dark Night

The media was agog that Mother Teresa suffered fifty years of anguish. Time, NPR, and other middlebrow oracles reported solemnly, but with great fascination, that Mother Teresa had a fifty-year spiritual drought during which God seemed to be absent. In the view of at least some observers, she was a closet atheist persevering in good works despite the fact that her original motivation had disappeared. What greater modern story of unbelief could there be-the Nobel Prize-winning nun, founder of a flourishing religious order, serving a God she no longer believed in.

Scott Simon began NPR’s Weekend Edition with the story of his own experiences with the holy woman. He described her in her hand-woven sari as “more the image of God incarnate than any pope in golden finery.” He went on to quote Christopher Hitchens, describing him as “that most eloquent atheist.” Hitchens compared those who say periods of doubt are not uncommon in the lives of the saints to the old Western Communists who were incapable of acknowledging the lie at the heart of the Soviet system.

Among the Catholics I know the response was, perhaps predictably, quite different. At Notre Dame, where I teach, we have Catholics of all stripes: lefty and righty, pious and impious, and those who could best be described as impious-pious. Here the reaction to the big news about Mother Teresa was fairly unanimous: “Well, of course: after all, she’s a saint.”

One friend told me, “I always thought she was a bore and a fake. Now I’ve begun to pray to her.” Saints are like that. They’re oddballs who challenge our complacence with the agony and ecstasy of the love of God. It is a sign of the fundamental health of the church that, amid all its scandals and spats, we all seem to know that the story of Mother Teresa’s desolation lies close to the heart of what the church is about: waiting in eagerness, and sometimes agony, for the return of the beloved who often seems to have left us. It is the greatest lovers who feel this agony of absence most acutely and will settle for nothing less than eternity with the one they love.

Faith, in the sense of fidelity, is neither emotional stability nor an attitude to a set of propositions. It is an adherence of the will to some good; it is constancy. No one has claimed that Teresa of Calcutta ever ceased to adhere to the object of her faith, whatever her mood, whatever her doubts. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that she stood fast from the day God first bound her to himself. The depth of Mother Teresa’s sense of abandonment would seem to be a measure of her love-and of the strength of her initial union with God. From those to whom much has been given, much is demanded. It is no judgment on those of us to whom God has not granted such a sense of union that his absence doesn’t cause us to suffer as much as it caused her to suffer. But it may be a judgment on us if, in our industriousness and distraction, we do not feel that absence at all.

In response to the charge that she was not very successful in eliminating the root causes of poverty, Mother Teresa famously responded, “God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.” The depth of Mother Teresa’s agony was not the result of a lack of faith. It was evidence of an unusually profound faith. In her disconsolate fidelity, she was united to the suffering of Christ on the Cross, the Christ who cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

For now, we may only speculate. Maybe God withheld every consolation from Teresa so that she would not become preoccupied with her own undeniable holiness. Maybe he laid bare the extraordinary gift of faith he gave her so that she would look for the glorified Christ not within her own religious experience, but in the faces of the poor. Glory to God in the lowest. By giving us saints like Mother Teresa, he keeps us from mistaking spiritual comfort for fidelity.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

John P. O’Callaghan is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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