Some years ago I read that Mother Teresa had told New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor that the best way for him to help her would be to pick up a broom and sweep. I was delighted. Here was a woman who helped the poor and called on influential leaders to do the same.
When I read recently that Mother Teresa had gone years without feeling the presence of God, it came as a shock. What would St. John of the Cross have thought of so long a dark night of the soul? I think he would have understood. I understand-not because I’m a saint, but because I once had my own dark night.
It began when I was in the novitiate of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. As I look back on the time I spent there, some nine months in all, the convent jargon floods my mind: we were to seek “custody of the eyes,” to strive for “perfect recollection,” to avoid “particular friendships.” I also have many happy memories of the convent: the wise and compassionate guidance I received from the mistress of novices; singing the praises of God and the Virgin Mary; teaching French to other postulants and novices; the blessed silence.
After six months as a postulant, I was ready to take the habit. A day before the ceremony, each member of our little group of postulants was given a biblical quotation to mull over. Mine: “Harken, O daughter, and consider and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people and thy father’s house; so shall the king desire thy beauty; for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him.” That beautiful, sunny day in January, on the feast of the Epiphany, I wore a white satin wedding gown before exchanging it for the habit of a novice.
In the weeks that followed that day, I began to lose weight. I was thinking more about praying than about eating, and I was feeling the stress of that third vow, obedience. Poverty and chastity were easy, but obedience wasn’t. I found it hard to say “no” to my will, and very hard to follow the dictates of others. A case in point: I was given lessons in how to walk without bouncing. It was thought I would look undignified walking at the head of a group of students. So I was “de-bounced,” much to my chagrin. The habit hid my weight loss, while I carried on with my duties. But I knew I was sick, and eventually I knew that I would have to leave the convent to return to “my father’s house.” The mistress of novices told me she was more certain of my vocation to the religious life than she had been of any other during her years there. She gently reminded me of the vow of stability, which meant I could not re-enter the convent once I left. But nothing deflected me from my decision to leave, not even a walk around the convent grounds with the superior general, who happened to be visiting.
At home, my parents did every loving thing they could do to cure my body and soul. The doctor was relieved to find out that I didn’t have leukemia-only severe anemia. A wonderful Jesuit priest listened to me for hours as I told him about my suicidal thoughts, my horror at the noise of traffic in the city, and doubts about my faith. No psychiatrist could have helped me more than he did. Certain writings also soothed me as I meditated at night: the beginning of Ronald Knox’s translation of Psalm 62 was a favorite: “O God, thou art my God; how eager my quest for thee, body athirst and soul longing for thee, like some parched wilderness, where stream is none.” I was in that wilderness seeking a God I could not find. But Pascal, in his Pensées, had written, “You would not have sought me if you had not already found me.”
My dark night was not about doubting God’s existence; it was about doubting I would ever find him. Mother Teresa wrote, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” The wonder is that this blessed woman of kind words would continue for years to help the poor and to encourage millions to care for others, while she herself suffered the agony of doubting the very existence of God, who was her very reason for being. Lacking a sense of God’s presence in her life, she carried on with her wonderful work. What courage! I and many others like me have had doubts about the faith and have gone on with our daily duties and careers, but how many have borne such painful doubt for as long as she did-or changed the world as much?