Saturday, September 01, 2007

Rediscovering Mother Teresa

Book Uncovers a Lonely, Spiritually Desolate Mother Teresa
"There is no God in me," she wrote.
Shona Crabtree, Religion News Service posted 8/30/2007 01:42PM

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, to be released Sept. 4, is a collection of Teresa's personal letters to her spiritual advisers. For the most part, they are letters she never intended to become public and, in fact, had asked to be destroyed...

In 1942, Mother Teresa made a vow not to refuse Jesus anything. Starting in 1946, she experienced several mystical encounters with Jesus, whom she called "the Voice," asking her to serve "the poorest of the poor." The "darkness" was her term for feelings of loneliness and abandonment when her communion with Jesus ended.

Prior to 1946, Kolodiejchuk said little was known about Teresa's spiritual life. "She says in a letter, 'I came to India with the desire to love Jesus as he has never been loved before,'" he said. "She was a woman passionately in love with Jesus."

Yet no sooner did Teresa start her work in the slums of Calcutta than she began to feel the intense absence of Jesus—a state that lasted until her death, according to her letters.
"The paradox is that for her to be a light, she was to be in darkness," Kolodiejchuk said.
In a letter estimated to be from 1961, Teresa wrote: "Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can't explain."

Over time, the Rev. Joseph Neuner, a spiritual adviser, helped Teresa realize her feelings of abandonment only increased her understanding of the people she helped, Kolodiejchuk said. Ultimately, she identified her suffering with that of Jesus, which helped her to accept it.
Catholic saints typically experience a "dark night of the soul" in the words of 16th-century priest St. John of the Cross, Martin said, but never as long as the "whole working life" Teresa experienced...

Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith
Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007 By DAVID VAN BIEMA

A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. 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."...

And yet "the question is, Who determined the abandonment she experienced?" says Dr. Richard Gottlieb, a teacher at the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute who has written about the church and who was provided a copy of the book by TIME. "Could she have imposed it on herself?" Psychologists have long recognized that people of a certain personality type are conflicted about their high achievement and find ways to punish themselves. Gottlieb notes that Teresa's ambitions for her ministry were tremendous...Gottlieb also suggests that starting her ministry "may have marked a turning point in her relationship with Jesus," whose urgent claims she was finally in a position to fulfill. Being the active party, he speculates, might have scared her, and in the end, the only way to accomplish great things might have been in the permanent and less risky role of the spurned yet faithful lover.

The atheist position is simpler. In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: "There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance," he says. "They thought, 'Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I'm not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.' They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired." That, he says, was Teresa...

The Rev. Joseph Neuner, whom she met in the late 1950s and confided in somewhat later, was already a well-known theologian, and when she turned to him with her "darkness," he seems to have told her the three things she needed to hear: that there was no human remedy for it (that is, she should not feel responsible for affecting it); that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and her very craving for God was a "sure sign" of his "hidden presence" in her life; and that the absence was in fact part of the "spiritual side" of her work for Jesus...
Personally I do not find that surprising. Many of the great Mystics of the church talk about the dark night of the soul or the cloud of unknowing. I remember asking Father Thomas Green, author of Drinking from Dry Wells how long does these periods of dryness and aridness (absence of God) lasts. He answered, "For the rest of your life."
I find that terrifying and difficult to reconcile with our church teachings of God's presence in our everyday life giving us health, wealth, and prosperity. Sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice Christianity. The Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox teaches about 'dark night' experiences but not the Protestants. Why is that?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back. I find this Theresa thing fascinating. I was looking at this in comparison with the British triple jump medalist who went one step further and gave up his faith. Your post has shed more light on this. Thanks, nice to have you back in blogosphere.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi blogpastor,

nice to be back. I am thinking of Mother Teresa's Christian spirituality. Most of us will assume that she will be walking closely with God and receiving daily affirmation from Him.

What if there are also other types of Christian spirituality where we have to serve in spite of not receiving spiritual comfort freqently? Thomas Merton's quote that you like so much talks about the presence and absence of God. The Catholics and the Orthodox understands this. Only the protestatnts do not experience this.

I always ask, why not?

2:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes the 'darkness' is something we evangelicals and pentecostals find difficult coming to terms with. After all He walks with me and he talks with me and what a friend we have in Jesus are catchphrases in evangelical diet. So for God to withold the SENSE of his presence for a lengthy period is a shocker! Frankly, I am still struggling with the LENGTHY PERIOD AND THE NATURE OF THE DARKNESS that Mother Theresa evidently experienced.

By the way,I was surprised that you actually chatted with Thomas Green, whose book When the Wells Run Dry, stirred a something in my soul.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...


God is good. He gave me an opportunity to attend a two week silent retreat under Father Thomas Green. Father Green led and was the spiritual director for the retreat in Malaysia. That is the first time he gave such a retreat for evangelicals too.PTL

3:49 PM  
Blogger Bolivian Beat said...

Mother Teresa was a liberal and a universalist. I do not mean to disparage her or her work..the Lord is the final judge of us all. It might be helpful however to locate her experiences within the context of her liberal beliefs

I highlight the universal and liberal bases of her faith because many liberals are motivated by 18th/19th century european romanticism which was to a large extent based on feelings derived from benevolent God who is not into judgement. Christian liberalism too a large extent was and is highly influenced by this kind of romanticism. And feelings here are not fly-by-night emotions but the human spirit’s passion and commitment to a cause. I wonder if Mother Teresa’s motivation and perception of God was not partially based on these feelings.

If this is the case then it is understandable that her liberal perception of God together with her exposure to abject poverty would have sent her reeling in terms of faith. God to the liberal is a kindly person who loves everybody. The idea of a God showing his love through the shedding His Son’s blood to save man from sin is alien to them. And christianity is a nice charitable institution dedicated to shed this benevolent love (a love that has no place for judgement or the cross) to everyone. This sort of love is quickly overwhelmed however by the force of death and human suffering, especially when one is exposed to its extremes in Calcutta or war torn situations. The god of the liberals has no fundamental answer to the problem of evil and human suffering. I think we should not fear to exegete mother teresa’s work from an evangelical viewpoint.

In such a situation it is understandable for Mother Teresa to express doubts about faith and God because her god was probably a combination of 18th century romantic beliefs and a sprinkling of the biblical revelation. This does not mean that evangelicals have got it all together. Our gods may also be a combination of our projections and the biblical revelation. I do not wish to go on because we are treading on holy ground here. God is our ultimate judge in these matters. God have mercy on us all..

Evangelicals are not free from crises of faith or the experience of the dark night.

I suspect however that Mother Teresa's experiences are on a different plane.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi raphael samuel,

Welcome. Thank you for your comments. This is the first time I read that Mother Teresa is a liberal and universalist. If this is true, then what you have written about liberalism, universalism and romanticism follows. However you must agree that Christian liberalism covers a wide area.

I agree with you that evangelicals are not free from crisis of faith or experience of the dark night. However I believe we are talking about a different type of Christian spirituality here when we talk about 'dark night' experiences as defined by St. John of the Cross, an apophatic spirituality.

Though the Puritans do talk about the 'absence of God' I do not think they are describing 'dark night experiences.' Many people mistaken 'dark night experiences' with depression (Martin Luther, Johnathan Edwards, Spurgeon).

6:53 PM  
Blogger Bolivian Beat said...

Dear Alex,

You are right about the dark night experience as not being similar to the Puritan understanding of absence of God or to experiences of depression.

Carmelite spirituality is practised more than talked about. And it requires a degree of discipline in contemplative prayer.

Analogies have their limits. I think Mother Teresa's experiences are unique to her journey and context. Its difficult to find a similar template within the evangelical tradition to describe her or her spirituality. I learned tis when I spent 6 months with the Maryknoll fathers in Bolivia.

And so I'm a little edgy when folk try to talk about her using labels from within their tradition. I suppose that cannot be avoided. Even I said that evangelicals have their own dark night of the soul!!

I am correcting myself here because the dark night of the soul has been tossed around rather loosely by folk who may not be familiar with carmelite spiritually. The phrase, dark night of the soul, has been used in a journalistic manner to describe anything from depression to difficulties in prayer.

I am looking forward to reading the book and the story that TIME
are planning to run.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi raphael samuel,

You are right about using one label from one tradition to describe spiritual experiences and spiritualities from another tradition. There are dangers but if we are aware of the dangers, we can learn so much from one another.

That is why I am so excited about learning from the other traditions. They each have such a rich heritage.

You spent some time with the Maryknoll fathers in Bolivia. Wow, that must have been some experience.

BTW, the TIME story is in this posting :)

10:11 PM  
Blogger Steven Sim said...

Recently, i finally got hold of Kristel Stendahl's famous Paul and the Instrospective Conscience of the West. (

Dr. Alex, as a medical doc, you may like to comment on this article which he presented in the American Psychological Association. How the problem of a guilty conscience was a Western problem and not Paul's.

I know the article may be a little old, but reading it does shed some light at least to me.

If he is right, then the dark night of the soul may be the result of an overated (and perhaps sincely mistaken) idea of god, sin, law and man.


12:18 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi jack said,

righto. I shall get cracking and let post my view in a few days.

Thanks for the reference.

3:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,
Is there any relevance between Mother Teresa's experience and Roman 8: 23?

I wonder why would believers , who walked closely with God and receive daily affirmation / communion, "groan inwardly" ?

nevertheless, Mother Teresa demonstrated another aspect of faith -- loyalty. Continue your calling even if you don't feel right.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi kc,

welcome and thank you for your comment.

Rom 8:23 (NIV)
23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Eugene Peterson translates in The Message as
22-25All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

As I understand it, Rom 8:23 refers to our sinful nature longing for redemption. I do not think that is what Mother Teresa was experiencing. She was having a apophatic spiritual experience; experiencing the absence of God.

I agree with you that she is to be admired for her loyalty and devotion in spite of the lack of affirmation. I wonder how many of us can do that.

7:17 PM  

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