Courtney Ball

The Mother Teresa Problem: Excerpt from His Final Sermon

Introduction: The gospels describe the Kingdom of Heaven as both a place we can go after Judgment Day and a state of being we can enter into during our lives. In my book, I argue that Jesus (in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel) tells his us how to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (both future and present) by befriending the poor and society’s outcasts. When we relate to the poor, Jesus says, we relate to him.

After I shared these ideas with my writers’ group, one member challenged this assertion with a question. “What about Mother Teresa? She devoted her life to serving the poor, and yet for decades she secretly struggled with doubt and a feeling of God’s absence.”

What follows is a section of my book that responds to that question.

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Her tireless energy, her generous and joyful presence, and her outward religious devotion, convinced many that Mother Teresa remained especially close to Jesus throughout her life. Yet according to her own private letters, she herself did not feel that closeness. In an excerpt from a letter she wrote to Father Joseph Neuner, she describes clearly the years of “darkness” she endured.

Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—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—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls—to go where?—Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.—From my childhood I have had a most tender love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament—but this too has gone.—I feel nothing before Jesus—and yet I would not miss Holy Com. [Communion] for anything.

This letter was published in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, and it is just one example of her numerous private writings that describe her doubt, her spiritual emptiness, and absence of Jesus in her life, whose presence she once felt quite strongly. Her “darkness”, as she usually called it, continued almost unbroken for the rest of her life.

As I read the book I wrestled with the implications of Mother Teresa’s experience, especially in light of what Jesus says in Matthew 25. I wonder, as she did, is all this a sham? Is the whole notion of the Kingdom of God (and our ability to participate in it) just one more piece of imaginative religious dreaming? Is it a false promise proven to be just as unreliable as so many other promises that people have made on God’s behalf? I mean, if it didn’t work for Mother Teresa, who gave the teachings in Matthew 25 a more serious attempt than anyone else I can think of, then why would the rest of us even bother to try it out?

This troubled me for some time, and frankly, I didn’t buy the explanation offered by the book’s author (nor the priests to whom Mother Teresa confessed her problems) that the darkness she experienced was simply another aspect of her intimate relationship with Christ. They assert that her struggle with feelings of doubt, abandonment, and emptiness was the result of Christ letting her share in his experience of the cross.

It is true that many people of profound faith experience periods of darkness and doubt. How could any deep-thinking, even semi-observant person look at the state this world and not get depressed or doubtful from time to time? Most of us, at some point in our lives, have asked the question, How could a loving God exist and allow such horrible things to happen?

I do not believe that Mother Teresa’s struggle with “darkness” was just another one of God’s tools to help her better understand Jesus, as if her five decades of feeling abandoned by God were supposed to equal Jesus’s brief moments of fear when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To me, that equation doesn’t seem to balance out. It’s not a satisfying solution to the problem presented.

Instead of trying to explain them away, I think it’s better for us to admit our own doubts about God right along with Mother Teresa, though I hope we can follow Jesus’s and the Psalmist’s example by admitting them publicly rather than keeping them secret as she did.

I can’t explain why Mother Teresa doubted, why she felt abandoned by God. Nor can I say why, at other times, she felt closer to Christ than most people ever will. She clearly experienced higher highs and lower lows than the average Christian can expect. She is, after all, exceptional enough that the Catholic Church will most likely canonize her as a saint.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from her example. Rather than asking why Mother Teresa (and we) struggle with doubt and emptiness, perhaps we ought to ask how she dealt (and we might deal) with that darkness enough to keep on living meaningful lives. What no one can deny is that in spite of her private wrestling with her feelings of “darkness”, Mother Teresa continued to live a spectacular life. Those who knew her well and spent time around her daily bear witness to her continuous generosity, her loving, joyful presence, her capable and organized mind, her boundless energy. She was, to them, a light.

If God felt absent to Mother Teresa, what was it that allowed her to live such a life? What sustained her and fed her spiritually? We find a hint in a letter she wrote to Father Neuner, most likely in April of 1961.

Before I could spend hours before Our Lord—loving Him—talking to Him—and now—not even meditation goes properly—nothing but “My God”—even that sometimes does not come.—Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. When outside—in the work—or meeting people—there is a presence—of somebody living very close—in very me.—I don’t know what this is—but very often, even every day—that love in me for God grows more real.—I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously most strange tokens of love.

Here we see that it is in her work, when she is meeting people and providing care in the slums of Calcutta, that Mother Teresa felt an undefined “presence”, “living very close” that sustained in her a love for God, for Jesus.

When I read this I can’t help but think that in spite of her doubts and her inability to define it, Mother Teresa experienced the promise of Matthew 25. Though she was devout in her observation of the sacraments, she could no longer find meaning or assurance in these rituals. Instead, what fed her soul and allowed her to tolerate the darkness was her work among the poor.

I think this is a message that many Christians today could benefit from hearing. We may never suffer the “darkness” Mother Teresa describes, but there will be times when church religion or our relationship with God grows stale or seems pointless. In my experience, one of the best ways to renew a sense of purpose and connection with something meaningful (even if you can’t define it) is to move closer to those people from whom most of society tries to distance itself. If you’re looking for the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, that is where you’re most likely to find it.

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Courtney Ball

4 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Wholesome and unique approach to addressing the text, the issue, and it’s relevance for our personal and communal life. Thank you.

  • Nice application of the text to the life of Mother Teresa. I too did not buy the explanation offered in “Come Be My Light”. We’re always trying to find ways to minimize and explain away doubt rather than accept it and deal with it constructively. I can’t imagine a more constructive way than working with the poor and outcast. That kind of ministry kept me going at low points in my spiritual journey.

    One question I’ve always had about Matthew 25 is, Who are the the ‘least of these my brothers and sisters’? I read an exegesis once that claimed they are actually the missionaries that Jesus sent out – who are poor, sick, in prison, because of persecution – and that what Jesus is approving or condemning is rendering or not rendering assistance to them. I’ve always taken he traditional approach that Jesus is in fact talking about the poor and outcast as we would understand it. The alternative interpretation I find demotivating for ministry.

    • Eric,

      Thanks for the comment. As for the question about who are the “least of these”, I’ve heard that argument about it only referring to Christian missionaries as well. I don’t think that holds water. Even where early followers disagreed about the exact nature of Jesus and his purpose in the world, one bedrock commitment expected of all disciples was that they befriend the poor.

      For example, when the apostle Paul recounts his arguments with Jerusalem church leaders (James, Peter, John), he says that in spite of their disagreements, the leaders extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabus, so long as they “remember the poor, the very thing [Paul] had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:9-10)

      Read together, I take these two passages to mean that even today, with our long history of theological differences, a central part of any Christian’s faith must be real friendship with those who the world would cast aside.

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