“If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness,’” Mother Teresa wrote in September of 1959. “I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
Two years earlier she wrote this to Archbishop Perier of Calcutta:
There is so much contradiction in my soul.—Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—Souls hold no attraction—Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place—the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God.—Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything. For I am only His—so He has ever right over me. I am perfectly happy to be nobody even to God. . . . .
As a person who battles despairing, intrusive thoughts during many of her alert (caffeinated and non-caffeinated) hours, I found great consolation in the personal writings of Mother Teresa included in a compilation entitled “Come Be My Light,” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. And I wept many times throughout the book, mostly at her graciousness toward God in her suffering. “I want to smile even at Jesus and so hide if possible the pain and the darkness of my soul even from Him,” she wrote.
I spent a week with Mother Teresa and her Sisters the winter of 1994. I stood beside her for about two hours as we distributed Christmas gifts to orphaned children. I sensed a sadness in her. But her light overshadowed it. Unlike a person wrapped in severe depression, wearing the expression of despair, she exuded light and hope. When she prayed, her deep love for God was visible, even contagious.
This saint of darkness has much to teach me about how to live with inner anguish.
First of all, I should stop referring to my depression and anxiety as the “Black Hole,” (singular and capitalized), and call it, as Mother Teresa described her difficult places, the “dark holes.” Because the darkness is never black, or without any light at all. Her legacy is proof that hope and faith and love prevail, even in the dark night.
And depression isn’t one place of despair with capital letters. It changes every minute we breathe, especially as we enter into deeper communion with God, even if we don’t feel that communion. It’s plural because we always get to try again, the same reason my son David’s pencils don’t have erasers. His kindergarten teacher doesn’t believe in mistakes, just “happy accidents.”
And, most importantly, all of our suffering can be used for the good. I’m not sure how Mother Teresa was able to regard her times of spiritual agony as the meeting place for she and God, or how she appreciated her pain in order to bring souls to God. Because when I’m in that place I can’t stop cussing him out.
I remember my own conversation with God one afternoon over a year ago. I had just flunked out of a six-week outpatient program for depression (“You are in no way ready to be discharged, but your insurance won’t cover you anymore, so goodbye”), having tried 21 different medications, plus every alternative method imaginable (acupuncture, magnets, Chinese herbs, fish oil, vitamins, craniosacral therapy, yoga), counseling, cognitive-behavioral worksheets, gratitude journals, prayer and meditation, and daily six-mile runs. The conversation, which happened while I was swmming laps, went like this:
Okay, God. I’m finally starting to accept the fact that I will live the rest of my life wanting to die. And I’ve already promised you that I won’t take my life. Since enjoyment of life is pretty much ruled out, I’m going to just devote all my time to your cause. In exchange, I’d like you to take me earlier rather than later. Deal?
I was crying so hard that my goggles filled up with tears every two laps (it was better than chlorine, but still). I didn’t appreciate anything about it. Even though I was wearing clear goggles in a fluorescent-lit room (equivalent to at least 15 mammoth HappyLites–the kind sitting on my desk), it was my dark night, and I’m glad Archbishop Perier wasn’t around to talk to.
Because, when Mother Teresa told him about her darkness, this is what he wrote:
With regard to the feeling of loneliness, of abandonment, of not being wanted, of darkness of the soul, it is a state well known by spiritual writers and directors of conscience. This is willed by God in order to attach us to Him alone, an antidote to our external activities, and also, like temptation, a way of keeping us humble in the midst of applauses, publicity, praises, appreciation, etc. and success. To feel that we are nothing, that we can do nothing is the realization of a fact. We know it, we say it, some feel it. That is why stick to God and like the little Bernadette at the end of her last retreat wrote: God alone, God everywhere, God in everybody and in everything, God always.
According to St. John of the Cross, the Carmelite mystic who composed the poem, “The Dark Night,” the deepening of love is the real purpose of the dark night of the soul. The dark night helps us to love more deeply.
And Meister Eckhart once wrote, “Truly, it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us.” How appropriate, then, that Mother Teresa’s writings be entitled “Come Be My Light.” This saint of darkness is my light.