In this last post on Mother Teresa, I’d like to put together how I understand her “darkness.” I have been asked about this wherever I’ve been and so, after reading the new book, Come Be My Light, I’d like to post these thoughts. I only know what I have seen in the pages of her own writings.
She experienced her “darkness” as an emotional dryness. She said in 1967, after two decades of struggling with the darkness, this: “I know this is only feelings” (257). At the phenomenological level, as she says things herself, what she experienced was a lack of emotional bonding with God, with Jesus, with the Eucharist, with others, and even with the poor. This does not mean, it must be emphasized with utter clarity, that she came off as “flat.” In fact, M. Teresa worked at bringing the Smile of God into each situation. No one, other than those to whom she confided her darkness, knew about it. But her soul was dry in the sense that the glowing electricity of her former union with Christ never returned.
The experience of darkness led to a search for an explanation. This is natural. She asked “Why?” Her answers came in the form of theology and she baptized her darkness into the rhetoric of the cross. She tried to come to terms with the darkness as a suffering-with-Jesus. I would appeal to “attribution theory” to understand how she, and her confidants, explained her darkness. The darkness was so profound and so mysterious, they attributed the darkness to God. They came to see it as a gift from God to permit her to enter into the suffering of Christ. Personally, I’m not entirely convinced. The “dark night of the soul” explanation does not get to the bottom of it either. It was either a kind of dark night of the soul never experienced or that explanation is not enough.
I think we have to look to her context: M. Teresa’s darkness began at about the same time she entered into the slums of Calcutta. In my opinion, while all these theological explanations are explanations, attempts to put into words what she was experiencing by attributing it somehow to God, it does not seem to me that her supporters are fair enough with the emotional toll daily and constant contact with the poorest of the poor can put on a person. In part, and I have no reason to reduce it to this, her darkness is emotional shut-down because of the depth of the pain she was seeing in those around her. No one, I suppose, can encounter that much pain and not be stunned emotionally. Stunned to a profound degree. I don’t believe many could absorb that much pain. One way humans respond to such pain is deflect it but there is a price to pay for such. I believe that is in part a price M. Teresa paid.
Regardless of whether you agree with me or not, M. Teresa is a great example of tenacity. She had faith and she remained obedient no matter how she felt — and this is admirable in and of itself — and she becomes for these an heroic example of Christian faith.
As her life progressed the blessing of God was upon the work of the Missionaries of Charity. She won the Nobel Peace Prize, using those days to speak against abortion, and she had places in more than 77 countries with over 350 houses (in 1988).
Increasingly her theology of loving the poor became a theology of seeing Christ in the poor. “The Hungry One in the distressing disguise of the Poor” (279) and the famous line of Jesus’ … “you did it to me” when you did it to the least of these.
In a fitting parabolic end to her life, she died on September 5, 1997. As her life was coming to its end, the lights went out at the home and neither did the electric back-ups work. The whole house was in darkness and the one who was called by Jesus to be light to the dark holes of Calcutta died in darkness.