A compilation of letters written by Mother Teresa is being published this month (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light), and a number of publications have featured articles about the book's contents. The longest one is in Time Magazine, which has the rights to the serialization of the book.
As an agnostic who has always struggled with the concept of faith (how can anyone be sure of this kind of thing?), I found it fascinating to learn that, for nearly the entire time she ministered to the poor in Calcutta, Mother Teresa did not feel the faith she professed.
According to the article, "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.'"
According to her reports, the future Mother Teresa had a vision of Christ while on the road to Darjeeling for her annual retreat in 1946. In the vision she reported that Christ told her He wanted her to "abandon teaching and work instead in 'the slums' of the city, dealing directly with 'the poorest of the poor' — the sick, the dying, beggars and street children. 'Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor,' he told her. 'Come be My light.'
Two years later, in 1948, she received permission from the Church to start this ministry. And at that point, shortly after finding a space for her mission's headquarters, she suddenly lost the beacon of faith and was plunged into a spiritual darkness.
Acording to her letters, she sometimes doubted the existence of God or Jesus, and felt she was in a place of darkness and despair. As the article states:
"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.'"
For five weeks in 1959 the despair and darkness lifted, only to come down again. It lasted to the end of her life.
Everyone, even her detractors, admits that Mother Teresa was dedicated to her cause. She continued on the path she started, working directly with the poor until the end of her life at 87. She continued to project to the world the image of a faithful follower of Jesus. She advised others to belief in Him and to follow His path. And yet all along, she felt bereft and alone, without the feeling of joy and comfort her original belief had given her.
The question is, where did the joy go? Why did it leave her? The Time Magazine article explores a number of theories, none of which are completely convincing.
Of course, as an agnostic, I can easily say, as do many other critics of religion, that she lost that feeling because she realized, upon seeing the misery around her, that we are truly alone here and there is no God, but that having based her life on ber belief, she couldn't admit it.
Another theory is that her darkness was her trial, that she had to undergo the same agony as Christ on the cross, when He felt abandoned by God. I'm not quite buying that either. One would think the least God could do, after sending her on such a mission, is be there when she needed support. If Mother Teresa couldn't depend on God's help, who among us can?
One possibility that no one has suggested (that I am aware of) is that Mother Teresa suffered from clinical depression. There was no Prozac in 1948 when she arrived in the streets of Calcutta to administer to the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. Surrounded every day by death, despair and disease, surely she couldn't help but be affected by it. This would be a worthy trigger for depression in one who may have been predisposed to the condition.
Her descriptions of the darkness and the depths of her despair sound very much like the descriptions of the darkness that victims of depression describe; the feeling of hopelessness, the lack of any light at the end of the tunnel.
We will never know why Mother Teresa suffered as she did. But that does not take away from her efforts. Most of us, having lost the faith that initially led us to a Herculean task such as hers, would have asked for a transfer back to a nice, cozy convent post-haste. But she stuck it out. Perhaps that is the true definition of faith - following the path even when you don't know where it leads.