Review: Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul—as told by her beloved friend
At age 28, Jim Towey was working as a lawyer and senior advisor to Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Senator Hatfield, a Southern Baptist who had become friends with Mother Teresa before she rose to fame, chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and prioritized helping Vietnamese refugees who had aided the U.S. military.
In 1985, Senator Hatfield sent Towey on a fact-gathering trip to refugee camps in Southeast Asia. The senator wrote Towey a letter of introduction to Mother Teresa, whom Towey visited on a side journey to Kolkata, India (called by its former name, Calcutta, in the book). Having read the book Something Beautiful for God by Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote of Mother Teresa as a manifestation of Christ’s love, Towey went to India seeking a mountaintop experience with a living saint.
Towey recounts the hours Mother Teresa spent daily in deep prayer as well as the cheerfulness and compassion with which she served people in crushing poverty.
That trip was the first chapter in a long story of friendship and collaboration that is chronicled in Towey’s new book, To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa. Towey writes of Mother Teresa’s life, mystical experiences and practical service to the poor and sick, as well as of the ways her example of deep faith and devoted work transformed Towey’s own spiritual life and continues to influence him a quarter century after her death.
Nine months before Towey’s trip, his close friend Jimmy jumped to his death from an overpass. After his friend’s suicide, guilt plagued Towey, who had known Jimmy was despairing over his divorce and stalled career.
Towey, a lifelong Catholic, had many questions: “How could a loving God let all this happen? Where was He when Jimmy was suffering? Why didn’t He send me to the rescue?” He hoped meeting Mother Teresa could assuage his self-recrimination and direct him toward a deeper reason for living.
After warmly greeting Towey and talking with him briefly, Mother Teresa told him to go to her Kolkata hospice and ask for Sister Luke. That sister shocked Towey when she immediately put him to work cleaning a dying man’s scabies. Towey tried in vain to think of a way out of the task, but his pride would not let him admit to Sister Luke that he wanted to avoid it. Despite Towey’s initial horror at this volunteer assignment, after he left India for a planned Hawaiian vacation, he discovered that his brief work at the hospice had deeply changed him and would shape his life’s path.
“Hawaii was everything it was supposed to be—white sand, palm trees, fruity drinks—but I was as uncomfortable looking at the sheer beauty of Honolulu as I had been with the raw poverty in Calcutta. The paradise that was supposed to be my reward for braving India felt empty. The contrast between the two places was simply too great to reconcile,” Towey observes.
Mother Teresa had asked Towey to convey her greetings to her fellow members of the Missionaries of Charity who lived in a Washington convent. One of the nuns invited Towey to volunteer at the soup kitchen run by the sisters; and again he agreed, because he could not come up with a plausible excuse to refuse.
Thus began Towey’s increasing involvement with the Missionaries of Charity and Mother Teresa. Serving at the soup kitchen evolved into his leaving his position with Senator Hatfield to move into a Missionaries of Charity Fathers seminary in Tijuana, Mexico. He met with Mother Teresa during her visits to the United States and corresponded with her when she returned to Kolkata. During the last dozen years of Mother Teresa’s life, Towey used his experience as a lawyer to address such legal issues as immigration documents for sisters moving to the United States and unauthorized use of her name for fundraising or commercial purposes.
Towey’s adoration for Mother Teresa suffuses the book as he recounts the hours she spent daily in deep prayer as well as the cheerfulness and compassion with which she served people in crushing poverty. He notes public highlights, such as her winning the 1973 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. He mentions that Mother Teresa counted a 1986 visit from Pope John Paul II as a pinnacle experience.
Towey gives readers a compelling account of Mother Teresa’s religious growth and the development of her ministries. Nicknamed “Little Flower” as a girl in what is now North Macedonia, she adopted the name of Thérèse of Lisieux, years later becoming Mother Teresa when she took her final vows in 1937.
While teaching geography and history at St. Mary’s Girls’ School on the grounds of her convent in Kolkata, she began to take small sets of students out to care for impoverished people in the city. While praying as she traveled through India by train in 1946, Mother Teresa mystically experienced Jesus saying, “‘I thirst.’” As she listened further, she understood “a specific appeal to slake Jesus’s thirst through works of mercy among the ‘poorest of the poor,’” Towey writes. Subsequent visions confirmed this vocation, and she spent two years convincing her superiors to let her leave the convent and work more directly with those Kolkata residents in profound poverty.
Towey’s retelling of his beloved friend’s persistent dark night of the soul makes the reader want to comfort her.
At the time of Mother Teresa’s death in 1997, her Missionaries of Charity included “3,842 sisters, 363 brothers, and 13 fathers operating more than 650 soup kitchens, health clinics, leprosy centers, and shelters for the desperately poor and sick, in 120 countries, at no charge to those served and with no government funds,” Towey writes.
The book also deals candidly with a painful aspect of her spiritual experience—how she spent decades feeling estranged from God. Towey refers to journal entries and letters that Mother Teresa did not expect to outlive her, some collected in the 2007 book Come Be My Light, by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., to describe her spiritual suffering. In 1959, her confessor advised her to write a letter to Jesus.
“‘In my soul,’ Mother wrote, ‘I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being God—of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies—I have been told to write everything).’” Towey’s retelling of his beloved friend’s persistent dark night of the soul makes the reader want to comfort her. It also reassures believers that even those deeply committed to God’s purposes endure such experiences.
Readers familiar with Mother Teresa’s biography will find fresh meaning in Towey’s account of her impact on his spiritual journey. Those unfamiliar with her life story will appreciate his accessible and gripping introduction.