Saint of the Darkness: an interview with the promoter of Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood
Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Canadian member of the Missionaries of Charity, was the official postulator for the canonization of Teresa of Calcutta, who will be declared a saint on Sept. 4. He is the editor of Come Be My Light, a collection of her letters and notebooks published in 2007, in which Mother Teresa’s struggle with decades of interior darkness was revealed. Father Kolodiejchuk is also the editor of a new collection of her writings, A Call to Mercy, published in August by Image Books. In an interview with James Martin, S.J., he spoke of her early mystical experiences and her struggles with the “dark night.”
Father Brian, congratulations on the canonization of Mother Teresa. I’d like to talk with you about her “dark night.” Can you tell us how that first came to light?
Thank God the Jesuits had the foresight to save those documents! They were mostly from Father [Celeste] Van Exem, her spiritual director in Calcutta during those years of the inspiration and following. Plus Archbishop Périer, the archbishop of Calcutta, who was also a Jesuit, and then the Jesuits who came later—Father [Lawrence] Picachy, later Cardinal Picachy and then Father [Joseph] Neuner.
They saved the documents. We didn’t realize they were there until the work began of collecting the documents, even before the actual process began. When we checked the archives of the Jesuits in Calcutta and the archbishop’s house in Calcutta, the letters came to light.
These letters became part of the process itself, and once that happened, it was only a question of time when they would be revealed—either now or, say, 50 years later, when archival material is revealed. But one of the nine theologians who looked at the positio—the life, virtues and reputation of holiness—suggested they be published. Actually, the archivist of the Calcutta Province used some of them in an article in Review for Religious, and Father Neuner had also written something, using some of it. So I thought the best thing would be to give all of what we had on the darkness. So Come Be My Light has everything, minus one or two letters that came after.
She had never spoken to you about these experiences, is that correct?
That is one thing that she never spoke about, and very deliberately. The sisters, or even I, would ask about the “inspiration”—Sept. 10 —and she would say nothing; only if the pope in obedience told her to say something. It was so sacred to her. So she managed to be a very public person yet at the same time was able to keep this experience hidden. Father Van Exem told one of the Jesuits in Calcutta, who told one of our priests that Father Van Exem had five boxes of materials. Mother kept pressuring him to destroy all those things. Now I’m sure that her perspective is different!Thankfully, they had the sense to keep those, because they reveal a very important part of Mother Teresa’s own holiness and an important aspect of the Missionaries of Charity charism. We want to be in solidarity with the materially poorest of the poor, but when she came out to the West, more and more she would say that the greatest poverty in the world today was to be unloved, unwanted and uncared for. And that was her own experience.
Paradoxically, she was so united to Jesus that he could share with her his greatest sufferings in the Garden, and the sense of abandonment on the cross, as other saints had. The unique part of that darkness connected to Mother Teresa is this. St. Thérèse’s experience [Thérèse of Lisieux] was more in the context of a trial of faith. And in the late 1800s and early 1900s that was the big question—of faith and the meaning of atheism. But this modern poverty of being unloved, loneliness, which Mother Teresa was experiencing, that is a kind of spiritual poverty as well.
Could you describe the kinds of mystical experiences that began her ministry?
The beginning, Sept. 10, which we call Inspiration Day, we thought of as a one-day thing, a special call. But we realized that it was only the beginning. Even then, when she wrote, she didn’t say precisely what happened on Sept. 10. In that first letter she says what’s going on—she’s hearing very clearly and distinctly the voice of Jesus, beginning on the train on Sept. 10. Then she’s going to Darjeeling for her retreat. So that continues. Even in the months later, in every Communion Jesus keeps asking: “Wilt thou refuse?”
That is connected to [an event] that no one had any idea of, which is that four years earlier she made a private vow to give Jesus anything he would ask, or, to say it another way, not to refuse him anything. So especially in the second letter where there is more of a sense of dialogue. The first thing Jesus is saying is: “Wilt thou refuse?”
“So, okay,” [Jesus says, in essence], “you told me four years ago you’re going to refuse nothing and now I’m asking you to do this. You’re going to refuse?”
Be careful what you promise Jesus!
As you understand it, these locutions were auditory, which is rare in the lives of saints. Is that accurate?
They were in the imagination. They weren’t external, like an apparition or anything. But they were very clearly and distinctly not part of, say, her morning meditation. Even she called it “the voice.” She said it was very clear, very distinct.
The dark night comes rather soon after her ministry begins. As far as you know, because it is somewhat unclear in Come Be My Light, that lasted until her death. Is that your understanding?
That’s my understanding. There’s one moment that’s been recorded in the book, in 1958, when Pius XII dies and, like we still do when a pope dies, the bishop will have a Mass praying for the repose of his soul. At that Mass, Mother Teresa asked for a sign that Jesus is pleased with the work of the Missionaries of Charity. And at that moment, the darkness is lifted. She simply says that Jesus simply gave himself to me to the full—although the union, the sweetness of those six months, passed much too soon.
I want to share with you a story and get your reaction. A bishop who was one of her spiritual advisors told me a story. He said he was discussing with her dryness in prayer one day, and she was relating how she didn’t feel God’s presence. The two of them were in Calcutta. Just then, a young boy came up and threw his arms around her. And he said to her, “That’s God’s presence, too.”
Which brings me to a question I’ve always wanted to ask you: Do you think possibly that her early formation, in a sense, encouraged her to privilege the interior movements over the exterior signs of God’s presence? Because when I read the diaries and letters, I sometimes want to say to her, “Are you looking outside of you?” Is there a sense of that?
That’s a good question. One of the comments she makes in one of her letters is that, thinking especially of her prayer time, she says, “When I’m on the street I can talk to you for hours.” So there is some sense that all these experiences are more on the level of feelings. For example, she’ll say, “I know my mind and my heart bounce back to Jesus.”
So she’s united with him more by will than, say, by pure faith. She sees all around her the whole work is spreading, it’s growing. She’s seeing the fruitfulness of it, and she sees people reacting. She’s seeing the generosity of those who are helping her. So for her, that also has to be God’s presence, and God’s work.
So she does see that. On the other hand, I’ve always wondered that maybe her mystical experiences early on were so beautiful, she simply craved them again, as anybody would.
Strangely, people have said, “Who were the spiritual directors, and why weren’t they helping her more?” It wasn’t until Father Neuner in 1961 gives her an insight and says, “This is a spiritual side of your work.” So that lights the bulb, as Father Neuner said later on. So that helped her. It was still painful and difficult, but at least she had some meaning to it, to be associated with Jesus’ own suffering, and interior suffering especially. She used to comment that she thought Jesus suffered more in the Garden than in the physical suffering on the cross, and now we have an idea why she was saying that.
Thank God for good spiritual directors.
For me, all this vaults her into the category of one of the greatest saints ever, because the other saints did these great works with the poor but with consolation.
And she’s doing it on an “empty tank.”
Right. We around her would think, “It’s not easy being Mother Teresa,” with the demands—even on an airplane people are approaching you, wanting to talk, asking for a signature or a blessing. So you would think at least she’s enjoying this rich interior life to keep her going. And then we find out the opposite.
It’s astonishing. I like what you said about her being a model for today. It’s interesting that God would give her the graces that were needed for today but also invite her into the suffering that many people today are suffering.
We know that saints are raised up for a particular time, for the times in which they are living. So that’s one of the reasons why Mother had that experience. Was it because of such a widespread phenomenon, this way of spiritual poverty? Even if you’re materially rich, or in any class of life, it is a really common experience of modern life. We go so fast, and family life isn’t the same, so it is much easier to have that kind of experience of loneliness, of being unwanted and uncared for, seemingly.
By way of closing, can you tell us what it was like to be with her, what she was like personally and what she meant to you?
Well, I knew her in the last 20 years of her life, so I had the more mellow version of Mother Teresa! [Laughs.] At the beginning, she was always very demanding, of her sisters especially. But what was really striking was how really motherly she was. Everyone who knew her even briefly would call her Mother, and the sisters would call her Mother and so to all the people close to her she was just Mother. She really wanted to be that maternal presence—that’s one of the striking things.
The other was just how ordinary she was. Sometimes, if you didn’t know what she looked like and you were in the convent, she wouldn’t be sticking out in any way, unless you noticed how she would do those little things, like a genuflection or taking the holy water when you enter—the little things that you could say was a special way she did those things. She was a realist saint with her feet on the ground, very practical, very observant. You couldn’t get anything past her. At meal times she would notice what sisters were eating, what sisters were not eating, what was said, what kind of mood you’re in—she was very observant!
Like a good mother.
Can you describe your feelings about the upcoming canonization?
Humanly speaking, one thing is a sense of satisfaction that it’s happening after these years of working and waiting. But I think the more positive thing is that now throughout the whole church Mother can be more formally prayed to—public veneration, we say. So now even stronger, her example, her message for our own time, can be even greater, stronger, more widespread.
Also, the other part of a saint is that they pray for us. At the very beginning of the book there is a kind of mission statement: “If I’m going to be a saint, I’m going to be a saint of darkness, and I’ll be asking from heaven to be the light of those who are in darkness on earth.”
So that mission will continue. And that will continue even more strongly now.