A Friend of God

Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta(Doubleday, $22.95) is a disturbing book, one that has become a lightning rod for commentators of every stripe, from believers to unbelievers. Can it also be read as a consoling book? I believe so, though the consolation is not “cheap grace.”

Edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. (postulator for Mother Teresa’s cause), the book offers a selective but comprehensive look at the inner life of Mother Teresa from her early life in Skopje, Albania, to her death in Calcutta. For her early life the editor relies on Mother Teresa’s memories, written or spoken much later in her life. But for the experiences that led to the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, and for the experiences of darkness that take up most of the book, we have notes she gave to her spiritual directors and letters she wrote to them and to other correspondents. In modern times only Blessed John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul is comparable, but the latter has no hint of the kind of darkness suffered by this equally admired blessed of the 20th century.


Father Kolodiejchuk has done an admirable job, clearly a labor of love that must have cost him a great deal of soul-searching. In his commentary and notes he has tried to clarify for a general audience the meaning of terms used by Mother Teresa and her correspondents, and to provide commentary to guide the general reader to a Catholic understanding of what Mother Teresa was experiencing.

“If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven—to [light] the light of those in darkness on earth.” The editor takes this statement, from a letter written by Mother Teresa in 1962, as a sort of mission statement around which he organizes the book. Light and darkness run through the documents and letters of Mother Teresa, along with a desire to help the poor as a missionary that she first experienced at the age of 12.

The first two chapters cover her life up to the call to found the Missionaries of Charity. Born in 1910 in Albania, she entered the Loreto Sisters, an Irish congregation devoted to education, when she was 18. Her desire was to spend her life in Bengal, India, where she did her novitiate and taught school for the next 20 years. We get a hint of the light-darkness theme to come in a 1937 letter written to her former confessor in Skopje: “Do not think that my spiritual life is strewn with roses…. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion ‘darkness.’... But do not, however, think that I am only suffering. Ah no—I am laughing more than I am suffering.”

In 1942 she “made a private vow to God, binding under mortal sin, to give to God anything He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’” This vow, at the time known only to her confessor, explains much of her life, including the painful separation from Loreto demanded by her “call within a call” and the way she ultimately came to terms with the darkness of heart, mind and soul she experienced for most of the last 50 years of her life.

Chapters 3 through 7 reveal the “call within a call” that began with her experience on Sept. 10, 1947, during a train ride to Darjeeling: the call from Jesus to found the Missionaries of Charity. We read her notes of the conversations between her and Jesus that took place then and in the days following. Jesus insists on the need for a congregation of Indian nuns who would live and work with the poorest of the poor of Calcutta. Teresa resists the call and begs not to have to do this. Jesus reminds her of her vow and says: “There are convents with a number of nuns caring for the rich and able-to-do people, but for my very poor there is absolutely none. For them I long—them I love—Wilt thou refuse?” “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light.”

The “voices” raise a question for me, and perhaps for others: Do they ring true as being the voice of Jesus? Jesus speaks in a language that sounds a bit stilted, even histrionic, to our ears. Any new experience of God, however, will be colored by the prior experience and expectations of the recipient. So Mother Teresa’s experiences are colored by her personality and background, by the spirituality she had read and been taught and by the way religious language was written and spoken at that time. But as I read the words attributed to Jesus, something rang true, namely his thirst for souls, his love for the poorest of the poor and his assessment of where the resources of the church are often expended. If the Missionaries of Charity had not come into being, who would have cared for the unwanted dying beggars of Calcutta or, for that matter, of any of the great cities of the world where the followers of Mother Teresa now serve? What also rang true, of course, was Mother Teresa’s understandable reluctance to take on this assignment, both because she loved being a Sister of Loreto and because Jesus promised her many sufferings.

In this section we also read of her dealings with her spiritual director at the time, Celeste Van Exem, S.J., who helped her to make religious sense of the experiences, and with Ferdinand Perier, S.J., the archbishop of Calcutta, who had to make the decision about the authenticity of her “call within a call.” These chapters end with permission being given for Mother Teresa to leave the Sisters of Loreto and, under the direction of Archbishop Perier, to begin what she refers to as “the Work,” the founding of the Missionaries of Charity.

Chapters 8 through 13 cover the rest of Mother Teresa’s life, from 1948 when the Work began until her death in 1997 at the age of 87. While the Work grew by leaps and bounds, Mother Teresa experienced a deep darkness of spirit almost from its beginning. This is the part of the book that has drawn the most attention, deservedly so because it raises the deepest questions about God’s ways and Mother Teresa’s sanctity. Her first days in the “holes of the poor” were very difficult. She began to feel what it was like to be one of the poor and suffered such loneliness that she had to beg Jesus: “Let me not draw back from the sacrifice I have made of my free choice and conviction.”

In 1953, Mother Teresa confessed to Archbishop Perier that “there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’ Ask Our Lord to give me courage.” She confided her darkness to Perier and Van Exem and then to a string of other spiritual directors, looking for help. These chapters contain heart-rending descriptions of her inner suffering, many written at the request of her spiritual directors because she had difficulty articulating verbally what was going on. This difficulty may have come from her reticence to say what she was feeling, or from the inability of her directors to receive the full brunt of what she was suffering without flinching. Citations of her complaints and inner suffering abound. In America (9/24), for example, James Martin, S.J., cites a number of these agonizing prayers and descriptions.

These raw prayers and cries of anguish are painful to read. Yet they represent much of what she confided to her spiritual directors and indicate the leitmotif of light and darkness highlighted by Kolodiejchuk at the beginning of the book. As Mother Teresa became Jesus’ light in the holes of Calcutta, it seems, the light in her heart was extinguished. And yet, even when she speaks of loss of faith, she expresses an amazing trust and selfless love of God.

In 1961 she confided in Joseph Neuner, S.J., and in a long letter detailed her darkness of spirit. He assured her that she was on the right path, that it was “simply the dark night” for which “there is no human remedy.” Such darkness, he said, can only be borne in trust in God’s hidden presence, and the sure sign of God’s hidden presence was her thirst for God. She wrote to him: “For the first time in this 11 years—I have come to love the darkness—for I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth.” From here on, it seems, she is able to see the darkness as a participation in the suffering of Christ, much as Paul did: “All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings, in growing conformity with his death, if only I may finally arrive at the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 2:10-11). Neuner testified that he had never encountered a dark night that had lasted so long. In fact, as far as I know, no known saint has ever suffered such a lengthy darkness.

In her letter to Neuner she writes of experiencing the presence of God in her ministry. “When outside—in the work—or meeting people—there is a presence—of somebody living very close—in very me—I don’t know what this is—but very often even every day—that love in me for God grows more real—I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously most strange tokens of love.”

Both this statement and what Neuner told her reminded me of someone for whom I am spiritual director. She, like Teresa, experiences God’s presence in the very painful circumstances of her ministry, but often finds God strangely absent when she prays. I once wondered with her whether she was experiencing some of God’s own pain in the situations of her ministry. She recalled that God had said to her, “We need to trust one another more.”

We can only attempt to illuminate what is a mystery known to God alone. Sometimes I fear that all our explanations try to defend God or faith in God, and, in the process, denude faith of its often stark reality. Readers of Mother Teresa’s revelations will realize what faith in and love of God can cost even a saint. Many of us may take more seriously St. Teresa of Avila’s supposed complaint to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.” Come Be My Light is not a book for the fainthearted. It will, however, encourage all who find God’s ways mysterious and the way to God as often dark—which is more than likely the majority of us. Moreover, we have an example of a saint who could voice her complaints strongly to God. I hope that Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors told her that her complaints, even apparent “blasphemies,” were devout prayers of trust in God.

It seems possible that some of God’s closest friends are invited to such intimacy that they even share the agony of the seeming abandonment by God that Jesus experienced on the cross and, perhaps too, the pain of God at what human beings do to one another.

Mother Teresa came to that conclusion and even expressed this to her sisters. In addition, she came to see her experience of feeling unwanted by God as a sharing in the unwantedness of those whom she and her sisters served for the love of Jesus. It is a terrible price to pay for closeness to God. Mother Teresa was willing to pay it. God only knows how many others are willing.

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