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Mother Teresa: Incarnate Theologian of Advent's Longing

“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."[1]

 

This statement by Mother Teresa has inspired my writing a three-part series of blog posts, the purpose of which is to consider her legacy as an incarnational theologian—i.e., a person whose life communicates something noteworthy about God—focused by considering how her life frames faith, hope, and love as theological virtues.

 

I began this project because I had been going through my own bout of inner darkness, and had been searching for resources on spiritual sustenance in the midst of faith trials. When I ran across the above statement by Mother Teresa, coupled with a brief account of her long-term battle with doubt, I figured, “Who better to teach me about navigating the dark than the world’s most famous modern-day saint?”

 

As nearly always happens when we draw close to real persons, when I dug into Mother Teresa’s life and writings[2] I discovered a woman far more complicated than the mythos that generally surrounds her and abstracts bits of her life into sermonic quips and sentimental memes. I encountered a “saint of darkness,” indeed: not only one who willingly struck out into the unknown, who embraced those living in agony, but also one whose incarnate theology is sometimes cloaked in the darkness of ambiguity.  

 

For instance, as observed in my first post, while Mother Teresa’s passion for Christ and his presence among the poor is nothing short of inspirational, her writings also exhibit a distressing fixation on the crucifixion as a call to self “immolation”—a sacrificial burning—before God. That fixation raises at least two red flags: first, such a framing of the Christian vocation has an ugly history of abuse—that is, of being used in service of sustaining abusive power relations—and thus begs for nuance that Mother Teresa never attempts. A second point of concern, considered in post 2, is that she was evangelical in this belief, teaching her converts in Calcutta’s slums to embrace their suffering for the glory of God.[3]

 

Flagging these aspects of Mother Teresa’s embodied theology opens into questions about the role of suffering in the Christian life—questions that she leaves unanswered. What are the necessary costs, and what is the proper place of freedom and joy, in a life of service to a crucified God? Granted, Mother Teresa doesn’t leave her reader entirely directionless on these fronts. As my first two posts also attest, she specifically believed that our necessary “immolation” before God is nothing less than the purging of our willfulness to resist God’s purposes, which purposes alone are the source of real freedom and joy. She thus maintained that one must choose “a life of sacrifice . . . fervor and generosity”[4] so as to draw close to the heart of God. And while she taught her converts to praise God in the midst of suffering, she also endeavored to treat each human being with “dignity,” to offer them “relief” from their suffering, and so to “bring joy to [their] lives,”[5] in hopes that they would fall in love with God and experience the blessedness of heaven—fragmentarily in this life, and fully in the resurrected life to come.

 

Mother Teresa.jpg

One could argue, then, that Mother Teresa’s commitment to and love for God were not defined by suffering for suffering’s sake, but rather that she embraced suffering because she was compelled by an expectant hope: hope for her own transfiguration, and for the eventual transfiguration of the whole of creation. In this sense, we might call her an incarnational theologian of Advent, her life serving as a living exposition of pregnant longing for the appearance of the Messiah.  

In framing Mother Teresa this way, I don’t intend to “rescue” her from her darkness. On reading her writings, one can’t avoid the fact that she could hardly find joy in her lived expressions of faith unless they involved great hardship. Her understanding of joy and suffering in the life of faith thus remains ambiguous.

 

Interestingly, there was one trial, one “darkness,” which she felt she could not bear, and which plagued her for years with only brief windows of relief. It was a distinct, unrelenting sense of having been abandoned by God.

 

“Pray for me,” she wrote to her confessor, Father Neuner, in the midst of this trial: “pray that I may have the courage to keep on smiling at Jesus. I understand a little the tortures of hell—[of being] without God. . . . I find no words to express the depths of the darkness.”[6]

 

In a prayer she later penned, she attempted to put words to that darkness: “I am alone. Unwanted, forsaken. The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable.—Where is my faith? Even deep down . . . there is nothing but emptiness and darkness.  . . . If there be God, please forgive me.”

 

Father Neuner later said the following regarding his response to Mother Teresa:

My answer to [her confession] was simple: there was no indication of any serious failure on her part which could explain the spiritual dryness. It was simply the dark night of which all masters of spiritual life know[7] . . . There is no human remedy against it . . . The sure sign of God’s hidden presence in this darkness is the thirst for God, the craving for at least a ray of His light. No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart.”[8]

 

In turn, Mother Teresa responded with acceptance, articulating her deepened sense of vocation: “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.”

 

This statement is, indeed, noteworthy, because it discloses how she came to inhabit her own sense of being unwanted by God: not as a sign of God’s absence, but rather as a graced means of sharing in the experience of destitute persons, those all too well acquainted with the unbearable loneliness of the heart that wants love.

  

*          *          *

 

Those who agree with me that Mother Teresa’s theology of bodily suffering remains ambiguous are probably those who think we should work to resolve the world’s misery rather than fetishize it as a direct line to godliness. But I think Mother Teresa’s embraced “absence from heaven” compels us toward a renewed vision of our distress. “Jesus was sent by His Father to the poor,” she wrote, “and to be able to understand the poor, Jesus had to know and experience that poverty in His own Body and Soul. We too must experience poverty if we want to be true carriers of God’s love.”[9]  

 

To put it otherwise, how can we embrace “a life of sacrifice . . . fervor and generosity”[10] in the face of other persons’ pain when we haven’t come to terms with our own darkness, our own unbearable ache for love? 

 

In this way, Mother Teresa teaches us about the calling of Advent. Pregnant waiting is typically depicted as full of light, joy, and hope. But every woman heavy with child also knows the anxieties that infuse expectation of a new birth. Likewise, the season of Advent calls us to anticipate celebrating the birth of the Messiah, with much joy—and it also draws us into longing for the Second Coming, for the day when mothers will never again labor in vain or bear children for tragedy (Isaiah 65:23).

 

Our saint of darkness presses us against the fact that, as we wait, sometimes the only sign of God’s presence is our shared thirst for God, our collective yearning for the divine light.


[1] Mother M. Teresa, M.C., to Father Joseph Neuner, S. J., March 6, 1962.

[2] I gained the most from reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2007).

[3] She has been stringently critiqued for this feature of her work. See for instance English journalist Christopher Hitchens’ reflections in the following article: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-debate-over-sainthood/

[4] Mother Teresa quoted in Kolodiejchuk, 33.

[5] Ibid., 44.

[6] Ibid., 172.

[7] Neuner is referring to what is called “the dark night of the soul” in the Roman Catholic spiritual tradition. The “dark night” is a stage in the person’s spiritual development where she experiences a prolonged sense of desolation and the removal of God’s comfort. I have reflected some on my own interest in that tradition here: https://www.tokensshow.com/blog/on-mothers-day-and-the-dark-night-of-the-soul-an-atypical-tribute

[8] Quoted in Kolodiejchuk, 214.

[9] Ibid., 234.

[10] Ibid., 33.

 

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Lauren Smelser White

Nashville, TN

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