The Agony of Mother Teresa

This week, the world was shocked by revelations about the inner life of Mother Teresa. Recently published letters to her confessors and superiors reveal that for the last fifty years of her life, while she was selflessly giving the Love of God to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, inwardly she was not feeling His Love at all. While she was beaming that beatific smile in public, in private she was telling her confidants that the smile was “a mask,” “a cloak that covers everything.” While her outer life was apparently full of light and love, she described her inner life as “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness,” and “torture,” so hellish that she even expressed doubts about the existence of God. What are we to make of this? Of course, no one can know exactly what is in another’s soul. That being said, I believe A Course in Miracles can shed some helpful light on this.

The letters are published in a book entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk. They tell a story of ecstatic communion with Jesus at the beginning of Teresa’s mission followed by years of apparent abandonment by him. Her calling to her life’s work came in 1946 when she heard Jesus say to her, “Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come be My light.” Teresa had visions of Jesus, and later wrote, “Jesus gave Himself to me.” Yet once her mission actually began, this ecstatic communion dried up, never to return (except briefly for five weeks in 1959). The excerpts from her letters are simply heartbreaking. A few examples:

[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.

I spoke [to others] as if my very heart was in love with God—tender, personal love. If you were [there], you would have said, “What hypocrisy.”

What do I labour for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

[Addressed to Jesus]: Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love—and now become as the most hated one—the one—You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One.—Alone… Where is my Faith—even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness—My God—how painful is this unknown pain—I have no Faith—I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart—& make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

What is going on here? A number of theories have been offered. Not surprisingly, atheist Christopher Hitchens (who wrote a scathing book about Mother Teresa years ago) claims that this was simply a matter of Teresa waking up to the recognition that there is no God, but being unwilling to accept that fact because it would render her whole life meaningless. Psychologist Dr. Richard Gottlieb suggests that perhaps Teresa unconsciously pushed God away from her as penance for the sin of pride that arose from her great outer success.

Then there are various spiritual explanations, including one presented to her by the Rev. Joseph Neuner, one of her many confessors. Teresa had long yearned to imitate Christ through imitating his passion: “I want to…drink ONLY from His chalice of pain” [her emphasis]. “I am willing to suffer…for all eternity, if this [is] possible.” Neuner suggested to her that her very experience of Jesus’ absence was his answer to her prayer to share his passion, an experience that echoed his own cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus’ absence was thus actually part of the “spiritual side” of her work with him, and the very intensity of her love for God, even if apparently unrequited, was a “sure sign” of His “hidden presence.” These words comforted Teresa greatly, enabling her to integrate the darkness into her life. She wrote to Neuner: “I can’t express in words—the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me—for the first time in…years—I have come to love the darkness.”

What would A Course in Miracles say about all this? It touches on so many Course themes, especially our perverse attraction to guilt and pain. But here, I want to focus on one Course theme that really jumped out at me as I read this account. According to the Course, two contradictory drives exist side by side in all of us. One is “your intense burning love for God and His for you” (T-13.III.2:8), the pull of which “is so strong that you cannot resist it” (T-13.II.1:2). The other is the ego’s relentless drive for autonomy, a drive so strong that we would rather die than give it up (see T-13.III.5:3). These drives are mutually exclusive; giving in to our burning love for God means letting go of the ego forever. Therefore, as long as we remain identified with the ego, we will unconsciously do everything we can to deny and push away the God Whom we love. The Course tells us that this denial is actually indirect evidence of our love for Him: “You denied Him because you loved Him, knowing that if you recognized your love for Him, you could not deny Him” (T-10.V.6:3). This constant tug of war between our love for God and our denial of that love leads to an experience common to spiritual seekers everywhere: Though we profess great love for God, we rarely actually experience Him to any significant degree. We want Him to come to us, even plead for Him to do so, yet it seems that He is nowhere to be found.

This sounds a great deal like what Mother Teresa experienced. She professed a burning love for God and Jesus that seemed to border on obsession; she once said, “I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before.” If the Course is right, then the core of her love was genuine, a love that all of us feel for God deep down. But she had an ego like the rest of us, so alongside her love of God must have been that drive for autonomy that animates the ego. Therefore, though outwardly she was saying of Jesus, “The more I want him—the less I am wanted,” underneath that was something different: The more she wanted him, the more her ego wanted to push him away. The Course’s teaching on this makes me wonder if the very intensity of her conscious love for God actually increased the intensity of her unconscious denial of God. At any rate, it may have been this dynamic that led to the agony she described.

The point of all this is certainly not to pass judgment on Mother Teresa, whom I admire greatly and consider one of the great lights of the world. I share Kolodiejchuk’s amazement that she was able to extend the love of Christ so fully even though she wasn’t experiencing that love for herself. Apparently, Helen Schucman struggled with a similar problem; Jesus once said to her, “You have taught well, and yet you have not learned how to accept the comfort of your teaching” (T-16.III.1:2, Urtext version). We all wrestle with some version of this, do we not? We all face situations where we are called to love and serve and teach, even when we ourselves feel dry and empty inside. The fact that Mother Teresa (and Helen) could do this so well gives hope to us all.

Yet the good news of the Course is that we don’t have to suffer God’s absence. God is always available to us, a fact for which the Course has us offer prayers of gratitude: “And let me not forget my hourly thanksgiving that You have remained with me, and always will be there to hear my call to You and answer me” (W-pII.232.1:3). Our elder brother Jesus assures us, “I am not absent to anyone in any situation” (T-7.III.1:8). Why not let Them all the way in? Jesus once gave a promise to Helen that I imagine he must have given to Mother Teresa as well, even if she never heard it: “Though you seemed to suffer for it, the joy of teaching will yet be yours” (T-16.III.7:3). May we all learn to extend the Love of God as Mother Teresa did, and may we all learn to experience the joy of that Love for ourselves.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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