James Torrens, S.J.
Volume 28 Number Four Winter 2007, PAGES 30-32
The letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta to her spiritual directors, recently published, disclose, to the world’s astonishment, her longtime sense of abandonment by God. Though her directors were my fellow Jesuits, I am halfway persuaded that, for ethical reasons, they should have respected her request to destroy them. What the documents do, now that we have them, is to lead us deeper into that potent phrase we hear at Mass right after the consecration, “The mystery of faith.” In this fourth dimension of our existence, faith, what unimagined highs and lows, adventures, surprises and ordeals, light and obscurity!
In his book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, the postulator of her cause for canonization, does an admirable job of presenting these private messages, and is helpful in interpreting them. Above all he shows the remarkable consistency of this very single-minded religious, a missionary nun of the old school. Her devotion to Jesus centered on the Sacred Heart, as revealed in his passion and continued in the mystical body. Also she talked to her sisters with great familiarity about “Mother,” her childlike way of alluding to the Virgin Mary.
EXPERIENCING THE DARK
Mother Teresa kept insisting that the true reason for existence of the Missionary Sisters was to satiate the thirst of Jesus—his “I thirst” on the cross—for love and for souls. She found herself moved by “one desire, to love God as he has never been loved,” foolish though she felt in saying so. Early on she made a private vow not to refuse anything to God, which she understood to mean to act right away when asked. She was drawn to the “dark holes” of the poor, their hovels without light, and she accepted her own dark hole in identification with them. These themes are constants in Come Be My Light, and in her life.
The constant refrain, when Mother Teresa was baring her soul, was her trial of darkness, the sense of rejection by God. God, who had consoled her so palpably while she was a Sister of Loreto; Jesus whose voice urged her, during her train ride to Darjeeling (September 10, 1946), toward the poorest of the poor; this spouse of her soul left her entirely on her own as soon as Archbishop Périer of Calcutta approved her to start the foundation. God just slammed the door, it seemed. “There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there” (to Father Joseph Neuner, circa 1961).
TRUTHS WE LEARN FROM MOTHER TERESA
Mother Teresa’s story brings home some verities to us. The first is that God, in the exercise of providence, treats each person specially and individually. Mother Teresa was indeed going to love God as no one else had, since there was no other her! Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in Abandonment to Divine Providence, put it this way: “God knows nothing of set rules; he grants grace as pleases him, and to whom he deems fit to accord it.” There cannot be a set pattern, but there is a tremendous logic, which one day gets illuminated. Here in Mother Teresa we find a strong and even commanding personality (like Mother Cabrini, like Ignatius Loyola) on whom the world would heap adulation. She would profit from the strong reminder that it is all God’s work, and God wants her aware of her own interior poverty. In recent history, we have seen all too many charismatic figures become full of themselves and take a heavy fall.
The second verity is that God listens to and takes seriously our personal offerings. Mother Teresa offered herself to share in Our Lord’s passion, and continually urged her sisters to do so, saying, “Love until it hurts.” That was the emphasis of her Christology. Jesus took her at her word. Contemporary spirituality veers away from this focus. Does it do so faint-heartedly?
The third verity is this. The great loneliness felt by Mother Teresa and her spiritual numbness (“Within me everything is icy cold,” 1955), amidst the expansion of her order and her availability to the world, bear out what Scott Peck insisted on in The Road Less Traveled. Infatuation, strong feeling is not where you find love. Love shows itself not in feelings but in the will. “Love is not effortless. Love is an act of will, it is both an intention and an action.” Mother Teresa, “torn between the feeling of having lost God and the unquenchable desire to reach Him” (Kolodiejchuk, p. 180), kept her commitment to the sick, the old and the dying. We may call it love in the dark hole.
What are we to make, personally, of Mother Teresa’s half-century without consolation? It may seem truly a singular phenomenon, but it is not. Any of us who read and pray the psalms recognize her cry of the heart. “Like a parched land my soul thirsts for you” (Ps. 143). Normally the psalms resolve their anguish in an expression of trust, but not always. Psalm 88, which the breviary entitles “Prayer of a person who is gravely ill,” harps on the following theme, “Your anger weighs down upon me:/ I am drowned beneath your waves.” And it concludes, “My one companion is darkness.” Psalm 88 is a song of bitterness. Whoever composed it? Psalm 44 is the voice of a whole people bemoaning to God their helpless disgrace before enemies. We have stayed faithful, they exclaim to the Holy One, “yet you have crushed us in a place of sorrows.” It is a Holocaust psalm, ending up in a desperate call: “Stand up and come to our help!” For how many people around the world today do these psalms speak!
IGNATIUS AND CONSOLATION
The topic, then, in Mother Teresa’s letters is absence of consolation. How, more exactly, are we to take this term “consolation?” For working definition, we have none better than that of Ignatius Loyola in his “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Week One,” of the Spiritual Exercises. “By consolation I mean that which occurs when some interior motion is caused within the soul through which it comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord.” He further explicates: “I include every increase in hope, faith and charity, and every interior joy.” He was very clear always that consolation is gift, pure and simple.
In what we may call his novitiate at Manresa, Ignatius had to endure an alternation of spirits, including the polar opposite of consolation, desolation, times when he found no relish or savor in prayer, in the Mass or even in life itself. His anguishing scruples even tempted him to suicide. But God’s guidance steered him out of this crisis, and his life thereafter was filled with divine favor, so that he could say of himself many years later that consolation prevailed in his life. “It seemed to him that he could not live unless he felt in his soul something that was not his own nor could come from man but only God” (Selectae Sancti Ignatii Sententiae, collected by Pedro Ribadeneira, S.J., in Fontes Narrativi, Vol. 3, p. 635). Thus for Ignatius consolation was as essential as breathing.
How differently God treats those whom he loves, that is to say, everyone. It is quite legitimate and even essential for each of us to pray continually for the action of the Holy Spirit within us. In the words of Psalm 27, for instance, we can say, “Your face, O Lord, do I seek.” We can well pray along with Saint Thomas More: “Take from me, good Lord, this lukewarm fashion, or rather cold manner of meditation and this dullness in praying to you. And give me warmth, delight and life in thinking about you.” How better to sum up the last fifty years of Mother Teresa’s life than with the opening words of Psalm 42, where faith is so palpable: “As the deer longs for streams of water,/ so my soul longs for you, O God.”
A STEADFAST DETERMINATION
Jean-Pierre de Caussade rephrases the teaching of Ignatius in his Rules: “In the states of dryness, darkness, insensibility and interior forlornness, all that we can do is to preserve in the highest part of the soul a sincereand steadfast determination to belong wholly to God.” The picture of Mother Teresa that emerges from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light is of her doing exactly that.
Karl Rahner as theologian and as pastor of souls was deeply conscious of the wintry state of so many minds and hearts in our times. His two essays, “The Experience of Grace” and “The Experience of God,” probe the dynamic force working within us and drawing to itself even those not very conscious of it. He points out that the surest experience of grace is a kind of dogged faithfulness to our Christian commitment amidst discouraging results, a hostile environment, lack of encouragement, our own uncertainties. He would agree with the drift of the fine Time magazine essay, September 3, 2007, which awakened the wide interest in Mother Teresa’s letters. If she is up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, if she goes to Mass eagerly a second time on days when the occasion offers, if she truly hurts from missing God, what else is that but deep faith?
Father James Torrens, S.J., is associate director at the Cardinal Manning House of Prayer for Priests, a place of retreats
and spiritual direction, in Los Angeles, California.