Unwavering Commitment to God and the Dark Night of the Soul

A few years ago, President Rosemary Wixom of the Primary shared a story from the life of Mother Teresa in General Conference:
In a 1953 letter, Mother Teresa wrote: “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such 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.”
Archbishop Périer responded: “God guides you, dear Mother; you are not so much in the dark as you think. The path to be followed may not always be clear at once. Pray for light; do not decide too quickly, listen to what others have to say, consider their reasons. You will always find something to help you. … Guided by faith, by prayer, and by reason with a right intention, you have enough.”
This excerpt is from the book Mother Teresa: Come By My Light — The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk. It’s a wonderful book, telling the story of the founding of Mother Teresa’s order in her own words, through letters back and forth between her and her supervisors. The letters begin in 1928, just before her 18th birthday, with her application to become a nun, and extend to 1994, in the last years of her life. Kolodiejchuk complements this correspondence with useful narrative.

Two major messages stood out to me:

First, this “darkness” that Mother Teresa described in her 1953 letter extended for decades. She had profound spiritual experiences that led her to found her now-famous order, the Missionaries of Charity, in late 1948, but then largely ceased to feel any active connection with God for most of the rest of her life. “Since [19]49 or [19]50 this terrible sense of loss — this untold darkness — this loneliness — this continual longing for God — which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.” In 1961, she asked (as recounted by a spiritual leader), “Why had God abandoned her totally? Why this darkness whereas in her earlier life she had been so close to God?” She prayed, she practiced her faith, but she felt little. Years later, her spiritual advisor wrote, “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–though I never found it so deeply, and for so many years as in her… 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.” Indeed, over time, she and her spiritual advisors interpreted this as a spiritual “participation in the Cross of Christ,” reminiscent of the time that “the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland 2009). (To be clear, Mother Teresa did not quote Elder Holland; I’m using his formulation.)

In the Church, we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and when we take the sacrament, the promise is renewed for participants that “they may always his Spirit to be with them” (D&C 20:77). So I ask myself – and you – is there a place in our doctrine for a “dark night of the soul“?

Second, despite this long-term lack of affirmation, Mother Teresa wrote: “I bound myself under pain of Mortal Sin not to refuse Him anything.–Since then I have kept this promise–and when sometimes the darkness is very dark–& I am on the verge of saying ‘No to God’ the thought of that promise pulls me up.” She concluded, “Let Him do with me whatever He wants…for as long as He wants. If my darkness is light to some soul–even if it be nothing to nobody–I am perfectly happy–to be god’s flower of the field.” As her biographer summarizes, “In the deepest darkness, when the longing for God was almost unbearable and she found herself on the verge of saying ‘No,’ Mother Teresa affirmed she was constantly united with God.” In other words, Mother Teresa’s commitment to God was not conditional on continual affirmation. She wanted to feel God’s presence, she longed for it, but she also trusted him, even after years of not feeling his presence. I admire that perseverance, like what Lehi asked for Laman in the Book of Mormon, to be “continually running into the fountain of all righteousness,” and for Lemuel, to be “firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord.”

Mother Teresa wrote, “I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.”

The book has all of the stories of tireless service and the words of wisdom that you’d expect from a biography of Mother Teresa. I recommend it.

16 comments for “Unwavering Commitment to God and the Dark Night of the Soul

  1. I never thought I might have a personal understanding of Mother Theresa until this post. I feel presumptuous even saying that much. Thank you for this post.

  2. A heart-wrenching book with applications for believers far beyond Catholicism. Thanks for sharing your review, David. Great examples with both Elder Holland and Lehi.

    I initially came upon “Come Be My Light” doing research for a book. What initially led you to the book?

  3. Don’t believe the mythos surrounding Mother Teresa. She was a complete fraud; nothing but a marketing ploy for the Catholic church. She endorsed dictators, gave horrible medical care to patients, and engaged in all sorts of mismanagement. If you were a sick person in West Bengal, you were much, much better off finding medical care somewhere other than Mother Teresa’s filthy, unsanitary death houses where fools pretty much just went to die because of the inadequate care given to them. Instead of raising money to spend on actually improving health care in India, she raised money to promote her image and preach against the so-called “evils” of abortion.

    The only positive thing about Mother Teresa is that she has served as the inspiration for humanitarian causes around the world. But she herself was no saint.

    Think I’m trolling or wrong? There are no end to criticisms of her online. You can start here: http://nouvelles.umontreal.ca/en/article/2013/03/01/mother-teresa-anything-but-a-saint/

  4. Brandon,
    Praise or criticism aside, there is something to be said for someone who persists in the struggle against darkness inside of them.

  5. Kurt: I encountered the book because of President Wixom’s comments in conference. I’m glad that I did.

    Brandon: The objective of the post is not to laud (or critique) Mother Teresa’s work in general, but rather to explore this characteristic of a “dark night of the soul” and commitment despite feeling a lack of spiritual connection. I remain impressed by much of her work, despite the online article you shared.

  6. David, I saw your reference to President Wixom at the beginning of the post. That’s great it was her talk that inspired you to seek after the book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your last several posts have been especially thought-provoking.

  7. Brandon, I think it’s often useful to distinguish between intents and consequences. I’m sure Teresa had good intents. I think it undeniable that in terms of practical effects getting the Indian government to have made economic changes would have had far, far more effect. This seems one of the great paradoxes of economics that intents don’t matter as much as we think. Indeed often rather evil intents can lead to very good consequences. I think this was something Adam Smith sought to understand at the dawn of economics. Since then I think we’ve found that while intents can matter, things are much more complicated in practice.

    I just don’t know enough about the person of Teresa to have much of a view on her spirituality or intents though. However The Economist obituary acknowledged most of the points you raised. It’s worth quoting from to see if that critique really holds against her.

    Mother Teresa admitted, in a famous series of BBC interviews, that she was not really doing all that much to ease the lot of the poor in India. The editor of the Lancet, visiting her Home for the Dying in 1994, reported that stocks of medicine were insufficient, and that not enough was done to cure the sick or ease the pain of the dying. But Mother Teresa believed it was not “things” her patients needed; they needed to feel wanted, and to die at peace with God. The secular view of death, as something to be resisted, met, in Mother Teresa, the religious view that death should be joyfully surrendered to. Neither side could hope to understand the other.

    Whether or not that is praiseworthy can be debated. In any case, there was nothing stopping others from trying to change the practical life of the poor in India by adopting better economic policy and instituting safety nets.

  8. While serving a LDS mission in Italy, I served weekly at a caritas run by her order in Napoli. I honestly don’t know how the bureaucracy works and to what degree the service stemmed from Mother Theresa, but there were times we provided both spiritual and temporal service that had a significant impact on the residents. No matter who ran the organization, it was humbling to help those in such dire need.

    There was also a bossy nun who was disappointed with the adequacy of my bed-making skills. Every week, she would come and check on my progress, literally rip the sheets off the bed, give me a stern talking-to about the need for hospital corner, and tell me to start over. I still have a bit of fear and trembling when I make my bed each morning…

  9. I understand this well but it isnt an all the time feeling. There are times when it seems like the darkness is so thick with no escape. The peaceful part is knowing that it too will pass and then a brighter day begins to shine. The war goes on between light and darkness. Its up to us to find peace in that turmoil, finding joy in the journey.

  10. The only time I’ve felt a true darkness liked described here, it was linked to depression. Which makes me wonder about other’s experience. Is a piece of our spirituality connected to the chemical state of our brain? From my experience, I’ll vote yes.

  11. Which is more important: “truth will prevail”, or, “faith will prevail”? In other words, which is more important to YOU: the truth, no matter what it is, or your faith?

    If your answer is “faith”, why then do Christians need apologetics?

    When I tell Christians that I believe that it is it is wrong and foolish to believe any truth claim “by faith”, they complain. “You obviously don’t understand the word ‘faith’. We all use faith in many areas of our lives.” What is the typical evangelical Christian’s definition of faith: Faith is trust based on past performance. It is faith in a person, not so much the claims about that person. It is based on personal knowledge of that person gained by personal experience.

    Skeptic: But don’t you believe that faith is a gift from God as the Apostle Paul claims in his Epistle to the Ephesians?

    Christian: Yes. The faith that leads us to personally grasp hold of the promises God made to us in Christ Jesus is something that is given to us.

    Skeptic: So if we combine these two statements we have this: Faith is trust based on personal knowledge about someone (or some thing); a personal knowledge that is given to us as a gift from God.

    Isn’t this statement saying that it is impossible to believe in Jesus as one’s god unless Jesus has gifted you the knowledge (about him) to believe? If that is true, what is the point of Christian apologetics? If only God can flip the switch in the human heart (brain) to believe, why do Christian apologists go to such lengths to debate evidence in an effort to convert skeptical non-believers? And why do Christian apologists accuse skeptics of being biased against “good” evidence, when what they really believe is that no amount of good evidence will ever convince the skeptic to believe in Jesus as his or her Savior? If faith is truly a gift from God, debating evidence is pointless.

    So why do Christian apologists persist in doing it?


  12. Those in the Constantinian Christian tradition tend to see mortality as a necessary evil, a “veil of tears.” As I was growing up LDS, I received a similar impression from the adults I observed. When I read the statement from the Book of Mormon “men are that they might have joy,” it was, no pun intended, a revelation. I thought it amazing that the purpose of human existence was joy, not suffering.

    If that is true, then alleviating suffering on earth was a godlike exercise. Imagine how I reacted when I read the words of King Benjamin, who said just that. So, we minister to the sick and the afflicted to their relief. Mother Teresa came from the perspective that relief was really spiritual, not temporal, hence the shape of her manner of service. But do we who supposedly understand King Benjamin do better at caring for the poor than Mother Teresa? Are the poor lifted up? Are the lonely comforted? Do the sick and afflicted have proper care?

    When some people in the U.S. sought, whether appropriately or not, to make health care more affordable for supposedly everybody, others took to the streets in opposition to what they considered a great evil. I am not persuaded that humans are altruistic, but self-serving creatures. Perhaps our purpose on earth really is to learn and live charity. Mother Teresa did what she could within the constraints of the biases she was raised with. If I supposedly know better, then what is my excuse for not helping it happen?

  13. Kurt: Thank you!

    Clark: I think your take is correct. Mother Teresa’s mission was explicitly palliative. Most of the critiques leveled at her fail to take this into account. And I agree that it’s an interesting dilemma to consider, whether we judge ourselves by our desires or by outcomes.

  14. How interesting to hear about this side of Mother Teresa! Of course one wonders, as she wondered, whether this might not be a sign of something wrong in her life or in her psychology. I don’t know enough about her to say more. But Nephi writes about his encounters with darkness: “O wretched man that I am!” Joseph Smith, thankfully, got a visit from Moroni in response to one of his dark night moments. Elijah, of all people, has a real doozy. And Christ on the cross . . . So, sometimes a deep sense of darkness is a sign that something is right about our orientation to the world.

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