Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”
reviewed by Denyse O’Leary
Over a decade ago, almost unnoticed in the frenzy around the death of Princess Di, Mother Teresa, 87, slipped away. Like Di, she was an international icon, but unlike Di, she was sparing of personal information. Last fall, her letters to her spiritual directors—letters she had wanted destroyed—were published as Come Be My Light, in support of naming her a saint.
Written over the course of half a century, they illuminate the mystical experiences that led her to found the Missionaries of Charity, reaching out to the poorest, least loved people. They also first revealed to the world the personal cost.
The reactions were predictable: Atheists claimed her trials as support for their views. Christopher Hitchens, who has written much against her (“a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”), insisted in Time that “she was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.”
Some Christians merely asked, “So? Who doesn’t have bad days?” But Mother Teresa had hardly any good days for fifty years, and that requires some explanation.
A Harrowing Revelation
Light is a harrowing revelation of a dark, dense, decades-long night of the soul, interspersed with biographical details provided by her postulator for sainthood, Brian Kolodiejchuk. The evidence vindicates neither Hitchens nor believers in the tranquil plaster saint for sale at the variety store. It reminded me most of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.
Actually, Mother Teresa had a marked capacity for happiness. As a young nun in Calcutta in the 1930s, she sometimes felt like Jesus’ “spoiled bride” at Nazareth, far from Calvary. She was deeply troubled by the fact that her convent catered to Europeanized middle-class girls amid an ocean of misery.
Then, famously, on a 1946 retreat, she had a series of “interior locutions” (visions) in which Jesus (“the Voice”) showed her throngs of desperately poor people and pleaded, “Come, come, carry me into the holes of the poor. Come be My light.” When she hesitated, the Voice gently reproached her: “You did not die for souls—that is why you don’t care what happens to them.”
The Voice also warned of suffering, to be endured in blind trust: “You will suffer and you suffer now—but if you are my own little Spouse . . . you will have to bear these torments on your heart. . . . Trust me lovingly—trust me blindly.” Despite the radical nature of the call, the Voice suggested no risk of failure, only of disobedience.
Mother Teresa, of course, obeyed, and her work throve. It seems that Jesus gave her precisely what she asked: a share in his real work and experience in this world. That seems to have included the real level of consolation he often gets.
Yes, she found the suffering hard. It is a wonder that she lived and was faithful until 87 years old. Her suffering came mainly in the form of intense interior agony: Not only had she no more visions, she did not even have the conventional sense of doing God’s work that uplifts pious people. “The darkness is so dark and the pain is so painful,” she wrote at one point.
It must be said that she had formidable conventional hardships as well. In 1948 she was removed from her position as school principal because her relationship with her confessor was suspect (in fact, she was seeking confidential guidance regarding the visions). After the Iron Curtain descended on Albania that same year, she also lost contact with her beloved mother, who believed her dead. And the hard life of a Missionary of Charity would, in any case, deter most people.
Her Dark Night
Mother Teresa’s doubts were emotional, not intellectual. She did not suffer a crisis of faith in the conventional sense. She was rarely tempted to rebel. Rather, she poured herself out for the most needy for decades in the absence of any personal consolation.
She believed that her suffering related, in the divine economy, to the fruitfulness of her work. That view is comprehensible within the mystical tradition to which she was attracted, however puzzling or repellent it might appear in other lights.
One clue is provided by the name she chose when she became a nun. (She followed the tradition of choosing a new name for herself in the spiritual life, as a way of stating her mature intentions.) She chose to name herself after the Carmelite Thérèse of Lisieux, “the little flower” who died of tuberculosis in her mid-twenties.
That, she explained, was because she did not presume to name herself after the great sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic, Teresa of Avila. It was another Carmelite mystic, John of the Cross, who from his own experience coined the term, “dark night of the soul.” All these people—later declared saints and Doctors of the church—suffered much, though none lived anywhere near as long in a state of suffering as Mother Teresa.
It is hard to think of anyone in the late twentieth century who had a similar impact in drawing worldwide attention to society’s “disposables.” Mother Teresa had such enormous influence because she was so wholly given over to a mystical view of life. There is immense power in the ability to grasp the heart of the matter.
Liberation theologians and social justice Catholics offer valuable insights, to be sure. But today, as I write this, it is the nuns in the white saris and cheap grey parkas who look after the poorest people in my own parish in downtown Toronto.
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