Since I last wrote about Mother Teresa I have gathered enough information to write an in-depth article about her. However, that is not the purpose of this blog. Instead, I will restrict myself to the subject of the dark nights she experienced as part and parcel of her own special contemplative journey.
In an article titled ‘Atheists attempting a show of strength’ written by Jacqueline L. Salmon of the Washington Post, published by the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper of 9-23-2007, the writer quotes Christopher Hitchens as saying: “She (Mother Teresa) couldn’t bring herself to believe in God, but she wished she could.” And Jacqueline L. Salmon indicates that reading the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, “has led some high-profile atheists to say her spiritual wavering was actually atheism.”
Reading this article reminded me of how I felt when I learned in Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, that he thought that Albert Einstein was basically a pantheist. And that “Pantheism is sexed-up atheism.” (P. 18) I had always thought that Einstein was religious by nature, but that he did not believe in a personal God. After reading Dawkins’ book I did not know what to think about Einstein and so I suspended my judgment until I got more information. After reading about what the modern atheists have to say about Mother Teresa, and deciding that what they said is very questionable, I now look back on Dawkins’ comments about Einstein with more skepticism.
My reading of the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, convinced me that, in no way whatsoever, was Mother Teresa an atheist. Yes, she did suffer from doubts about the existence of God. But who hasn’t? As a matter of fact, in his excellent article in Time magazine, dated 8-23-2007, David Van Biema quotes James Martin, S.J. as saying he feels that as a result of this book Mother Teresa will have a new legacy, and that “It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”
As I thought about Mother Teresa, the one big question that kept coming to my mind was “Why did God allow her to suffer such a prolonged dark night?” One of the answers may well be in Fr. Martin’s reference to a new ministry.
The classic definition of the mystical night of the soul is given by John of the Cross in his book, The Dark Night. He divides the dark night into two spiritual purgations. He calls the first part the Night of Sense and says that those who undergo this night are no longer "beginners" in the spiritual journey. John of the Cross says that they are starting on the way of the "progressives" which is the beginning of the contemplative state.
He calls the second part, the Dark Night of the Spirit. John of the Cross indicates that the dark night of the spirit does not usually commence until some period of time has elapsed following the night of sense. He states that during this period the soul experiences "morsels" of this dark night but they do not last very long. He calls these morsels "dark contemplation" and says of them that they "are never as intense as is that terrible night of contemplation...into which, of set purpose, God brings the soul that He may lead it to Divine Union."
In the Introduction to the Ascent-Dark Night in the book, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by K. Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and O. Rodriguez, O.C.D., they outline the main aspects of the passive purification or dark night of the spirit. One point that they make gives us an insight into Mother Teresa's words that she felt "unwanted" and "unloved" by God. In the Introduction they write these profound words: "The knowledge this contemplation accords generates the feeling of being abandoned by God and by creatures and deprives the soul of the connatural satisfaction it ordinarily obtains in the actuation of its faculties."
The Spiritual Marriage between the soul and God, usually occurs when the dark night of the spirit is over. Based on my reading of Mother Teresa’s letters, I can only speculate about when this spiritual marriage/transforming union took place in her life. But I certainly think it did. To me, the most likely time would have been before she undertook her ministry to the poor in founding the Missionaries of Charity. The subsequent dark nights that she experienced for approximately 50 years, right up until her death in 1997, most likely were not the purgative nights of the spirit to which John of the Cross refers to as being preparatory for this transforming union with God. Rather, it seems to me that this almost continual dark night of the spirit served three primary functions. First, it had to increase the effectiveness of her mission to the very poor and needy of this world. And secondly, as I quoted above from James Martin, S.J., Mother Teresa's letters may well be the beginning of an equally important mission for her "to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives." Thirdly, I think God used this very prolonged spiritual night to raise Mother Teresa to an even more sublime state of union with Himself.