Although the sainthood cause for Blessed Mother Teresa is still under way, many already consider her to be a saint due to her world-renowned work with the poor and infirm.
People are just beginning to learn, however, that this humble and devout woman –for years one of the most well-known figures in the Catholic Church — struggled for nearly 50 years with what she described as a spiritual emptiness.
At first glance this revelation may make Mother Teresa seem like a hypocrite; indeed, she herself often feared this might be true, according to the recently released book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. In this book, however, Missionaries of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk — who is the postulator for Mother Teresa’s sainthood cause — uses the nun’s own letters to her spiritual directors to paint a portrait of a woman who clung to her faith blindly, even when it seemed God had abandoned her.
Mother Teresa had always maintained a deep prayer life and close relationship to God, but around the time she founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1948 she began experiencing a “terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God,” according to Come Be My Light.
“In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss — of God not wanting me — of God not being God — of God not really existing,” Mother Teresa wrote in a 1959 letter to a spiritual director. “No light or inspiration enters my soul … in my heart there is no faith — no love — no trust.”
Regardless of the pain and separation Mother Teresa felt, she continued to pray constantly and serve the poor throughout the world as her order grew exponentially.
Come Be My Light received much media attention when it was published in September. In several magazine articles, atheists referred to Mother Teresa as a hypocrite, while others interviewed praised her for her unwavering faith.
“Her letters remind us that … fidelity does not depend solely on feelings or emotions,” James Martin wrote in an article in America magazine.
Faith is trust
Indeed, Mother Teresa’s experience was not so much a loss of faith as a loss of feeling, noted Father Joseph Hart, a diocesan vicar general and moderator of the diocesan Pastoral Center in Gates. Mother Teresa could not feel God’s love for her, but she continued to love him with what the Greeks termed agape, he said. This kind of love is seen when one continues to love another not because he or she feels strong, loving feelings, but because he or she has chosen or vowed to love that person.
Mother Teresa persevered, loving and dedicating herself to God even though she could not sense God’s presence or consolation, he said.
“Many of the greatest saints have experienced this, but what’s so astounding for those who have studied the lives of the saints is that Mother Teresa’s seems to be one of the most prolonged … periods without consolation,” he said. “Here is somebody who despite the internal feeling of nothing continues to pour out the love of God.”
Although Mother Teresa occasionally doubted herself and her faith, she never stopped spreading God’s love and doing his work, and she continued to trust in and submit to God’s will, according to Father Kolodiejchuk’s book.
“Faith is not a knowing, it’s a trusting. It’s a putting oneself completely in God’s hands … for some, even though (they) feel nothing,” Father Hart noted.
Kathleen Rimlinger said she knows what it means to trust God amid such circumstances. Thirty-two years ago her 9-year-old daughter Eileen was killed.
“She darted out in front of a car, and she never came to. It was the worst nightmare of our lives,” Rimlinger said.
Even as she prepared to go to the hospital, the words “Thy faith will sustain thee and make thee whole” kept running through her mind. Although she was heartbroken, she said she trusted in God and placed herself and her family in his hands.
“In those early days I felt God took her … and I was OK with that. When I had my children, I always said a prayer offering that child up to God, kind of like Abraham and Isaac, but not ever wanting that to happen,” Rimlinger said.
Her understanding of the accident has since changed, and she now views it as just that — an accident.
“I don’t believe God causes it. I know God gets us through those things,” she said. “The sisters in school used to talk about grace of the moment. I thought it was pie in the sky. I didn’t know what that meant. When Eileen died, I learned what that meant.”
Not everyone responds to a tragic loss the way Rimlinger did, however, according to Cathy Spoto, founder of the Ministry of Consolation at Rochester’s Cathedral Community. The ministry supports people who are grieving the loss of loved ones.
“When someone experiences a loss, either they may say, ‘It’s my faith that gets me through,’ or they may say, ‘My faith is being tested,'” Spoto said.
Through the Ministry of Consolation, Spoto tries to create an environment in which people feel safe enough to explore their doubts, and sometimes even anger at God. It’s important for people to recognize and express these feelings, she said, so they can begin to communicate with God about them, the same way they’d communicate with a friend with whom they were having problems.
Rimlinger said she has met many people who have lost children and are angry at God. Sometimes people feel guilty about harboring such feelings, but she said she thinks God wants people to be authentic and express their feelings.
The people who wrote the Psalms many years ago were not afraid to express their feelings of anger, disillusionment or impatience with God, noted Father James Hewes, parochial administrator of St. Joseph Parish in Rush. They knew their writings were a safe place to express their feelings, and were not afraid to share their feelings with God.
Yet humans have been hiding such feelings since the time of Adam and Eve, Father Hewes noted. When they realized they were naked in the Garden of Eden, they hid from God in embarrassment.
“When we’re going through a crisis or difficulty, we can tend to hide from God, to pull back from God,” Father Hewes said. “If you hold back something, that prevents you from moving on.”
When people feel angry with God, doubtful about their faith or somehow separated from God, they should first try to discern the source of this separation, Father Hewes said.
“If it’s (the anger or separation) coming from God, I can do anything I want to and it’s not going to change it. If it’s coming from me, maybe something in my past or something I’m struggling with, then I can do something about it,” he said. “That’s why discernment is so important, and you can’t do it by yourself.”
Someone hoping to discern the cause of such a separation should enlist the help of a spiritual director — a prayerful and spiritual good listener who can model God’s love and acceptance to the person as he or she brings out feelings of disillusionment or rage, he said.
Mother Teresa relied on her spiritual directors to help her overcome her doubts and realize that, although she could not feel God’s love, he was working through her, Father Hart said.
Mother Teresa’s faith was built on a very strong foundation, which is key, noted Deacon Robert McCormick, chaplain at St. James Mercy Hospital in Hornell. Deacon McCormick often deals with people who have lost loved ones, and said that while they sometimes briefly doubt their faith or become impatient, in the end they always realize that everything is in God’s hands and happens in God’s time.
“If they have a strong faith then I think they can always rely on that. If they have a faith that’s built on just sand, then that’s going to fall,” Deacon McCormick said.
The Bible encourages people to pray persistently, even in the darkest of times, Deacon McCormick added.
“It’s what Mother Teresa did. She just persevered in her prayer,” he said.
People also may be able to stave off doubts by holding on to positive faith experiences, Father Hewes said. Most people experience times when they feel God’s presence and love with absolute certitude.
“When we’re in crisis, what we need to do is go back to remember those experiences,” he said.
He recalled a priest friend who’d had many such positive experiences, but then was forced to watch his mother suffer a slow death in a nursing home.
“He said, ‘I’m not going to deny those experiences of God’s love of me, and on the other hand, I’m not going to deny this experience now where God seems cruel and distant. Faith helps me hold these two realities,” Father Hewes said.