Mother Teresa: A Dark Spiritual Life and Love of The Poor

Mother Teresa’s spiritual life and her love and care of the poor are seamlessly interwoven in her life, each inseparable from the other. This is one of the key lessons that I draw from her life. Let’s begin with her spiritual life. The story of her life in this regard is that of an initial burst of joy at her calling to the religious life followed by only a few years of feeling fulfillment at having made that choice. At one point, however, she lost the sense that Jesus was alive in her life. Indeed, from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s, she lived a life of intense and unrequited longing for the presence of Jesus. Her letters, compiled and commented on by various authors, including her confessor, reveal her life in spiritual darkness as she herself stated: “I want to love him as he has not been loved, and yet there is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.”  

This experience of a spiritual desert, of living without feeling the comfort of a loving nourishing God is nothing new to spiritual writers. Indeed, as St. John of the Cross writes, every soul wishing for union with God must live through a dark night:  “But neither from these imperfections nor from those others can the soul be perfectly purified until God brings it into the passive purgation of that dark night. . . however greatly the soul itself labors, it cannot actively purify itself so as to be in the least degree prepared for the Divine union of perfection of love, if God takes not its hand and purges it not in that dark fire.” Although everyone seems to be called to some such spiritual darkness, forty years of life in a dark fire is an extreme measure, even by the standards of the saints.

Most people did not know the depths of desolation felt by Mother Teresa in her spiritual life because they saw her easy way with people, especially the poor, and the joy in her motherhouses, which saw young women flocking to join in such numbers that they sometimes had difficulties in providing enough beds. Regarding the joy of the sisters, a story comes to mind. In 1991, we had a Benedictine College student work in Mother Teresa’s AIDS house in New York City, helping the sisters as they comforted the dying. Andrew said that he was completely drained after two weeks of volunteering there, but the sisters were joyful when they came to dinner and even comforted him in the evenings. The difference was that they were living a deeply prayerful, spiritual life, which filled them with the love of God which they turned around and shared with the AIDS patients. Such are the fruits of Mother Teresa’s work, abounding love for the suffering of the world.

She willed one thing, to love Jesus as he had not been loved. Such purity of heart was rewarded, not with personal consolation, but with a profound spirit of compassion which allowed Mother Teresa to identify from the depths of her soul with the wounds of the vulnerable, the dying and those who were cast aside on the streets of Calcutta and around the world. Fr. Meinrad Miller of St. Benedict’s Abbey tells me that Mother Teresa used to talk often of slaking the thirst of Christ and that every time we helped a poor person, we were giving drink to Jesus on the cross.

The following story, told by Mother Teresa, has stuck with me since I first encountered it:

 “I will never forget one day when I picked up a woman out of a garbage bin. She was burning with fever, actually near dying at that moment. She kept saying, “My son did this to me, my son did this to me!” She did not think of her sickness or her pain or her burning fever. No. “My son did this to me!” I took her to our home for the dying, and we took many hours to help ease her pain. We cared for her. Before she died she was able to say, “I forgive . . . my son.” Thank God that before she died she found the peace to say that. But till that time the pain in her heart of being unwanted by her own child overwhelmed her physical suffering. That taught me much.

What a trust it is for God to place suffering people in our hands! It is a sacred vocation for us all, sacred because each of them is a life that God has created in His own image. Today, in this world, God has made us to be His love and compassion. We become His love as we pray and as we come to see His face in the lonely eyes of others.”

Mother Teresa, by living a deep spiritual life of longing for God’s love, was able to bring that very spirit of God’s understanding love to those most desperately in need of it without fully experiencing that love herself. By living the life of compassionately reaching out to the poor – even while suffering deeply herself, she has inspired millions to be the love and compassion of God. Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest who wrote the best-selling My Life With the Saints, concluded: “She moves into the ranks of the greatest saints. There are very few who have suffered such an extended dark night.”

Rick Coronado

Benedictine College