Mother Teresa, Selflessness, and a Dark Night of the Soul


“Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defense of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded,”

“She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. She made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created.”

– Pope Francis, September 2015

Mother Teresa, canonized on September 4th by Pope Francis, is one of the most enduring images of the Roman Catholic church, and one of its best-known members either living or dead. While everyone knows of her dedication to serving the poor and destitute of Calcutta, India, not everyone knows the spiritual struggle that she endured at the very time her new order took root and grew, even as she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. She endured the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943 that left 3 million Indians dead, and the gruesome riots of Hindu/Muslim violence in 1946, which would be enough to darken the outlook of anyone – much less a religious who’s original calling was to teach.

In her biographies, this dark night is often skipped over, as uncomfortable chapters often are. Yet, to do so is dishonest, for it is in that despair and loneliness that she attained her greatest achievements. It was the same for her patron saint, St Thérèse of Lisieux, and for St. John of the Cross whose own dark night of the soul lasted 45 years. Mother Teresa never sought to convert adherents of another religion to the Catholic faith. She gave people in their final days and hours a place to die. Her order today runs orphanages and hospices in countries all over the world. Even in the darkness that tormented her, she sought to give others hope, to express love for them and to drive back the darkness in the world.

In America, we live in a darkness often of our own creating. We blind ourselves willfully by adhering to things that we think make us who we are – a football team, a school, a political party, or some other markers of identity. Part of taking up a vocation is the leaving behind of a worldly identity and taking up a new one that is devoted only to God and Christ – even in the spiritual darkness that causes one to doubt not only God but one’s own self and everything you thought you were. Despite this darkness and the pain it caused her, Mother Teresa started a revolution. One needn’t agree with all of her stances, but her voice was a strong one, condemning those who looked down upon those in poverty even as they created the conditions that cause and perpetuate it.

We cannot walk in her sandals, through some can too readily understand the dark night of the soul. It is a respectful suggestion that we look at the words of hope that Mother Teresa had for the world, and take them to heart. We can lift ourselves and others from darkness, acknowledge the dignity and essential humanity of one another, and work to make the world a better place. Mother Teresa changed the world by bringing light into some of the darkest, most hopeless places on earth, to some of the most bereft and scorned people on earth. At first, she did it alone, and then her vision spread to others, and then to the rest of the world. While we cannot carry her burdens, we can carry her light, and honor her dedication to her vision of love.


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