Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul

As with many who went on to become saints, Mother Teresa also experienced darkness and suffering, writes Andrew O’Connell

There has been speculation in recent weeks that Mother Teresa will be canonised next year, during the Year of Mercy. Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003, Blessed Teresa is largely remembered for her work with the destitute and dying.

But since the publication of her personal letters and journals in 2007, we have a much deeper insight into her spiritual life. We now know that she experienced the dark night of the soul for lengthy periods of her life. In 1962 she even wrote: “If I ever become a saint – I will surely be one of the ‘darkness’.”

It was commonly assumed that she experienced great consolation from God in order to support her mission to the poorest of the poor. Instead, she experienced a painful sense of being abandoned by God. Even though this allowed her to identify with Christ at the crucifixion and the alienation experienced by the poor whom she served, the experience was severe and dark. In 1958 she wrote, “I did not know that love could make one suffer so much”.

This ‘experience of the night’ is understood as a grace in the mystical tradition, but it is accompanied by loneliness, suffering and a devastating lack of consolation.

An American priest, invited to give a retreat at the Mother House in Kolkata, describes how, during a Holy Hour one evening, Mother passed him a note: “Father, please pray for me – where is Jesus?”

It is not uncommon for saints to experience these lengthy periods of darkness in their spiritual lives. We know well that Thérèse of Lisieux and John of the Cross suffered through periods of aridity and emptiness. In contrast, St Francis de Sales, wrote that he never went more than 15 minutes without experiencing God’s presence.

Mother did experience a moment of respite though: during Mass in the cathedral in Kolkata, she had a moment of illumination: “There and then disappeared that long darkness , the pain of loss – of loneliness – of that strange suffering of 10 years.”

Once when asked, “Are you married?” she playfully replied: “Yes, and I sometimes find it very difficult to smile at my spouse, Jesus, because he can be very demanding.” 

If Mother Teresa is indeed canonised next year, we would do well to expand our understanding of the ‘Saint of the Gutter’ to include this significant dimension of her spiritual life. The Dominican, Fr Paul Murray, who knew Mother Teresa, has written a beautiful, slim, volume, I Loved Jesus in the Night, which would be ideal for personal or group study and would form the basis of many fruitful discussions and reflections. 


Supporting priests

St Joseph’s Young Priests Society’s 2014-2015 annual report is impressive. The society funds the priestly formation of 700 students around the world of whom 114 are in Irish colleges. In addition, 159 students funded by the society were ordained to the priesthood last year, of whom 20 were Irish.

The society is well established around the country with 411 branches and, although membership is experiencing a decline, the report indicates the amount of money raised increased year-on-year. 

An interesting feature of the society’s structure is the ‘vocational branches’. These include professions such as teachers, insurance and even the ‘Licensed Trade’.


Emptying Churches According to a recent report, a quarter of the Church of England’s 16,000 churches have fewer than 20 worshippers on a Sunday. In rural areas, the average attendance is 10 people. It raises the obvious question of what will become of the buildings. The decision goes beyond issues of pastoral theology: finance is the challenge. Tiny congregations simply cannot afford to pay the upkeep. 

Some are exploring the option of ‘festival churches’ which open only at Christmas, Easter and other occasions. Other church buildings have incorporated post offices and coffee shops in the building. Over 20 churches have closed each year over the past two decades in England.  

The long-term solution involves growing the congregations. More about a success story in that regard next time.