The Vatican has officially announced that Mother Teresa will be canonized a Saint on September 4, later this year. This is incredibly joyous and meaningful news for me; the woman many see as a servant of the poor first and a powerful, albeit small, world changer second is for me an example of what it means to live the faith and love Jesus when all spiritual consolations and feelings of happiness are stripped from us in this life.
Several years after her death, Mother Teresa's private letters and writings became accessible to the public, and people were astonished at what they read. Where they expected to find reflections on loving Jesus and caring for him in the poorest of the poor -- which they did, of course, find -- they also found admissions of a dreadful and decades-long Dark Night of the Soul. It was revealed that Mother Teresa not only labored in love, but labored in the silence and darkness of a soul which felt torn from grace.
In a letter from 1961, the soon-to-be-Saint wrote: "Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can't explain."
Mother Teresa's crumbling joy and apparently constant wrestling with believing have dubbed her, for some, an atheist, but a closer reading of her letters, bearing in mind the struggles we all -- believers, that is -- so often face depicts a separate story. Where skeptics and agnostics find in her words the familiarity of doubt, believers who struggle with depression, with spiritual dryness, or other emotional, psychological, or spiritual calamities find the familiar face of anguish -- of longing for God and, in the absence of his felt presence and response, a certain bitterness, and not only a bitterness in attitude, but in taste and in feeling. It is a sour thing, we sense, for God to allow us to feel abandoned, and it is a sour thing for the soul to feel abandoned.
She once wrote of her experiences: "I did not know that love could make one suffer so much . . . of pain human but caused by the divine. The more I want him, the less I am wanted. 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. They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God . . . In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. That terrible longing keeps growing, and I feel as if something will break in me one day. Heaven from every side is closed. I feel like refusing God. Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness."
As Christians, we know that bad things happen, and bad people exist, in spite of God's goodness. It can often seem to us that God permits these things to spite his own goodness, and occasionally -- or, for some of us, frequently -- that these things happen not in spite of or to spite God's goodness, but as what tastes to our souls and our hearts like the spite of God himself.
Few people understand this feeling so well as Mother Teresa did. Every morning, she trudged into the streets of Calcutta, dampened by tears and darkened by death. She witnessed firsthand what longing looks like; she understood the poverties of the soul like a second language -- a language she translated to others from the poverty of the body she buried herself in for her whole life.
There are those who may die and meet God face-to-face and find their souls plunged, headfirst, into the hell they prefer to him and his glory. And there are those who may die and meet God face-to-face and feel the weight of glory press upon them with increasing joy, until their joy is completed, as promised by Jesus.
And then, there are souls like Mother Teresa, who have spent their earthly life struggling, sick, and dying on the sidewalks and in the alleyways of human suffering, longing for healing that never seems to come, until Someone comes along, bends down, and picks them up off the side of the road, carries them home, and binds their wounds with love.