By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Book Reviewer | Published October 25, 2007
MOTHER TERESA: COME BE MY LIGHT; edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.; Doubleday, 2007; 404 pp.; hardbound; $22.95.
This is a compelling book. It already has attracted hearty media attention from atheists who have pounced eagerly upon the revelations made by Mother Teresa about her years of spiritual darkness.
“Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” consists mainly of letters from Mother Teresa to her spiritual directors, and it is important to point out that her mention of God’s absence doesn’t show up until page 149.
Her earlier letters reveal the suffering she endured in trying to establish the Missionaries of Charity. Since she already belonged to another religious order at the time, she had to request special permission to leave that order and create another.
This meant proving to the archbishop that the voice she had heard calling her to work among the poor was that of Jesus Christ.
The archbishop was a cautious man, and he needed sufficient time to reflect on what she believed was a divine mission.
“Wilt thou refuse?” Jesus kept asking her, while the archbishop kept telling her to wait.
It was a trying time, but she was sustained by her unusually close relationship with Christ. As her spiritual director wrote in a letter to the archbishop, “I knew that Our Lord had raised that nun to the state of higher prayer.”
He added that her “union with Our Lord has been continual.”
In the media frenzy that ensued following the recent publication of Father Brian Kolodiejchuk’s book, no one has mentioned the intense form of prayer that Mother once enjoyed.
The vast majority of believers never experience such a gift. And it is highly likely that one reason Mother Teresa later felt such a severe longing for Christ was that she once had savored this rare and beautiful union, which makes other prayers seem pale by comparison.
Critics have seized upon her letters that began in 1953. To Jesuit Archbishop Ferdinand Perier, she complained of darkness and loneliness, “as if everything was dead.”
She wrote pitifully, time and again, of feeling God’s absence.
In 1958, however, she had a reprieve: For a month, she experienced, once again, an “unbroken union of love” with Christ and a great sense of love and joy.
After that, she descended again into spiritual darkness, which lasted many more years.
One priest comforted her by assuring her that the terrible darkness she was experiencing was “the special share she had in Jesus’ passion.”
She later wrote to him: “I just have the joy of having nothing—not even the reality of the Presence of God. No prayer, no love, no faith—nothing but continual pain of longing for God.”
In another letter, she confessed, “If I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
A letter she wrote in 1964 reveals that Mother Teresa recognized the danger of relying on emotions in her relationship with God. “I accept not in my feelings—but with my will, the Will of God.”
Worse than the darkness, she admitted, was her “terrible longing for God.” Father Kolodiejchuk, a Missionary of Charity priest, believes that she was experiencing Jesus’ thirst on the cross.
It is no surprise that atheists have misunderstood her letters. The mystical notion of sharing in Christ’s passion, so essential to Catholicism, is not easily put into a sound bite. And for those who lack faith in Christ, it is a meaningless concept.
The book reveals that, for many years, Mother Teresa endured another private suffering.
Over and over, she begged her spiritual directors to destroy her personal letters. Her request was denied, however, because the clergy believed that the letters belonged not to her but to the Missionaries of Charity and, ultimately, to the world.
It is highly possible that Mother Teresa feared that one day her words would be taken out of context and twisted by the secular world. And readers may wonder: Since this is exactly what happened, should the clergy have granted her fervent requests to destroy the letters?
In truth, many people have idealized Mother Teresa to the point of believing that she was superhuman. The letters reveal that she was a living and breathing human being who suffered and doubted, but never abandoned Christ.
True, her letters may continue to be used as fodder by atheists eager to deny God’s existence. But the letters also may give hope to other followers of Christ who endure similar spiritual darkness.
Her heartfelt letters ultimately may prove what Mother Teresa herself predicted: that if she became a saint, she would have the special mission of bringing light to those in darkness on earth.
She could not have realized it then, but that is exactly what her letters will do.
Lorraine V. Murray is the author of three books on spirituality available on her Web site, www.lorrainevmurray.com. Readers may e-mail her at email@example.com.