The ‘Atheism’ of Mother Teresa

What happened after Mother Teresa said her Yes to the divine inspiration that was calling her to place herself at the service of the poorest of the poor?
The world knew well all that happened around her — the whirlwind development of her charitable activities — but until her death, no one knew what happened within her.

That is now revealed by her personal diaries and her letters to her spiritual director, published by Doubleday, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of her death, under the title: Mother Theresa. Come, Be My Light.

Some have completely misunderstood the nature of these writings, thinking that they oblige us to reconsider the personality of Mother Theresa and her faith and holiness. Far from undermining the stature of Mother Theresa’s holiness, these new documents will immensely magnify it, placing her at the side of the greatest mystics of Christianity.

Jesuit Father Joseph Neuner, who knew her, has written, “With the beginning of her new life in the service of the poor, darkness came on her with oppressive power.”

A few brief passages suffice to give an idea of the density of the darkness in which she found herself: “There is so much contradiction in my soul, such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual — yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. ... Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place.”

It was not difficult to recognize immediately in this experience of Mother Teresa a classic case of that which scholars of mysticism, following St. John of the Cross, usually call “the dark night of the soul.” Tauler gives an impressive description of this stage of the spiritual life:

“Now, we are abandoned in such a way that we no longer have any knowledge of God and we fall into such anguish so as not to know any more if we were ever on the right path, nor do we know if God does or does not exist, or if we are alive or dead. So that a very strange sorrow comes over us that makes us think that the whole world in its expanse oppresses us. We no longer have any experience or knowledge of God, and even all the rest seems repugnant to us, so that it seems that we are prisoners between two walls.”

Everything leads one to think that this darkness was with Mother Teresa until her death, with a brief parenthesis in 1958, during which she was able to write jubilantly:

“Today my soul is filled with love, with joy untold, with an unbroken union of love.”

If, from a certain moment, she no longer speaks about it, it is not because the night was finished, but rather because she got used to living with it. Not only did she accept it, but she recognized the extraordinary grace it held for her.

“I have begun to love my darkness for I believe now that it is a part, a very small part, of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

The Silence of Mother Theresa

The most perfumed flower of Mother Teresa’s night is her silence about it.

She was afraid, in speaking about it, of attracting attention to herself. Even the people who were closest to her did not suspect anything, until the end, of this interior torment of Mother.

By her order, the spiritual director had to destroy all her letters and if some have been saved it is because he, with her permission, had made a copy for the archbishop and future Cardinal T. Picachy, which were found after his death. Fortunately for us, the archbishop refused to acquiesce to the request made also to him by Mother to destroy them.

The most insidious danger for the soul in the dark night of the spirit is to realize that it is, precisely, the dark night, of that which great mystics have lived before her and therefore to be part of a circle of chosen souls.

With the grace of God, Mother Teresa avoided this risk, hiding her torment from all under a constant smile.

“The whole time smiling — sisters and people pass such remarks — they think my faith, trust and love are filling my very being. ... Could they but know — and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery,” she wrote.

A Desert Father says: “No matter how great your sufferings are, your victory over them is in silence.”

Mother Teresa put this into practice in a heroic manner.

Not Just Purification

But why this strange phenomenon of a night of the spirit that lasts practically the whole of life? (The same happened to Padre Pio of Pietrelcina: he was convinced throughout his life, that stigmata were not a sign of predilection or acceptance on the part of God but, on the contrary, of his refusal and just divine punishment for his sins!)

Here there is something new in regard to that which teachers of the past have lived and explained, including St. John of the Cross. This dark night is not explained only with the traditional idea of passive purification, the so-called purgative way, which prepares for the illuminative and the unitive way.

Mother Teresa was convinced that it was precisely this in her case; she thought that her “I” was especially hard to overcome, if God was so constrained to keep her such a long time in that state.

But this was not true.

The interminable night of some modern saints is the means of protection invented by God for today’s saints who live and work constantly under the spotlight of the media. It is the asbestos suit for the one who must walk amid the flames; it is the insulating material that impedes the escape of the electric current, causing short circuits.

St. Paul said: “And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

The thorn in the flesh that was God’s silence preserved Mother Teresa from any intoxication, amid all the world’s talk about her, even at the moment of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

“The interior pain that I feel,” she said, “is so great that I don’t feel anything from all the publicity and people’s talking.”

How wrong author and atheist Christopher Hitchens is when he writes “God is not great. Religion poisons everything,” and presents Mother Theresa as a product of the media-era.

But there is an even more profound reason that explains why these nights are prolonged for a whole lifetime: the imitation of Christ.

This mystical experience is a participation in the dark night of the spirit that Jesus had in Gethsemane and in which he died on Calvary, crying: “My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?”

Mother Teresa was able to see her trial ever more clearly as an answer to her desire to share the sitio (thirst) of Jesus on the cross: “If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation give you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus, do with me as you wish. ... Imprint on my soul and life the suffering of your heart. ... I want to satiate your thirst with every single drop of blood that you can find in me. ... Please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.”

It would be a serious error to think that the life of these persons was all gloom and suffering.

Deep down in their souls, these persons enjoy a peace and joy unknown by the rest of men, deriving from the certainty, stronger than doubt, of being in the will of God. St. Catherine of Genoa compares the suffering of souls in this state to that of purgatory and says that the latter “is so great, that it is only comparable to that of hell,” but that there is in them a “very great contentment” that can only be compared to that of the saints in paradise.

The joy and serenity that emanated from Mother Teresa’s face was not a mask, but the reflection of profound union with God in which her soul lived. It was she who “deceived” herself about her spiritual status, not the people.

By the Side of the Atheists

The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything: They too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit.

Albert Camus called them “the saints without God.” The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they “sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them” (see Luke 15:2).

This explains the passion in which certain atheists, once converted, pore over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot on those of Julian of Norwich.

There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. Few know that Samuel Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, the most representative drama of the theater of the absurd, in his free time read St. John of the Cross.

The word “atheist” can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who — at least so it seems to him — is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow or of expiation.

In the latter sense, we can say that the mystics, in the night of the spirit, are “a-theist,” that Jesus himself on the cross was an “a-theist”, without-God.

Mother Teresa has words that no one would have suspected of her: “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. Jesus please forgive the blasphemy.”

But one is aware of the different nature, of solidarity and of expiation, of this “atheism” of hers:
“I wish to live in this world that is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them — to take upon myself something of their suffering.”

The clearest sign that this is an atheism of a completely different nature is the unbearable suffering that it causes to the mystics. Normal atheists don’t torment themselves because of the absence of God.

The mystics arrived within a step of the world of those who live without God; they have experienced the dizziness of throwing themselves down. Again, Mother Teresa who writes to her spiritual father: “I have been on the verge of saying — No. ... I feel as if something will break in me one day. ... Pray for me that I may not refuse God in this hour — I don’t want to do it, but I am afraid I may do it.”

Because of this the mystics are the ideal evangelizers in the post-modern world, where one lives etsi Deus non daretur (as if God did not exist).

They remind the honest atheists that they are not “far from the Kingdom of God”; that it would be enough for them to jump to find themselves on the side of the mystics, passing from nothingness to the All.

Karl Rahner was right to say: “Christianity of the future, will either be mystical or it will not be at all.” Padre Pio and Mother Teresa are the answer to this sign of the times.

We should not “waste” the saints, reducing them to distributors of graces or of good examples.

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa is the preacher to the papal household.

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