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February 15, 2009

Mother Teresa saw herself as ‘a saint of darkness’

Father Robert Barron

and Culture

I just finished reading Father Paul Murray’s astonishing little book on Mother Teresa’s interior life, called “I Loved Jesus in the Night: Teresa of Calcutta — A Secret Revealed” (Paraclete Press.).

Murray, a Dominican professor of spiritual theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, was a close confidant of the saint of Calcutta. In this brief and eminently readable text, he has woven together a number of personal reminiscences with an insightful reading of the famous “dark night” undergone for nearly 60 years by the woman who, during her own lifetime, was almost universally acknowledged as a saint.

Murray states the paradox of Mother Teresa succinctly: He had never known anyone more radiantly joyful than this woman who, in hundreds of private letters and notes, admitted to an almost unremitting inner darkness, a practically unrelenting sense of the absence of God.

I’ve known Murray for many years, and just a few months ago, when I was with my team filming in Rome, we all sat down for a long dinner with him at a cozy restaurant not far from the Pantheon. In time, the conversation turned to Mother Teresa and this puzzle of her dark night.

Sneak preview

In the course of this exchange, we all got a wonderful sneak preview of the book. A member of our group was a devout Methodist, a woman with a strong Biblical sensibility, and she expressed her bewilderment at this phenomenon of the woman who seemed at times even to doubt the existence of God.

“Maybe Mother was just depressed because of her difficult work,” she suggested. Murray immediately clarified that Mother Teresa was not a depressive — as the rich accomplishment of her life and work bears witness — and that the dark night, in the strict sense, has little to do with emotional melancholy.

Rather, he said, the dark night of the soul is like the shadow cast by the overwhelming light of the indwelling God. Especially when he deigns to come close, God floods the faculties of the mind and the heart so that they are incapable of processing and understanding in the ordinary sense.

The eye can see objects illuminated by the sun, but it becomes dysfunctional, even to the point of blindness, when it turns to gaze at the sun itself. So it is with the soul that has been invaded by God. Perhaps this is why, Murray hinted, so many of the greatest saints report the experience of the dark night.

Next, someone asked about St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who wrote most extensively about what he called “la noche oscura.”

Murray reminded us that St. John saw the dark night as a cleansing and purifying process, initiated and directed by God himself. We find ourselves, John of the Cross taught, in the midst of a good and beautiful world, but we are meant finally for union with God. Therefore, the soul had to become free from its attachments to finite things so as to be free for communion with God.

Process of purification

This purification involves, first, what John called “the night of the senses,” that is to say, the letting go of physical and sensual pleasures, and it continues with the “night of the soul,” which is a detachment from the thoughts, ideas and mental images that one can use as a substitute for God.

Like all purifications, this one is painful, especially if one’s attachment to these finite things is intense. It will often manifest itself, John of the Cross said, as dryness in prayer and a keen sense of the absence of God, even of God’s active abandonment.

In this process, God is not toying with the soul; rather, he is performing a kind of surgery upon it, cutting certain things away that its life might intensify. This aspect of the dark night, Murray said, was present in Mother Teresa as well.

Participate in Passion

Toward the end of the evening, after lots of give and take, our Dominican friend offered another interpretation of Mother Teresa’s experience. It was perhaps, he said, a vivid participation in the desolation that Christ Jesus felt on the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We can say, blithely enough, that the spiritual life consists in allowing Christ to live his life in us. But this means that he will live his Passion in us, that he will permit us fully to feel what he felt at the bitter end of his earthly life.

In Mother Teresa’s case, this participation was particularly intense, precisely because her ministry was to the lonely, the poor, the hopeless and the abandoned. She identified with their physical and psychological suffering, but her terrible sense of isolation from God allowed her to identify even with their spiritual suffering.

And from that solidarity flowed her compassion.

I’m just giving you a sense of Murray’s wisdom in regard to Mother Teresa. Do buy his book if you want to understand more fully the woman who said, “If I ever become a saint, I will be a saint of darkness.”

Barron is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of St. Mary of the Lake / Mundelein Seminary. For more of his writings visit