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A Light in the 21st Century's "Dark Night"


By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 01, 2007 (Zenit) - As a respected Boston lawyer once remarked of recent biographies, "It's tough times for the dead." A case in point was the cover of last week's Time magazine. Splashed across the front page ran the headline "The Secret Life of Mother Teresa," accompanied by the gloomiest picture you ever saw of the saintly nun.

With its sensationalist title, Time magazine not only descended to the level of tabloid journalism, but betrayed a woeful ignorance of the meaning of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta's spiritual journey.

Capitulating to the fad of finding the sordid behind the glitter, where titles like "Britney's Breakdown" or "Lindsay in Crisis" are guaranteed to boost sales, the article itself feeds into the mentality that things are never as pretty as they seem. In our age of masking our own shortcomings by pointing out the flaws in others, it suggests that Mother Teresa's joyous love of the poor hid a darker, almost sinister side.

Recent interest in the extraordinary founder of the Missionaries of Charity stemmed from the recently published book "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light." Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator for the cause of canonization of the saintly nun who died in 1997, compiled her letters and writings, including a number that revealed Teresa's spiritual trials.

By releasing these documents, Father Kolodiejchuk sought to grant readers a window into the intimate spiritual life of Mother Teresa, and to offer inspiration and hope by recounting her challenges in following Christ.

Instead, some have twisted her doubts about her faith, which she confided in letters to her spiritual director, into an indictment of her sincerity and personal holiness. Time author David Van Biema writes, "Perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain."

These terms relate Mother Teresa's life to that of a comic actor, suggesting that her professional persona and her private self were separate. Yet Teresa did more than just smile for cameras; she demonstrated joyous love, through her every action, gesture and expression.

The predatory glee with which news services leapt upon word of Mother Teresa's "dark night of the soul" resembled the same relish with which they report celebrity arrests. Questions such as, "Can she still be made a saint?" demonstrated an utter lack of knowledge regarding the Church's idea of sanctity while attempting to sow division by casting doubts on her holiness.

As a side note, Mother Teresa of Calcutta is blessed, which means that she is officially recognized by the Church as being in heaven. When she becomes a saint, worldwide devotion to Mother Teresa will be permitted, i.e. church dedication, invocation during the liturgy etc.

A different standard

The standards of the media are not those of saints. While Teresa herself feared falling into a sort of spiritual hypocrisy, the fact was that she, like many saints, possessed an especially keen sensitivity to how she fell short of Christ's example.

Celebrated atheists leapt to recruit the nun to their cause. Christopher Hitchens, who penned a vicious biography of Mother Teresa, was quoted extensively in the article. Seizing the opportunity to reach millions, Hitchens eagerly made his bid to turn Teresa into a poster child for nihilism.

Time also consulted psychologists to posthumously analyze Mother Teresa from her letters. It seems strange that so many people who do not believe in the soul felt themselves qualified to probe that of Mother Teresa's.

Although many have already rushed to quell these sparks, Mother Teresa obviously needs no defense. Happily situated in heaven along with other doubters like, well, St. Thomas, she is probably beseeching Jesus with her characteristic compassion to forgive Hitchens and the others "for they know not what they do."

Paradoxically, the divisive aspect of the stories has done what many Church synods couldn't. Liberal and traditional Catholics have joined forces to correct the record and to recognize Mother Teresa as an example for all people who suffer spiritual loneliness.

Her doubts and suffering, far from being a source of shame for those who love and admire this great woman, should make us proud to discover that she is an even greater hero than we thought.

For anyone seriously interested in the cause of Teresa, her spiritual difficulties come as no surprise. They were made known after her beatification in 2003. Discussing the subject at Roman dinner tables at the time, people spoke with awe of Mother Teresa's exceptional perseverance in the face of what would have crumbled anyone less attuned to God's grace.

Mother Teresa's experiences are not scandal, but a mirror of our own lonely age. While people today try to dispel feelings of loneliness with analysts, medications or pop spirituality, Teresa embraced her loneliness and clung to her faith in Jesus, which, though often devoid of feelings, was solid and profound. What many have failed to notice, in fact, is that a good number of her expressions of solitude are addressed to Jesus himself.

"Feeling it"

Carole Zaleski in "First Things" wrote that Teresa converted "her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God."

In many ways, her own sense of marginalization from God helped Mother Teresa to recognize loneliness in others. She proclaimed that there was "more hunger in the world for love and appreciation than for bread." She realized that rejection and abandonment was not only the province of lepers, but present even in the inner life of those who appear to be successful and privileged.

How many times have we gone to Mass, not "feeling it," as modern speak would put it. Our lips moving, our gestures mechanical, but we remain distant from the reality of God and his love for us. In that emptiness, temptation raises its head, suggesting that rather than practice this "hypocrisy," we should forego Mass and go out for a round of golf instead.

Mother Teresa lived her doubts, not for an hour on Sunday, but every day as she tended the poor and dying in utter, relentless squalor. Her example reaches across from Christians to non-Christians.

Benedict XVI, as Father Joseph Ratzinger, made the interesting point in his 1963 "Introduction to Christianity" that "both the believer and the unbeliever share each in his own way, doubt and belief." That led him to notice that doubt could be a possible "avenue of communication" between the two.

Time and time again, saints show us that when they suffer, the solution is to look outside oneself, not further within. St. Alfonso Liguori and St. John of the Cross both overcame their own troubles by focusing on their calling. As one religious sister acutely observed, when Teresa couldn't find Jesus in her prayer life, she found him in the faces of her fellow human beings.

Teresa eventually came to give a meaning to her trials. She saw them as a privilege, the gift of sharing in Christ's loneliness on the cross.

In his film "The Passion," Mel Gibson painted a wrenching image of Christ's agony in the garden of Gethsemane. Amid oppressive darkness, the sight of Jesus, abandoned by his apostles, struggling to continue with his mission, confronts viewers with the sense of desolation that accompanied his sacrifice.

Saints like Blessed Teresa, who faced loneliness in their self-sacrifice, experienced a unique sharing in the mystery of Christ's passion. Like the purest gold, they have been forged in hotter fires.

Particularly in our era that gives more weight to feelings than facts and to sensation rather than sense, Mother Teresa teaches the world to persevere through doubt, pain and loneliness. In the dark spiritual night of the 21st-century, Mother Teresa of Calcutta's example is a shining beacon to us all.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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