Unwavering Commitment to God and the Dark Night of the Soul

A few years ago, President Rosemary Wixom of the Primary shared a story from the life of Mother Teresa in General Conference:
In a 1953 letter, Mother Teresa wrote: “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’ Ask Our Lord to give me courage.”
Archbishop Périer responded: “God guides you, dear Mother; you are not so much in the dark as you think. The path to be followed may not always be clear at once. Pray for light; do not decide too quickly, listen to what others have to say, consider their reasons. You will always find something to help you. … Guided by faith, by prayer, and by reason with a right intention, you have enough.”
This excerpt is from the book Mother Teresa: Come By My Light — The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk. It’s a wonderful book, telling the story of the founding of Mother Teresa’s order in her own words, through letters back and forth between her and her supervisors. The letters begin in 1928, just before her 18th birthday, with her application to become a nun, and extend to 1994, in the last years of her life. Kolodiejchuk complements this correspondence with useful narrative.

Two major messages stood out to me:

First, this “darkness” that Mother Teresa described in her 1953 letter extended for decades. She had profound spiritual experiences that led her to found her now-famous order, the Missionaries of Charity, in late 1948, but then largely ceased to feel any active connection with God for most of the rest of her life. “Since [19]49 or [19]50 this terrible sense of loss — this untold darkness — this loneliness — this continual longing for God — which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.” In 1961, she asked (as recounted by a spiritual leader), “Why had God abandoned her totally? Why this darkness whereas in her earlier life she had been so close to God?” She prayed, she practiced her faith, but she felt little. Years later, her spiritual advisor wrote, “There was no indication of any serious failure on her part which could explain the spiritual dryness. It was simply the dark night of which all masters of spiritual life know–though I never found it so deeply, and for so many years as in her… The sure sign of God’s hidden presence in this darkness is the thirst for God, the craving for at least a ray of His light. No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart.” Indeed, over time, she and her spiritual advisors interpreted this as a spiritual “participation in the Cross of Christ,” reminiscent of the time that “the Father briefly withdrew from Jesus the comfort of His Spirit, the support of His personal presence” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland 2009). (To be clear, Mother Teresa did not quote Elder Holland; I’m using his formulation.)

In the Church, we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and when we take the sacrament, the promise is renewed for participants that “they may always his Spirit to be with them” (D&C 20:77). So I ask myself – and you – is there a place in our doctrine for a “dark night of the soul“?

Second, despite this long-term lack of affirmation, Mother Teresa wrote: “I bound myself under pain of Mortal Sin not to refuse Him anything.–Since then I have kept this promise–and when sometimes the darkness is very dark–& I am on the verge of saying ‘No to God’ the thought of that promise pulls me up.” She concluded, “Let Him do with me whatever He wants…for as long as He wants. If my darkness is light to some soul–even if it be nothing to nobody–I am perfectly happy–to be god’s flower of the field.” As her biographer summarizes, “In the deepest darkness, when the longing for God was almost unbearable and she found herself on the verge of saying ‘No,’ Mother Teresa affirmed she was constantly united with God.” In other words, Mother Teresa’s commitment to God was not conditional on continual affirmation. She wanted to feel God’s presence, she longed for it, but she also trusted him, even after years of not feeling his presence. I admire that perseverance, like what Lehi asked for Laman in the Book of Mormon, to be “continually running into the fountain of all righteousness,” and for Lemuel, to be “firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord.”

Mother Teresa wrote, “I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.”

The book has all of the stories of tireless service and the words of wisdom that you’d expect from a biography of Mother Teresa. I recommend it.

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