“Your Grace,

… Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show himself – for there is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.”…. “Ask Our Lord to give me courage.” So wrote Mother Teresa to Ferdinand Périer, Archbishop of Calcutta on 18th March 1953.

And in January 1955, again to the Archbishop:

“I don’t know but there is such a deep loneliness in my heart that I cannot even express it… How long will Our Lord stay away?”

Father Van Exem, spiritual director to Mother Teresa at the time of the crucial 1946 retreat and for many years thereafter, described Mother Teresa as someone who had “an intense inner life”.

Until after her death in 1997 and indeed until the cause for her canonisation was begun, the range and nature of that inner life was known only to a very few people. However, among the documentation to which those preparing the cause had access were some of the very private letters that Mother Teresa had written to Father Van Exem. They related to her inspiration days, departure from Loreto and the early years of the founding of her new congregation.

While in February 1991 I waited in Calcutta for the outcome of Mother Teresa’s prayer about whether or not to grant permission for me to write her biography, I went to visit Father Van Exem in what was essentially a retirement home for elderly clergy. By then he was an old man with white hair and a long white beard but his eyes still twinkled and he still recalled with self-deprecating humour how when he had first been asked to become Mother Teresa’s spiritual director he had retorted that he had not come all the way from his native Belgium to Calcutta to be “busy with nuns”.

He told me how Mother Teresa had repeatedly come on bended knee to him and to a succession of Archbishops to destroy the private letters she had written. When finally Father Van Exem returned two large boxes to her, he had done so on condition that she must not destroy anything that really belonged to the Missionaries of Charity. He had never asked her what she did but assumed that she would not have kept very much. Certain documents written to him and to Archbishop Périer remained in the care of the Archbishop of Calcutta. These documents shed greater light on the mystical experiences surrounding her “call within a call” to leave Loreto and go out into the slums.

It would seem that despite her emphatic statement that she had never had a vision, at that time (1946) and for several months afterwards she experienced a period of union with God during which she heard a series of interior locutions in which Jesus called her to carry him into the “holes” of the poor, to bring the light of faith to those living in darkness, and so bring joy to the suffering heart of Jesus and satiate his thirst for love and souls. She also “saw” a series of progressively intensifying scenes of an immense crowd of all kinds of people in great sorrow and suffering, eventually covered in darkness. The letters further disclosed the degree of Mother Teresa’s commitment to give God whatever he asked of her, regardless of the suffering entailed.

In 1942 while she was still a Loreto nun, like Thérèse of Lisieux, she had made a private vow not to refuse God anything. Her writings following the “call within a call” revealed her feelings of inadequacy, her humility and her very understandable fear: her fear of eating, sleeping, dressing, and living as the Indians did and of becoming an object of ridicule. Later letters showed that when she no longer felt the proximity of God in the same way that she had for that privileged period in 1946 and 1947, she suffered from spiritual dryness, the profound pain of God’s apparent absence despite her great thirst for him, and a lack of sensible consolation.  The pain of separation was all the more acute precisely because of the exceptional intimacy she had previously experienced. This “darkness” would be the subject of a number of letters to successive spiritual directors and priests, which would be made universally public with the publication of “Come be my Light” in 2007 by the postulator for her cause for canonisation.

“I want God with all the powers of my soul – and yet between us there is a terrible separation.”… “My soul is not one with You – and yet when alone in the streets – I talk to You for hours – of my longing for You. How intimate are those words – and yet so empty, for they leave me far from You.”

For those versed in the writings of the Christian mystics Mother Teresa’s experience of perceived alienation from God, darkness, and inner despair is recognizable as “the dark night of the soul”; her doubt, as a symptom of intense longing for God, as part of the via negativa, an experience of divine presence through humanly perceived absence. This was something experienced by St John of the Cross. La noche oscura del alma, “The Dark Night of the Soul” is the title given to a 16th-century poem by the Spanish poet and Discalced Carmelite mystic, priest, and Doctor of the Church. Thérèse of Lisieux, the “Little Flower” whose name Mother Teresa had chosen to take on entering her religious life, passed through something similar, as did the Doctor of the Church, Spanish Carmelite reformer and mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila, not to mention a number of other saints.

Somewhat surprisingly, given how conversant Mother Teresa and those around her must have been with the mystical experiences, particularly of Thérèse of Lisieux, the letters suggest that it was not until around 1961 that a Jesuit priest, Father Joseph Neuner, appears to have convinced her that her craving for God was a sign of proximity and that her darkness was a share in Christ’s Passion. (I can only surmise that Mother Teresa’s humility prevented her from believing that she belonged in the exalted company of the great mystics).

I should perhaps acknowledge that from a personal point of view I find it saddening that what I know both from Father Van Exem and from Cardinal Picachy of Calcutta Mother Teresa wanted desperately to be kept secret should be so publically exposed. To use Mother Teresa’s own words (in a letter to Father Picachy, dated September 3 1959) referring to her inability to explain the inspiration for her new congregation: “When you make it public, it loses its sanctity.”

HOWEVER offset against this there is always the Christian imperative to make the life and message of the gospel known. Father Van Exem himself wrote to me in 1991 of the justification for writing about her life: “Mother and her Sisters have no time to sit down and write books. And so, if God’s work is to be known, with St Paul we should ask: ’How can it be known if it is not announced?’” The publication of the letters could add depth to people’s understanding not just of Mother Teresa but of the nature of holiness itself. Furthermore, there had been times when Mother Teresa had insisted, albeit in relation to far less intimate statements, that her words were not her own and it was not for her to authorize or prohibit their use. There was a sense in which she had considered herself the “property” of others when it came to witnessing to God’s love for them.

There was also the fact that the revelation of Mother Teresa’s moments of doubt and weakness confirmed her claim that she was human and imperfect like everyone else. In her apparent solitude she had, it seems, forgotten the assurance of the Jesus of her interior locutions at the time of the “call within a call” that although she would suffer much, he would always be with her.

Her human foibles could allow others to hope. The revelations would inspire others beset with doubts, and feeling alienated from God to continue in faith.  The reason for the creation of “saints” in the Roman Catholic Church is to identify those who set an example for and are a source of encouragement to others.  Holiness, Mother Teresa herself insisted, is not the luxury of the few but a simple duty for you and for me.

“Sanctity is simply the acceptance of the will of God with a big smile. It is just accepting him as he comes into our life, accepting his taking from us whatever he wants, making use of us as he wants, putting us where he wants without our being consulted. We like to be consulted but he must be able to break us into pieces and let every little piece be his, empty without him.”

Simple then!

The voice of Mother Teresa’s interior locutions had pleaded:

“My own spouse”, “My own little one.” “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come be my light.” Not many, I would suggest, experience this kind of privileged intimacy with Jesus; but many more have known a sense of alienation from God, suffering of a spiritual kind and the distressing conviction that their prayers remain unanswered. And the fact that Mother Teresa experienced all these things and yet managed to persevere may serve as an inspiration to others.

So how, despite her inner torment, did she persevere? For this was what Mother Teresa did.

Of my free choice My God and out of love for You I desire to remain and do whatever be Your Holy Will in my regard ….  My God give me courage now – this moment – to persevere in following Your call, she wrote in a journal in 1949. She persevered, smiling as she did so.

And the work grew and flourished. As early as June 1949 she confided to Archbishop Périer:

The more the work is spreading the more clear it becomes  {it is } His will….Though there has been plenty of suffering and tears, there has not been one moment of regret. I am happy to do God’s will.

By the year 1984 four million leprosy patients had been treated through the mobile leprosy clinics. She could report the provision of weekly dry rations to 106,271 people and cooked food to 51,580 through the relief centres; the admission of 13, 246 to the homes for the dying destitute and the successful discharging of 8, 627 of those who might otherwise have been left to die; the reception of 6,000 children into the 103 Shishu Bhavans by that year, 1984…. By the time of her death on 5th September 1997 there were 3,842 Missionary of Charity Sisters serving in 120 countries and a further 377 Missionary of Charity Brothers serving in some 19 countries.

Mother Teresa herself loved to cite such statistics as irrefutable evidence of God’s achievements in spite of human ineptitude. So behind her was the extraordinary intimacy she had had with Jesus, of which at some level she must still have been aware, and before her there was always the obvious fruit, the rapidly extending work, which far exceeded the likely outcome of her personal effort or human capabilities.  The insistence that it was God’s work and not hers remained consistent throughout her life as a Missionary of Charity. “Pray that we do not spoil God’s work”, was a constant appeal.

We come back to her insistence that: “My secret is quite simple. I pray.” For her prayer was something that could be undertaken, to use her expression “all the twenty-four hours”. As a passenger in a car she would immediately get out her rosary and start to pray (in a way that could be quite unnerving!).  She would interrupt the telling of the beads to pass some totally unrelated comment and then return to them without apparently pausing for breath.

Without prayer I could not work for even half an hour. I get my strength from God through prayer. You can pray while you work. Work does not stop prayer and prayer does not stop work. It requires only that small raising of the heart and mind to him: ’I love you God. I trust you. I believe in you. I need you now.” Small things like that are wonderful prayers. The poor are also our prayer. They carry God in them.

I remember once in Delhi seeing her arrive at the Sisters’ home for abandoned children there. It was quite late in the day. She had been up since 5am and the interim hours had been packed with activity. She was manifestly physically exhausted but was due an hour or so later to receive the gift of an ambulance from Prime Minister Rajib Gandhi at an elaborate public ceremony. She went into the chapel and reappeared half an hour later completely transformed, several inches taller and full of energy and vigour to greet the crowds awaiting her outside.  This was not, I suggest, the experience of one who did not feel the proximity of God.   Nor was her repeated assurance of her Sisters and Co-Workers that: “God is love. He loves each one of us.”

Knowledge of the unconditional love of God was always there to sustain:

“We read something beautiful in the Scriptures” she quoted from Isaiah (43:1-4): “I have called you by your name, you are mine. Water will not drown you, fire will not burn you, I will give up nations for you, you are precious to me. I love you. Even if a mother could forget her child, I will not forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand.’ (Isaiah 49:15-16] This is God speaking to you and to me, to that leper man and that alcoholic woman, to the person with a mental handicap and to the little child: ’You are precious to me. I love you.’”

It was because God loved the world so much that he gave his Son to die for the world, she wrote to her Sisters, and Jesus said, ’I have loved you as the Father has loved me. Love one another as I have loved you.’ The giving was from the Father, the giving was from the Son, and now the giving is from us: ’Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers you did it to me.’ Remember the words of St Matthew’s Gospel: ’I was hungry and you gave me no food. I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ God has identified himself with the hungry, the sick, the naked, the homeless, with those who hunger not just for bread but for love, for care, to be somebody to someone; with those who are naked not of clothing, but of that compassion that very few people give to those they do not know; with those who are homeless not just for a shelter made of stone but with the homelessness that comes from having no one to call your own.

Mother Teresa was not an intellectual. She was not one who came to know God through clear images and careful thought. Hers was an understanding of the heart, the heart not as seat of the emotions but as the place of direct knowledge, the heart as referred to by St Paul when he wrote to the Ephesians: “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be opened that you may know the hope to which he has called you.”  Her heart-wisdom had a way of homing straight in on the crux of the matter. Once when a group of seminarians were earnestly discussing what conversion was, she quietly remarked, “Conversion is the changing of the heart through love”. The debate was over.  But she was not known for her theological insights or for doctrine. In relation to other people she maintained: “By the way they live their lives you will know whether or not they belong to God.”  And we look to her, I suggest, largely for the way in which she lived the heart of the Gospel.

Because she was not given to talking about herself or writing about herself other than to those in spiritual authority over her, apart from observing the way in which she lived her life, we can only really look at what she said or wrote to others. “All our words will be useless unless they come from within,” she maintained. Her words are invariably simple and yet profound because they are born of her interior life. They come from within, from the depths where suffering is also life-giving and they bring light, I believe, precisely because they are born of “darkness”, they are filled with the divine because of her personal emptiness, so I would like just to share with you some of her sayings/writings relating to the seeing and hearing of God, from which her inner life may be inferred:

Jesus said, blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Try to be more in tune with God and more open to him, so that you will be able to see his face. We need to have an open heart to be able to see God in others.

God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. See how nature, the trees, the flowers, the grass grow in perfect silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.  If we really want to pray we must first learn to listen, for in the silence of the heart God speaks.

Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence he will listen to us. There he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice.

When the time comes and we cannot pray, it is very simple – let Jesus pray in us to the Father in the silence of our hearts. If we cannot speak, he will speak. If we cannot pray, he will pray. So let us give him our inability and our nothingness. Prayer does not consist of many words but of the fervour of a heart turned towards God.

Every work of love, no matter how small, brings a person face to face with God.

In the poor, Mother Teresa, acknowledged, she perceived God’s presence vividly. There she felt him to be alive and real.

Despite God’s perceived failure to respond to her thirst for renewed intimacy, Mother Teresa remained confident of his love and of what his will was. She knew that while she felt inner emptiness and darkness when she spoke of Jesus, she still communicated spiritual joy to others. She knew too that the light clearly apparent in the work was mysteriously related to her own darkness. She knew that the seed has to die in order to produce fruit. Without the intense inner life, the hugely expanding service to the poor could not have come about. She knew moreover that Christ on the cross had cried out, “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” And moments later, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” It was not unusual, in Christian spirituality, for God when he wanted to unite a soul very closely to himself, to allow that person to feel abandoned by him, in the same way that Jesus also felt abandoned on the cross. Interior darkness was, Mother Teresa came in time to realise and accept, a way of entering into the mystery of the cross of Christ.

Far from losing her faith, she came to recognize that her inner thirst, apparently unassuaged, was a form of communion not only with the poor but also with the crucified Christ. “The closer you come to Jesus, the better you will know his thirst,” she wrote to her Sisters. In emphasizing the degree of material poverty for which Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity opted, sometimes the spiritual poverty they experienced was not taken into sufficient account. Ultimately, however, Mother Teresa discovered her spiritual poverty, her darkness, to be communion: communion with the “I thirst” of the abandoned, rejected, suffering Christ on the cross and communion with the “I thirst” of the abandoned, rejected, hungry, homeless poor.

And in communion she learned to suffer joyfully. In the context of what was revealed in the posthumously published letters, Mother Teresa’s words to her Sisters and Co-workers on suffering gain special meaning, rooted as they are in her personal experience:

“The following of Christ is inseparable from the Cross of Calvary: Suffering in itself is nothing, but suffering shared with Christ’s Passion is a wonderful gift; Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together is joy.

Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to forget the joy of the risen Christ; Joy is often the mantle that hides a life of self-sacrifice; Keep the joy of loving Jesus in your heart and share this joy with all you meet.”

Essentially the message is that great love and great suffering are the natural gateways to spiritual transformation and growth…. and even to joy, to that joy which Mother Teresa radiated and which as a young girl in Skopje her local priest had told her was the litmus test for whether or not a course of action was in conformity with the will of God!

I would like to close with two thoughts, both of them Mother Teresa’s:

“When it is hard, remember we are not called to be successful but to be faithful.”

“Don’t search for God in far lands – he is not there. He is close to you. He is with you.”

Talk first given at “Refresh your Soul” Conference in Cincinnati on 18th March 2019