“I accept whatever He gives and I give whatever He takes.” – Teresa of Calcutta
It’s not something you talk about in polite company—not being quite okay and being willing to admit it. When people ask how are you, they don’t expect an honest answer. I know; I’ve been answering honestly for months, unable to sprinkle sugary platitudes over the reality of loss and uneasiness I feel.
I’ve sat in the middle of transition, family illness, unemployment, depression, and feeling completely lost in the midst of it all. And I’ve named it, called it out loud to myself and to others. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Uneasy smiles fade. Eyes widen or dart away quickly. Promises to pray are made. People run for the door.
We’ve been conditioned to hide away feelings of pain and restlessness, especially in communities of faith. We’re a little more comfortable if it can be medicated or counseled, easily solved, or prayed away. But prolonged periods of dread, of feeling the absence of God’s presence or not being sure how to pray, of not having easy answers—that we’re not so good with.
I’ve been finding consolation in an unlikely place lately, in the company of a woman who spent well over five decades years of her life not feeling consoled at all. But she was faithful anyway. She loved with abandon anyway.
For many years I’ve felt a connection to the tiny-framed, quiet woman who lived her life among the poor and dying of India. Like so many others drawn to Mother Teresa, I’ve read her words and been awed by her from afar. Perhaps it was her selfless work for the poor that first drew me to her, our common love for India.
When I was stumbling through writing and rewriting the hauntingly beautiful curves of the Bangla alphabet a fellow language student mentioned that maybe this saintly woman also struggled to learn the verbs of the Bengali people she served, the same people I lived among and loved. I laughed at the thought of the small but mighty nun struggling with anything.
It was then that dove into a couple biographies about the Albanian woman born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, sainted as Teresa of Calcutta by the Catholic Church in 2013 and realized I knew nothing of her real-life at all. Just having peripheral knowledge of her before, I had not known about the release of letters she wrote for many years to her leaders and confessors. She requested the letters be destroyed but they were instead released to the public in 2007.
The letters revealed that she lived through dark periods of doubt and dryness, an inability to feel the presence of God or pray at times for most of her adult life. She had a sense of abandonment by God, saying, “if I ever become a saint—I will surely be one of darkness.”
The fact that a woman known around the world for her faith and her acts of charity also lived with such inner turmoil is hard to reconcile for some. But I feel a strange comfort in the knowledge that she lived with a sense of dread and darkness inside but continued to cling to what she knew beyond feelings to be true.
We say all the time love is not a feeling but a commitment, a choice. I just heard those words delivered again in a wedding ceremony this week. Isn’t love extended to God and to our neighbor a choice beyond feelings as well?
Why do we feel we have to hide away periods of darkness or pain like they might threaten our credibility as people of faith—or worse, prove God unfaithful? All through Scripture we see the people of God able to lament, to cry out and be honest about their doubts or their pain.
Paul Murray who personally knew Mother Teresa and wrote about her prolonged periods of darkness wrote in I loved Jesus in the Night that, “as much as any of her acts of kindness or charity, it was that capacity to surrender, the desire to be faithful and to hold fast, day after day, year after year, in blind and trusting faith, which marked the holiness of Mother Teresa.”
It saddens me that Mother Teresa had to suffer so quietly and felt like she had to hide the truth of her struggle away. What relief might she have received in life had she been able to be open about her pain? So many of us suffer quietly too – in our families, in our communities, in our houses of worship. We smile and say we’re okay when we are anything but.
Her letters give me hope that we can cling to God no matter what we feel and we can endure whatever turmoil of the soul we must. Still we can have lives of faithfulness, of service. We can sit in spaces of lament and worship at the same time—they are not mutually exclusive. We don’t have to hide away our hurts to prove that God is good.
The darkness never drove Mother Teresa from God but further toward love. Unable to speak in her last days she passed a written note to others with her saying “I want Jesus” and asking for them to give her the bread and wine that are reminders of his presence with us.
Aubrey Sampson says in The Louder Song, “To lament is to speak the reality of our formless, chaotic suffering and to ask God to fill it with his very good.” May we find spaces to sit together in the chaos and not deny it. May we cry out in the middle of it and ask God to fill it with good. Maybe there we would find quiet for our disquiet souls.