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Saint Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night” (Part I of II)

November 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Aridity or Dryness, Dark Night, Ralph Martin

Saint Mother Teresa's “Dark Night” (Part I of II)

What did it mean for her? What does it mean for us?

for post on Mother Teresa's Dark NightEven though Mother Teresa’s experience of spiritual “darkness” has been known for several years, the full publication of her private letters in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light–The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” drew worldwide media coverage [a few years ago].

TIME Magazine did a cover story on it, prominent articles appeared in The New York Times and other major publications, and numerous TV and radio interviews were conducted.

Some secularists chose to interpret her talk of darkness as a sign of hypocrisy and even accused her of not really believing in God. Only a very superficial and partial reading of these letters could have occasioned this interpretation. Some believers were disturbed and confused to hear of her prolonged experience of aridity or emptiness in her relationship with God. Some thought the letters were so disturbing it was a mistake to publish them.

This last concern is understandable, but unfounded. The letters in question are part of the official record compiled in the process of canonization and are generally made public. And by now we should realize that efforts to “edit” the life or writings of a saint (as the sisters of Thérèse of Lisieux tried to do in the case of their sister’s writings) only detract from the awesome witness to holiness to be found therein, albeit sometimes in unexpected and disturbing ways. I think we will see in the long run that the publication of these letters and the widespread media attention, even with its imperfections, will bear great fruit.

 An Unimaginable Depth of Holiness

Having read the entire book–which includes all of Mother Teresa’s available letters and the sensitive and expert commentary of Missionaries of Charity priest Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk–I am left awestruck at the depth of Mother Teresa’s holiness. Her faith and her heroic service were more profound than I ever imagined.

It is certainly true that while she received remarkable communications from the Lord and deep spiritual and sensible consolation at the beginning of her mission, for almost 50 years Mother Teresa was left almost totally bereft of such consolation. She carried out her mission with almost no affective experience of God’s love and presence.

She could see the fruit that her work was producing. She could see that when she spoke to her sisters and others that they came alive and grew in the experience of God’s love. But she herself, for the most part, felt only emptiness.

During the first 10 years of this “darkness,” Mother Teresa was deeply troubled by it and sought to understand what was happening by consulting a few trusted priests. She wondered if this prolonged darkness was a sign of her great sinfulness and imperfection. Some of the advice she received was helpful, but it wasn’t until she met Fr. Joseph Neuner, a Jesuit working in India, that she came to grasp some of the special meaning of her suffering.

A Different Kind of Dark Night

Fr. Neuner explained to her that this wasn’t the typical “dark night” as described by St. John of the Cross–that it wasn’t just for her own purification, but rather it was a special gift that God was giving her to participate in the sufferings of Christ, particularly in Jesus’ own sense of abandonment during His agony in the garden of Gethsemane before His Crucifixion. Mother Teresa was forever grateful to Fr. Neuner:

I can’t express in words the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me. For the first time in these 11 years I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a “spiritual side of ‘your work’” as you wrote. Today really I felt a deep joy; that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes, more than ever I will be at His disposal. (p. 241)

In fact, Mother Teresa had prayed for just such a participation in the agony of Christ years earlier. As a young woman, she had resolved “to drink the chalice to the last drop.” After the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, she again resolved “to drink only from His chalice of pain and to give Mother Church real saints” (p. 141).

The understanding Mother Teresa received from Fr. Neuner gave her a measure of peace and even joy. However, it didn’t take away the pain of not being able to experience the sensible and spiritual consolation of God’s love and favor. For Mother Teresa, this often seemed to be on the verge of unbearable.

In his 2003 Advent Meditations to the Holy Father and the papal household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa summed up well the reasons God led Mother Teresa by this unusual path. The publication of the full text of the letters and the commentary of Fr. Kolodiejchuk confirms this interpretation.

I discuss the unique experience of Mother Teresa in terms of her “dark night,” as interpreted by Fr. Cantalamessa, and its relationship to the “ordinary dark nights” as taught by John of the Cross in chapter 17 of my book on the spiritual tradition, The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints.

In part II, we will talk about her spiritual formation and how to identify the roots of spiritual aridity.


Editor's Notes: This post originally appeared in Lay Witness Magazine, November/December 2007. Used with permission.

Ralph Martin is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (2013), as well as Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012) and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006).


Art: Mother Teresa of Calcuta [sic], portrait painting by Robert Pérez Paulou, 1 January 1994, CC, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Ralph Martin

Ralph Martin is the president of Renewal Ministries, an organization devoted to Catholic renewal and evangelization which engages in a wide variety of mission work in more than 30 countries. Renewal Ministries is the sponsor of "The Choices We Face" a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world. He is also the Director of Graduate Theology Programs in Evangelization and an associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He holds a doctorate in theology from the Angelicum University in Rome. In December of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Ralph as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, for a five year term. He was also appointed as an expert to assist the Bishops during the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization. He is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006), Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012), and newly released The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (October 2013). He and his wife Anne reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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  • Stephen Mc Elligott

    So is it possible that for all do us we should view our own darkness as a gift? Or can the inability to feel Gods presence or consolations also mean it is because of our heavy sins and very messy prayer life?

    • Stephen – yes and maybe. There are many reasons for dryness in prayer. It can be from sin, sloth, or fatigue on the human side or from God as it may be necessary to help you to grow more humble and to transition to a deeper form of prayer.

      • abandon56

        can it be all of these things at one time?

        • Can be. In this case you would begin to eliminate those factors that are easiest to deal – like sleep etc.

          • abandon56

            Thank you. I am encouraged.


      Dear Stephen: How do you define a’messy prayer life?’ I ask because I’m somtimes confused about my prayer life in that I may go for days into weeks following a schedule of prayer from my rule of life, and then for some reason I don’t recognize at the time I get off schedule for several days. Thanks for your help.

      • Stephen Mc Elligott

        I am not good at answering these questions considering my own prayer life is all over the shop. But if I could say anything I would say there is a willful neglect on our part towards prayer which makes it messy but there is a difference between willful neglect and making the odd mistake here and there concerning a prayer rule. We really want to keep the prayer rule but through no fault of our own or pure thoughtlessness we forget to keep that rule however I don’t see such a situation as being messy. It would be like not committing a mortal sin because you didn’t know it was a mortal sin but still always good to confess and repent of it anyway. I would also say try not to become too discouraged or scrupulous over it though. Again I’m just a lay person on the. Road to prayer myself and I know nothing but that’s my two cents.


          Dear Stephen: Thanks for your reponse. I understand your situtation and agree with it; I do appreciate your courtesy is responding and it is helpful. Thanks, and God bless you. Donald

  • Mary G

    Wow! She prayed to participate in The Agony of Jesus and God heard her prayer and blessed her with an mysterious gift which to her was so confusing, until God sent a holy priest to show her what she was actually undergoing ..he lifted the veil for her to see interiorly and and it transformed her external suffering! This shows once again, why we so need good Spiritual Direction. She could have gotten lost in despair, had God not granted that consolation of understanding what was happening to her soul! What an amazing saint! What an amazing and awesome God!

    Thank you so much for writing this excellent article, I am looking forward to the rest!

  • Rosemaid

    Each of us is called to take up our cross daily. As a child I was told to “offer it up” only now do I see and perhaps understand somewhat that our pain, which can be physical for some or emotional and evidently in Mother Teresa case spiritual. Imagine if each of us joined our little troubles & pains to those of Jesus. We would change the world. Look what Mother accomplished with her great suffering. I have not as yet read this book but now I’ll look forward to doing so. I’ll put in a plug for Mr. Martin’s book too, which I’ve found to be excellent. Welcome to the community. I’m looking forward to Pt. 2.

  • Ann

    It shows me how holy she really was – to do the work she did with no consolation from our Lord. To see the pain and suffering she saw and the cruelty and meanness of the conditions in which she ministered and to not hear from God. How faithful she was to her calling.

  • Sandra Traw

    How does one know for sure regarding the sin issue…you know your root sin….obviously you struggle fall get up struggle fall …go to confession over and over same issues…make small to no progress…my major problem is never completing anything…never sticking anything out…I guess I am pretty frightened right now…a bit overwhelmed…maybe I’ll try to express more later!

    • I don’t know exactly what you are looking for but the lack of clarity regarding sin and defects is a problem common to all. The most powerful remedies to gain clarity are 1) regular confession with rigorous examination of conscience, and 2) spiritual direction. Of course these presume that state of grace that allows for the best clarity we can gain because we are not living separated from God and in a sin-clouded state of spiritual fog. Hope that helps.

      • Sandra Traw

        Thank you, for replying. My letter was extremely confusing as I read it back. I told Father Jeff I feel very “complex”. Maybe I am in a sin-clouded state of spiritual-fog for I do always seem to be looking for my way. I have only been a RC for 3yrs. Had bcgnd in Charismatic MVT ’72.tthrough Episcopal a Church then very Evangelical Churches ’till conversion (long beautiful story), I live in very rural Montana and although read chatechism and studied months mostly with little guidance …when I speak to others sometimes I feel as though I missed a great deal in preparedness. I have gone now to 2 different preists for confession…thinking maybe one would be able to help me through it somewhat better. I have a handout that shows a list to go through and I try to use it. I have just recently received the Sacrament for Healing..twice during an illness I was told that one of the anointing used and I know Father Jeff gave Absolution during that. I am trying very hard to ” give up the feeling” of Joy and consolation I felt in Protestantism for the aridity I am experiencing in The visible Church founded by Jesus. I read of the depth of unity of the Saints and my heart burns…but I also am frightened an afraid I will die before finding consolation.

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