Historical Figure Analysis: Mother Teresa

Behind the astounding accomplishments of Mother Teresa lived a tortured soul. Her writings reflect not just a dark night of the soul, but a dark life of the soul. Although her hands-on, sacrificial service to the destitute changed and inspired countless lives, my heart aches for her troubled soul. Mother Teresa’s angst, as chronicled in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, echoes through her words, “That place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and this it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there…Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes—The torture and pain I can’t explain.” (Kolodiejchuk, 2007, 2) Though one cannot know if she perhaps suffered from clinical depression, I observe ways that Mother Teresa’s flawed theology may have contributed to her ascetic way of thinking as it both drove and hindered her. Perhaps a deeper acceptance of God’s grace would have reoriented her view of life. This paper will explore the stages of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation (or lack thereof) in Mother Teresa’s life and will describe ways her life impacts me. Orientation followed the call. Though her early call to serve God as a nun came when she was eighteen, Mother Teresa felt a later call to poverty. Not only did she feel called by God, but she was inspired by flesh and blood examples such as St. Francis of Assisi (115). The joy she felt from the thought of living like the poor is reflected in her words concerning her calling, “Just a jhi [servant]—This I would really love—and it would help me to know the ways and the sorrows of the poor by living with them, doing the same work as them.” (126) When her spiritual director, Father Exem, replied to her appeal for a venue to work with the poor with the suggestion that she go back to Calcutta as a helper in return for lodging, her reaction shows her propensity toward a works-reward theology. She replied, “It would be the best medicine to get out of me every drop of pride; it will well kill my natural ways.” (126) When she first followed her calling, she experienced joy in her oriented life, but this did not last long. I cannot help but wonder whether her inner turmoil stemmed from a works-reward mindset, reflecting a flawed theology. Drifting into Disorientation Though Mother Teresa’s physical mother fully supported her as she began her mission among the poor, due to the tense political situation in Albania, eleven years went by without any communication between them. This caused them both great sorrow, “but Mother Teresa kept silent about it.” (173) She rarely discussed her sorrow with peers; usually, only with a spiritual director. Perhaps more vulnerability with others would have freed her trapped heart. The truth sets one free in so many ways (Jn 8:32). Her vow to God “binding under [pain of] mortal sin“ to not refuse Jesus anything (28-29) meant suffering with Him, and suffering seemed to Mother Teresa something she owed to God to comfort Him (260-61). In contrast, Jesus told those who were poor in spirit that they would be blessed (exceedingly happy) and inherit the kingdom of heaven. He also taught that the hungry and thirsty could be filled by Him (Mt 5:3,6). Since Catholic tradition calls for penance and sometimes abstinence from things God created for enjoyment (1 Tim 4:3), Teresa may have felt that to feel joy and to suffer with Christ were opposing, irreconcilable postures. Bound by Tradition Mother Teresa’s views concerning priests, Mary, and “mother superiors” may have added to her feelings of separation from God. The Catholic tradition views priests as interpreters of God’s Word and intermediaries between God and Christians. Mother Teresa also viewed Mary as an intercessor for prayers (49). Mother Teresa often felt separated from God, and such human mediators as “middle managers” can contribute to disconnection. Her letters often reflected this flawed theology as she wrote, “Ask Our Lady to take care of me as she took [care] of Jesus.” (288) Priests held the power to answer her numerous requests to move to India to serve the poor, showcasing a hierarchal system which historically resulted in oppression, as witnessed by years of crusades, indulgences, and abuse. Darkness of one’s soul could easily be enhanced in a system of authority where one person stands as intercessor and confessor between that person and God. God’s plan calls for all Christians to be priests with full access to God (1 Pet 2:9).  Not only might a hierarchy such as she knew inhibit closeness to God, but trauma can also close off one’s emotions. Mother Teresa was no stranger to trauma. Trauma and Thirst Mother Teresa experienced great traumas throughout her life. As an eighteen-year-old, she left her family. She experienced numerous health challenges (36), the Bengal Famine (36), and the Day of Great Killing concerning the 1946 Hindu-Muslim conflict in Calcutta (37). She witnessed war and touched many in her service as she carried people who were eaten by worms, touched lepers’ wounds, and watched countless people die horrible deaths (“Mother Teresa’s First Love” video). Trauma often causes people to close off their emotions as a survival mechanism. Jesus, knowing the weariness his disciples felt from their constant service, urged them to go away for a while to rest and be refreshed (Mk 6:31). Many of Mother Teresa’s writings showcase her hollow soul, one perhaps traumatized and burned out. Describing her emptiness she writes, “very little registers within.” (257) Perhaps so much had registered, her emotions shut down. Mother Teresa also had an interesting view of the “thirsting Jesus.” Interpretation of the Thirsting Jesus vs. Jesus the thirst quencher Mother Teresa wrote often of Jesus’ thirst while on the cross—”not for water—but for love, sacrifice.” (41) She believed she was to quench God’s thirst through absolute poverty, chastity, obedience, and charity (41). Jesus’ longs for all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), but Mother Teresa seemed to view God as a taker, rather than a giver who pours out rivers of living water (Jn 7:38) through the outpouring of His love into our hearts through His Spirit (Rom 5:5). Jesus, in one of his last recorded prayers, prayed that his disciples would have the full measure of his joy in them (Jn 17:13). Teresa’s view of the Eucharist perhaps sheds further light on her inability to feel the presence of God in her everyday life. God promised to be with Christians always (Mt. 28:20) and gave the Spirit as the seal of His presence in the Christians’ life (Eph 1:13).  His Spirit assures His constant presence, not just in a Sacrament. Mother Teresa’s theology seemed to resist this truth. Expressing her joy when the Sacrament of Communion was finally allowed in the convent chapel she wrote, “Soon our Lord will be with us—Everything will be easy then—He will be there personally.” (139)  Had mother Teresa lived with the reality that God’s grace is poured out abundantly in Jesus Christ (1 Tim 1:14), perhaps she would have experienced the abundant peace God intended for His children (2 Pet 1:2). Whatever happened to grace? One of Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors, Father Van Exam, revealed her secret yearnings as he recounted, “She made several requests to me, one to do more penance which she very ardently desires, one to bind herself by a vow to obey me and one to pray at night.” (83) This communication shows me Mother Teresa’s propensity toward earning God’s love rather than experiencing His grace. Once when teaching of Jesus’ separation from God while he took on the sin of the world, Mother Teresa wrote to her postulants, “Do you realize that when you accept the vows you accept  the same fate as Jesus?” (251)  While I cannot imagine the depth of pain Jesus endured, the Scriptures teach that He endured this fate of separation from God so we would not have to, and thus could experience the joy of salvation (Rom 15:13). The posture Mother Teresa displayed in this letter leans toward a sense of “payment due,” rather than “payment made.” Mother Teresa’s theology informed her that since Jesus had to bear the darkness of this world, if we are to be like Him, so must we. The Bible tells us that Jesus once for all bore the burden of the sinful world (Heb 10:10) so we would not have to bear this burden. Sharing in Christ’s suffering does mean sharing His suffering for the burden of lost souls and the poor; however, Jesus took the burden of our sins, once for all (Heb 5:9). The author notes that Mother Teresa thought she still needed to be purified from her imperfections, but 1 Jn 1:7 assures the Christian that when they walk in the light Jesus’ blood continually cleanses. When she spoke of being encouraged by seeing her friends, Mother Teresa questioned her motives as selfish, as if when anything good happened or when she felt joy it must be rooted in selfishness (267). How contrary this seems to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he instructs that “blessedness” comes from righteousness. How different her thoughts were from Paul’s instructions to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4) and his example of finding great joy in relationships with those he served (Phil 1:3-5).  I feel sad that she did not experience the “rest for her soul” that Jesus came to give (Mt 11:28). Instead, she “soldiered on” as she served. The Angst Behind the Smile Mother Teresa held to her mantra, “I am ready to accept whatever He gives and to give whatever He takes with a big smile.” (235) These words are reminiscent, yet different, to Job’s as he writes, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21b NIV) Job trusted God, yet lamented his pain. Mother Teresa chose to walk her path of suffering with an outward smile and inward cry, rather than walking Job’s path of verbal lament. While her attitude is noble in many ways, Job, many of the prophets, and David the Psalmist teach the healing power of lamenting with God. She held back her sorrow to keep from “burdening God,” but in doing so she distanced herself from the healing that lament often brings. Instead, she kept forcing an outward smile that was no match for her hurting heart (76).  She taught the nuns in the Sisters of Charity order to “let the people eat you up.” (285) God, however, teaches His children to cast their burdens on Him (1 Pet 5:7), and the Bible instructs us to bear each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2). Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35); thus, service should ultimately bring joy. The Power and Perversion of Sacred Rhythms One of the strengths of the Catholic tradition is its focus on contemplative disciplines for reflection and spiritual retreat (74). Yet, if these times become mere deep-rooted traditions, they can inhibit one from living in God’s grace through their efforts to “earn” blessings and offer payment for sins. When the “heart” is lost, prayer can become a rote, meaningless tradition while giving a false sense of security in Christ. The presence of Christ in a Christian’s life should bring freedom, yet Mother Teresa wrote concerning the nuns, “In the years of contemplation and solitude they must be ready to do penance and pray much together with that manual labor (75). Must a leader be lonely? Dark nights become darker when they are not shared. Jesus, during his dark time in Gethsemane, longed for his closest brothers to watch and pray with Him. He held nothing back from them and called them friends. At times, Mother Teresa opened her soul to God and her spiritual director, but she did not enjoy peer friendships. Author Kolodiejchuk explains, “Mother Teresa’s inner pain did not diminish. She longed to unburden her soul to someone she trusted, yet she did not.” (160). She describes this as she emotes, …Before I used to get such help & consolation from spiritual direction—from time to time the work has started—nothing.—Even myself have nothing to say—so it seems. I would very much want to have once a good talk—but the thought of having to tell all that is connected to the Call keeps me back—and so I speak to no one (161). In one letter, Mother Teresa remembered her own mother’s parting words to her when she left home. Her mother had told her to keep her hand in His hand and walk all the way with Him alone (276).  I cannot help but wonder if these words from her mother helped mold her ascetic view of life and the accompanying expectation of loneliness. God longs to fill loneliness, but it seems Mother Teresa could not find her sense of belonging to God and others. An Attempt at Reorientation Mother Teresa wrote, “It is so consoling to help others love God—since I can’t do it myself.” (254) Her darkness reminds me of Psalm 88, the Psalm never seeming to find reorientation. My heart aches for her as she writes to Father Picachy, “I don’t pray any longer—I utter words of community prayer—and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give.—But my prayer of union is not there any longer—I no longer pray.—My soul is not one with You.” (270) Mother Teresa’s reorientation seemed more an acceptance of the darkness in her soul than any joy “found in the morning.” (Ps 30:5) She felt rejected and forgotten by God throughout her life, “faithfully and lovingly serving Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” (266)  Kolodiejchuck noted, “She accepted it, as she did everything else that God willed or at least permitted, with a big smile.” (272) Perhaps one of Mother Teresa’s greatest insights gained from the endless dark night of her soul was her capacity to share in the feelings of the poor. She wrote “The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference toward one’s neighbor who lives at the roadside assaulted by exploitation, corruption, poverty, and disease.” (233)  Her pain allowed her to win their trust. Her life’s work convicts and inspires me today as I see her empathy for the poor. Her life touches mine. In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1979, Mother Teresa noted that “Calcutta is everywhere.” (290) She explained that people are unloved, unwanted, or uncared for, even in their own homes. Her words touched my soul as she expounded, noting people who were rich in belongings, but poor in belonging. She poignantly added, “This is where love comes…Maybe in our own family we have somebody who is feeling lonely, who is feeling sick, who is feeling worried…Are we there to receive them?” (291) I desire to be alert and available to receive the hurting and to look for them, initiating new ways to serve and bring them to Jesus. Mother Teresa’s life inspires me to see people as Jesus did. I must keep my eyes wide open to see people’s needs and care for them. I pray to respond to those around me, both rich and poor, as all have needs that only the love of Christ can fill. I am reminded to walk alongside Christians to help bear their burdens and reach into their hearts concerning their walk with God. No one really knew the extent of Mother Teresa’s inner turmoil. I want to always be vulnerable, and encourage my peers to be open with their lives, never hiding their turmoil. I can tend to “soldier on” with hard work without assessing my emotions. I have been through various traumas and must take the necessary time to “be still” with God and enjoy the precious relationships God blessed me with. I want to always grow in the qualities Mother Teresa required of the Sisters of Charity: health of mind and body; ability to learn;  common sense; and a cheerful disposition (video of “Interview on Irish television”). Conclusion Though she suffered mightily through her flawed theology of a works-service acceptance from God, I pray that Mother Teresa now experiences the richness of His grace. Her service to the poor touched and changed countless lives, inspiring many others, including me, to grow their hearts. Mother Teresa showed the world “love with skin on it” as she served the poor. People are hurting, everywhere. As we find more ways to love and serve, we will answer Jesus’ call to his church to be a light to the world and a city set on a hill (Mt 5:14). We will then answer the same call from God that Mother Teresa heard, “Come be My Light.” Works Cited  Kolodiejchuk, Brian. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. NY: Doubleday, 2007. “Mother Teresa’s First Love,” documentary video, 1977, 34:33,
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZWhlNgrUZM. “Mother Teresa of Calcutta on Irish Television,” 1974, video, 29:41,

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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