Mother Teresa: a life of lights and shadows

Conscious TV

January 21, 2022

Who was Theresa of Calcutta?

Teresa of Calcutta was a Catholic nun and missionary who lived most of her life in India. She was born in present-day Macedonia and her family was of Albanian origin, specifically from Kosovo.

Mother Theresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic religious congregation that in 2012 numbered 4,500 sisters and was active in 133 countries. They maintain hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, dispensaries and mobile clinics, children's and family counselling programmes, orphanages and schools. Sisters must fulfil the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, as well as a fourth vow to "offer loving and selfless service to the poorest of the poor".

Mother Theresa received numerous honours including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. In 2003 she was beatified as "Blessed Teresa of Calcutta". A second miracle in which she interceded is required before she can be recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Mother Theresa, a controversial figure during her life and after her death, was much admired by many for her charitable works but also much criticised, especially for her opposition to contraceptives and the poor conditions of her religious order's hospices.

Spiritual life

In analysing her work and achievements John Paul II asked: "Where did Mother Theresa find the strength and perseverance to devote herself completely to serving others? She found it in prayer and in silent contemplation of Jesus Christ, his holy face and his sacred heart. In private, she experienced doubts and internal struggles about her religious beliefs that lasted almost 50 years until the end of her life, in which she 'did not feel the presence of God' either in her heart or in the Eucharist, as Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, postulator of the cause for her beatification, noted. Mother Theresa expressed serious doubts about the existence of God and suffered for her lack of faith:

"Where is my faith? Even in the depths of my being I feel only emptiness and darkness. If God exists, please forgive me. When I try to lift my thoughts to Heaven, I feel such emptiness that those same thoughts come back to me like sharp knives to tear my soul. How painful is the unknown pain. I have no faith. Rejected, empty, without faith, without love, without enthusiasm. What am I working for? If there is no God there can be no soul. If there is no soul then, Jesus, you are not true either."

Brian Kolodiejchuk, her postulator (the official responsible for gathering the evidence in favour of her sanctification) pointed out that the meaning of Therese's words could be misinterpreted, but her faith that God was working through her did not diminish, and although she longed for the lost feeling of closeness to God, she did not question its existence. Many other saints experienced similar feelings of spiritual emptiness, or what Catholics consider spiritual trials ("passive purifications"), such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who called them "nights of emptiness". Contrary to the mistaken belief held by some that her doubts are an impediment to canonisation, the opposite is true. Her doubts are similar to those experienced by other canonised mystics.

After ten years of doubt, Mother Theresa experienced a period of renewed faith. At the time of Pope Pius XII's death in the autumn of 1958, praying for him at Mass, she remarked that she had been freed from her "long darkness or strange suffering". Five weeks later, however, he wrote that his difficulties in believing had returned.

Although there was no direct connection between Mother Theresa's order and the Franciscan order, she was a great admirer of St. Francis of Assisi. Thus, her life and influence show the influence of Franciscan spirituality. The Sisters of Charity recite St. Francis' prayer of peace every morning during thanksgiving after communion, and many of the vows and main ideas of her ministry coincide with those of the Franciscans. St. Francis emphasised poverty, chastity, obedience and submission to Christ. He also devoted much of his life to serving the poor, especially the lepers where he lived.