Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8).
On Sunday, September 4, 2016, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa. We now remember her as St. Teresa of Calcutta.
What makes her a saint?
The fact that she performed a heroic mission of compassionate care among the poorest of the poor? That got her a Nobel Peace Prize, but it’s not enough for sainthood. For heroic programs happen for various reasons. Little doubt those who lead them are good. But saints? Not necessarily.
Substantiation of two miraculous healings satisfied the Catholic Church’s toughest criterion for canonization. But I am much more impressed that she washed maggots from emaciated men in the gutter who died in her arms. No miracle there. Just love that staggers the moral imagination.
Yet, even that does not cinch it for me. No, Mother Teresa became a saint to me when I read, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. Did beautiful pious words and accounts of her visions of Jesus convince me? No.
It was the dark night of the soul Mother Teresa endured through the most active years of her ministry.
As she and the sisters who followed her visited people living in terribly unsanitary and degrading conditions, she felt as if God took leave of her there.
Before the mission on the streets, young Teresa lived for the Eucharist. In taking the body and blood of Christ, she felt deeply loved. In one of her visions, Christ said to her, “I thirst,” and she devoted herself to slaking that thirst. So she fought for church support for her calling to minister to Christ on the street through care for the poor. But almost as soon as she started the work, her sense of God departed.
Several spiritual directors did not get it until one finally recognized the dark night of which St. John of the Cross wrote. In the dark night, the gratifications of the senses and feelings like she had during the Eucharist fade away, and one experiences a dryness of the spirit. And it can take a long time, thirty years in her case.
This is not depression. For one has energy to work and love, as Mother Teresa obviously did. Rather, it is a cleansing, preparing one for a fuller experience of God as God is – One beyond the comprehension of senses, feelings, or thoughts.
Ironically, the sense of divine absence in one so fully devoted to God suggests a more intimate divine presence.
It signifies a heart cleansed and pure, a single-minded devotion that perseveres through adversity.
While fully convinced that Mother Teresa experienced the dark night, I do not think God left without a trace. She took her motto, “You did it to me,” from Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
St. Teresa of Calcutta found her beloved Jesus in the poorest of the poor, right where he told her to look.