By now many of you have no doubt seen the Time Magazine article by David Van Biema on Mother Teresa's long spiritual night. As James Kushiner's excellent post below suggests, it is an astonishing and deeply moving revelation. In fact it cannot be understood in the world's terms; the world knows nothing like it. The feral Christopher Hitchens is quoted to the effect that Mother Teresa came to understand what all good, brave, proud atheists know already, that there is no God, and that she declined to dig for herself an even deeper hole by coming up with "reasons" why there must be a God.
Christians ought to know by now that there's no winning such an argument, which sets reason aside (Aquinas? Avicenna?), and which forgets its own former claims in the heat of apparent triumph. The same people who rejoice that Mother Teresa experienced the pain of doubt used to say that she served the poor in Calcutta only because it did her good -- because she selfishly derived joy from it. Now, if that is what it means to be "selfish," to identify yourself with the filthy and pustulent outcasts of the world, without self-aggrandizement, without promoting some great social or political program, but merely because you are commanded to love, then so be it, let us all be selfish, let us all heap up treasures of love for ourselves, the love we give and the love of God we will enjoy. But that stretches the word "selfish" beyond all recognition.
But it turns out that Mother Teresa's life in Calcutta was not a life of what we would recognize as joy. I hesitate to claim that she did not know joy: as I would hesitate to claim that anyone so thoroughly abandoned to the call and life and grace of Christ could ever really be separated from Him, regardless of whether the affective response of her heart, how she felt her union with Christ, was what we call happiness. The world thought it knew her, and thought it could dismiss her charity with a smile at her naive belief and childish enthusiasm. But it cannot do that now, so it dismisses her by claiming her as one of its own -- not seeing that Mother Teresa's life looms as an even greater and more inexplicable mystery for those who say in their hearts, "There is no God."
It is not a mysterious thing, after all, that a young and enthusiastic person should become disillusioned after a month or two of the squalor of the Black Hole of Calcutta. People lose their faith all the time -- and people gain their faith all the time, and often they are the same people. What is mysterious is that after her visions of Jesus ceased, after all the inner consolations were taken away, after the locutions, what my evangelical brethren call "words of knowledge," fell silent, still Mother Teresa clung to Christ. She retained her faith without the emotional accompaniments (and here let married Christians take heed). She continued to serve the poor of Calcutta even though the nagging little viper at her shoulder must have whispered to her, constantly, "This is all absurd." Let us be absolutely clear about this: outside of the ambit of Christian culture, no one goes to Calcutta. What Mother Teresa did, no one does, not even for a year, without having been influenced by the message and example of Christ. And to live there for good, no one does at all without the virtue of faith.
Towards the end of the excellent film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the rural mandarin (Robert Donat) announces his conversion to Christianity to his brethren of the village council. He is moved not by theological argument but by the stunning example of courage shown, in utter selflessness, in willed poverty, in persevering charity, by the lady missionary (Ingrid Bergman). He understands that when you see what is not only a new thing in the world, but a great goodness that the world on its own would never produce and cannot even explain, then you should submit to it and follow where it leads, with theology halting behind. Here with Mother Teresa we have even more: a great goodness united to quiet suffering, unspeakable patience, and a kind of bright and steely charity, for how easy would it have been for Mother to try to salve her sores by "sharing" her feelings with her fellow sisters? A worldly man may enter the Peace Corps because he "believes" in it and wishes to do good; he will not stay there one month after he has ceased to believe. Mother Teresa never ceased to believe, even in and through the silence.
Dubiety is inseparable from the human condition. We must waver, because our knowledge comes to us piecemeal, sequentially, in time, mixed up with the static of sense impressions that lead us both toward and away from the truth we try to behold steadily. The truths of faith are more certain than the truths arrived by rational deduction, says Aquinas, because the revealer of those truths speaks with ultimate authority, but they are less certain subjectively, from the point of view of the finite human being who receives them yet who does not, on earth, see them with the same clarity as one sees a tree or a stone or a brook. It should give us Christians pause to consider that when Christ took upon himself our mortal flesh, he subjected himself to that same condition. He did not doubt; His faith was steadfast; yet He did feel, at that most painful of moments upon the Cross, what it was like to be abandoned by God. He was one with us even in that desert, a desert of suffering and love. Nor did the Gospel writers -- those same whom the world accuses on Monday of perpetrating the most ingenious literary and theological hoax in history, and on Tuesday of being dimwitted and ignorant fishermen, easily suggestible -- refuse to tell us of that moment.
In her love of Christ -- and the world does not understand Christ, and is not too bright about love, either -- Mother Teresa did not merely take up His cross and follow him. She was nailed to that Cross with him. She was one with Him -- it was His greatest and most terrible gift -- at the moment when he cried out to His Father, and the worldly Jews beneath mistook the name of God for Elijah. We Christians must trust that she is also one with Him now too, sharing in the glory of His triumph over darkness and the grave. "See," He says, encouraging us to persevere and be fearless, "I have overcome the world."