This post is about Mother Theresa, Saint of Light, Love and Darkness. But I will begin by talking about my mother. I have been missing my mother, Anuradha Ganguly. Her nick name was “Benu”. My mother was not a saint, but, real human being. She showed me love in a powerful way. So I use these lenses and experiences of being mothered by own mother to grasp a glimpse of what made Mother Theresa did for the world: The Saint Who Mothered the world.
Anuradha Ganguly, my mother, passed away 9 years ago. She celebrated with me in my victories and hugged me tenderly in my defeats. There was a deep bond of love between us, despite, the peaks and valleys in our relationship. In difficult times, I miss my mother’s encouraging words, delicious chutney, and conversations where I was understood and loved by her. Our conversations lasted hours over hot tea. Growing up in a Bengali home, we always had the kettle on with hot water for chai, Indian black tea and milk. Fights happened between my mother and me, with sharp words flung at each other. This followed mutual words of endearments as we became friends and allies. Her faith was strong. Her prayers were powerful especially for her children, me and my two brothers, as she targeted her prayers with strength, supplication, and ferocious vehemence to enter Heaven’s gates and propagate to God’s ears. I remember the smell of sandle-wood incense from her puja or prayers. She was from Bankura, a small town in West Bengal. She was very passionate about making sweets, like “rosogolas”, “sandesh”, and “chumchum”. West Bengal, by the way, is famous for its sweets or “misti”. I happen to have a sweet tooth and she saved the best sweets for me. Her mantra for me in my younger days was “Eat the sweets and worry about your weight later”. Interestingly, she was diabetic and I think one of the most powerful ways she showed her love was giving sweets to us. Giving to others what she was not allowed to eat. She showed much joy in people enjoying her sweets. Anuradha had her eccentricities and challenges, like other human beings. But, Anuradha was a loving, generous and forgiving woman. She made sacrifices for her family. I found this aspect of her as we both aged and matured. We grew from mother daughter dynamics into friends over the years. Friendship with my mother in adulthood gave me a compassionate and kind perspective about who she was as a human being. This is when I realized she is a human being, ordinary person who did extraordinary things. She stepped up to the deep calling of “mothering”. Mothering is beautiful, rewarding and yet can be super-hard. Mothering is a 24/7 job and once a mother, always a mother. I am nowhere near my mother in terms of loving and forgiving others.
As I was missing my mother, I thought of another mother from Calcutta, West Bengal, Mother Theresa. Saint of Light who dispensed God’s love to the most destitute, dying, sick, and forsaken by the world. She wrote that the greatest pain and suffering in humanity is feeling unwanted and unloved. I agree. As a psychotherapist, the most painful and gut wrenching stories I hear are people’s experiences of feeling unloved and unwanted. Having meaningful and loving connections with others is good for the mind, body and spirit.
Mother Theresa was deeply in love with Christ. She described hearing “call in a call” from Christ to serve the poorest of the poor. She served, loved and demonstrated God’s love to people, who were destitute, poor, dying, sick and forsaken by the world. Yet, she suffered greatly. She had feelings that God and Christ abandoned her. She felt darkness, loneliness and thirst for Christ which she did not feel Christ reciprocated for fifty years after Christ called her to serve the poorest of the poor.. Her struggles in her faith journey became public knowledge after she died and her spiritual mentors wrote about her personal pain. This post is a discussion of Mother Theresa, Saint of Light, Saint of Darkness. I also include thoughts on dark nights of the soul, associated with St. John of the Cross, a great Christian mystic and Mother Theresa. I wonder if many people have experienced dark night of the soul, especially in the pandemic. I have more questions than answers about dark night of the soul. Is dark night of the soul a part of the human condition? What is the difference between dark night of the soul and depression? No idea. So I went back to practical spirituality: reflections of a faith based person facing trouble. I have added the powerful words of faith warriors: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Wayne Dyer.
Mother Theresa : Saint of Light and Darkness
I will begin with saying that I am great fan of Mother Theresa. My husband and I had the great Blessing of seeing Mother Theresa in person and getting her Blessings after our marriage in 1995. We are both from the Calcutta area, where Mother Theresa established her ministry. When I caught a glimpse of her, I saw lines of people from all over the world who traveled far and wide to visit her in Calcutta. I remember her frail figure in a white sari with blue borders. What struck me was Mother Theresa’s eyes : deep, piercing, unfathomable, kind and compassionate eyes . There was a power and depth in her gaze like she saw me completely. She blessed me and my husband and said something to the effect that “Family that prays together stays together”. I do not remember the exact words as I was overwhelmed by the experience of encountering Divine Grace and Love in human form. I will never forget meeting her. The encounter with Mother Theresa was brief with multitude of people clamoring for her. However, it is etched in my mind. Meeting Mother Theresa, even for a few minutes, was a powerful memory of God’s unconditional, fierce and fearless love for humanity.
Mother Theresa was born as Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910 in Skopje, Macadonia. Prior to starting her own ministry, she joined Sisters of Loretto in 1928 in Ireland. She traveled to India in 1929 and taught in Loretto Convent in Calcutta. Loretto convents are excellent catholic schools which educate women in many parts of India. Interestingly, I attended Loretto Convent in Asansol for four years. The nuns taught with rigor and compassion. I found that attending the only girls catholic Loretto Convent nurtured my curiosity for knowledge.
While traveling on a train to Darjeeling in 1946, Mother Theresa received her calling from Christ to serve the poorest of the poor. She left the academic world of Loretto Convent in Calcutta and established Missionaries of Charity to serve the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Her work spread in helping people who were destitute, dying on the streets, people with leprosy, AIDS and cancer. She served people who were abandoned at their most vulnerable points in their lives. She started her missionary work with the faith that God will provide for her. Indeed God did provide abundantly. Her organization grew around the world and she received the Noble Peace Prize. She was an acclaimed and international figure of faith who personified God’s Unconditional Love for all of humanity. She worked with people who were abandoned by the world: the forgotten, discarded, sick, homeless, and dying. But not forsaken by Mother Theresa and the God she represented. I see Mother Theresa as mother to people who were abandoned. She showed softness, compassion, grace and unconditional love to people who were at their weakest points. I think of Mother Theresa as a mother to people in their greatest hour of despair, like my own mother was to me. Words of comfort and encouragement in the middle of painful experiences are like healing ointments for the heart and soul. One never forgets such people or their words of comfort, kindness and grace. One of my colleagues called these people who show up in your hour of need as “God with Skin” people. They are earth angels.
Then I came across this article of Mother Theresa’s faith journey. The experience of reading about her faith journey after her death shocked the living daylights out of me. Her spiritual mentors released information from her letters after her death where she wrote about her experiences of darkness, deep abyss of loneliness, lack of faith, feeling unloved by God and Christ, for Whom she dedicated her life. It is noted that despite her yearning for Christ, she did not feel His Presence in her soul. She talks about the empty hole in her soul. It is stated that she felt forsaken by God for almost fifty years. She experienced feeling unloved and unwanted by the Love of her Life, Christ. There are articles written that Mother Theresa served the people who felt most unwanted and unloved because she was familiar with that experience. She stated that the greatest suffering in humanity is not poverty or disease but feelings of being unwanted and unloved. Her deepest pain seems to have played a major role in her ministry. This was shocking to me when I first discovered this information. Some theologians suggest that Mother Theresa’s love for Christ was so deep that Christ shared his deepest state of feeling unloved and unforsaken by His Father before the crucifixion. This showed the humanity of Christ. Christ was Divine, but he knew the deepest pain of feeling unloved before his greatest trial. Despite feeling forsaken, Christ surrendered to God’s Will. So did Mother Theresa. This is the Divine stuff I cannot understand with my mind. Yet, my heart is stunned and tearful about Mother Theresa and Christ’s love for God.
St. John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul
Mirabai Starr (2002)discussed the concept of dark night of the soul in her book, “Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross”. Starr writes that St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila immediately connected because they both felt that the Catholic Church had lost its “holy inspiration” and they both wanted church reforms to go back to the simplicity of service and deep contemplation. St. Theresa of Avila started a movement known as Discalced Carmelite Order, also referred to as “Barefoot Carmelites”. This movement included monks and nuns taking off their shoes and wearing “rough sandals” to symbolize the call to return to simplicity of service. Starr writes that even though King Phillip of Spain approved of reforms, officials in Rome were not approving of reform. In 1577, St. John of the Cross was captured by friars due his involvement in reforming the church. Starr writes that St. John was tortured, flogged, interrogated. When St. John refused to deny the reforms, he was condemned to a tiny space, which was previously a toilet. He was described as starved and brought to the dinning commons to be flogged while other monks ate their meals. Starr states that St. John, starved, endured a brutal winter and then summer which led to his clothes to rot. During this period of intense suffering, St. John connected to his relationship with God to survive. Starr stated that as St. John’s suffering continued, he felt fading of Divine Presence. This led him to formulate passionate love poems to his Beloved, God in his poems. Eventually, a Carmelite brother provided pen and paper so that St. John wrote his poems expressing his pain of separation from God. After nine months, St. John escaped miraculously and found reunification with the living God in his heart. He fell into profound ecstasy that he came out of total darkness and found his Beloved, God. He wrote “Songs of the Soul: One Dark Night” describing the ecstatic reunion with his Beloved, God, an pouring of his heart for love of God after the excruciating pain of darkness.
It may be that the God man, Christ, in his humanity, immediately before the cruxifixtion, Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross all perceived feeling abandoned by God, which lead to their experiences of darkness, loneliness and deep suffering, known as dark night of the soul. If Christ, the God man, and spiritual giants, Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross reportedly experienced such feelings of being unloved and unwanted at certain points in their lives, I would argue that perhaps this is a more common experience in humanity than previously thought. These feelings of being unloved, unwanted, and existential aloneness may exist in some points in life, especially in times of vulnerability. Maybe more so in this pandemic.
Is dark night of the soul part of the human condition? What are differences between dark night of the soul and depression?
Are people’s perceptions of experiences of feeling unloved, unwanted and loneliness part of certain points in time in the human condition? Starr (2002) writes that St. John’s experiences are part of the human condition. She argues that events, such as, divorce, job loss, career change, trauma may lead to dark night of the soul experiences. What are differences between dark night of the soul and mental health issues, such as depression? Starr (2002) states that dark night of the soul is different from depression. She differentiates dark night of the soul as St. John experiencing painful emotions as he seeks union with the Divine and he is not concerned about health. According to Starr, St. John may not be seeking to eliminate painful emotions as he may see them as stages to develop into higher spiritual states. Bottom line, I have no answers about the demarcation of the psychological and spiritual arenas in the dark night of the soul experiences? I do not know the difference between dark night of the soul versus mental health struggles, like depression. This is an area that needs to be explored more in spirituality and psychology.
So I will go back to my practical side as a faith based person dealing with trouble? Practical spirituality include faith based and psychological strategies too. Loving God in dark times is super-hard, a Herculean task. I wonder if this dark night of the soul is a spiritual test of whether we love God for Who He is and not just for the wonderful Blessings He pours on us. Spiritual tests are the most rigorous. By the way, I have always hated academic tests in school.
Many people, including me, feel anger and frustration at God in tough times. Sticking with God through pain and suffering is probably the greatest spiritual challenge. I have no definitive answers. Just some preliminary thoughts. Again some strategies for dealing with painful situations are differentiating between what you can control versus what you have no control over. Focus on what you can control. Practice possible acceptance strategies on what you cannot control. As a faith based person, practice possible surrender of uncontrollable factors to the Divine Source even if you are questioning why certain things are happening. Surrendering to Divine Will is a tough task. Ask and receive help as needed from professional health care people or safe family or friends. Remember to notice the positive. One example is to remember how God got you through difficult times in the past and He Will again. I love Dr. Maya Angelou’s statement that if God got you through this far, He will get you through this too. Another positive strategy is counting Blessings or gratitude practice. Be kind, compassionate and nurturing to yourself. Develop healthy coping strategies for handling negative feelings.
Faith warriors: Dr. Maya Angelou and Dr. Wayne Dyer
In our times of suffering, God’s will seems incomprehensible. The only solace is that God walks with us in these dark times and good times. A wise person reminded me “God always Blesses” . A reminder that indeed, this difficult time too shall pass. Interestingly, Dr. Maya Angelou, a woman of strong faith encouraged herself and others to say “Thank You” to God for trouble because she said at the end of the storm comes the beautiful rainbow (Dr. Angelou’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, www.Oprah.com, July 13, 1993). Dr. Angelou’s faith was spectacular, majestic and breathtaking that she is able to say “Thank You” in the face of trouble. This was stunning to me when I first heard it. Dr. Angelou also described her belief that she can do anything set before her because she knows she is a “Child of God”. This suggests her strength and self-efficacy that comes from her relationship with God.
Dr. Angelou also talked about the most important virtue to cultivate is courage. She said that without courage one cannot practice other virtues. So right, Dr. Angelou is. The best definition of courage is to confront the challenge and move forward in the face of fear and adversity. Tough stuff.
I will end with a powerful quote of Dr. Wayne Dyer:
“If you knew who walked beside you at all times, on the path that you have chosen, you could never experience fear or doubt again.”
The challenge is to remember this when we are walking through darkness and experiencing feelings of unloved and loneliness. This is where faith comes in. In the Bible, Hebrew 11:1 defines “Faith … is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” . I am a big believer that God honors faith.