A Light in the Darkness: the Life and Suffering of Mother Teresa
One of the most admired figures of the twentieth century was certainly Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun and missionary whose charitable work in India drew both praise and criticism. She spent the entirety of her adulthood in service to Catholic Church as a member of the clergy but made a marked departure from her initial religious congregation to form the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order focused primarily on providing service to the impoverished. Under Mother Teresa’s leadership, the Missionaries of Charity and its affiliated groups provided food, shelter, medical assistance, schooling, religious ministrations, and hospice care to marginalized communities around the world. [footnoteRef:1] Beginning in the late 1960s, her work received significant coverage from the media and more substantial recognition from the Vatican. In 1979, Mother Teresa received a Nobel Peace Prize for her work and was the recipient of several other such honors until her death in 1997.[footnoteRef:2] Her prompt beatification and canonization serve as testament to both her exceptional holiness and position within Catholicism. [1: Meg Greene, Mother Teresa: A Biography, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004) p. 4.] [2: Ibid.]
Despite the remarkable ways in which Mother Teresa outwardly demonstrated her faith, her personal records reveal her innermost spiritual struggles. Posthumously published correspondence and journals illuminate Mother Teresa’s own Dark Night of the Soul experiences. These stark aspects of Mother Teresa’s life have invited the attention of scholars of all subjects to comment on the efficacy of her work, the nature of her spirituality, and the effect she has had on modern Christianity. This biographical sketch will draw on some of this scholarship to explore the ways in which acute loss and othering shaped Mother Teresa’s life. Specifically, her experiences as a minority in several contexts, the loss of Mother Teresa’s father, and the looming presence of spiritual darkness serve as significant influences which pushed her toward her ultimate vocation as a servant of the poor.
Born on August 26, 1910 in Skopje in present-day North Macedonia, Anjese Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was the youngest child of Nikolle and Dranafille Bojaxhiu.[footnoteRef:3] The Bojaxhiu family were prominent members within both the Albanian Ottoman and the Skopje communities. Both of Mother Teresa’s parents enjoyed a certain amount of respect because of their charitable work and her father is especially notable because of his position as the only Albanian Catholic member of Skopje city council. Despite the pluralistic nature of early twentieth century Skopje, Albanian Catholics experienced a degree of prejudice as members of a dual ethnic and religious minority.[footnoteRef:4] The Bojaxhiu family gained distinction because of both Nikolle’s immense contributions to the city (he was instrumental in the construction of both Skopje’s first theater and the rail which linked the city with Kosovo) and Dranafille’s dedication to providing charity to region’s impoverished, regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliations.[footnoteRef:5] [3: Greene, 4.] [4: Gezim Alpion, “The Emergence of Mother Teresa as a Religious Visionary and the Initial Resistance to her Charism/a: A Sociological and Public Theology Perspective,” International Journal of Public Theology 8 (2014): p. 28.] [5: Ibid, 27-28.]
In his sociological exploration of her life, Alpion places the beginning of Mother Teresa’s attraction to a service-oriented clerical life in her childhood. He suggests that she first encountered charism, or God’s gift of grace, from her father and that encounter colored her approach to community.[footnoteRef:6] Likewise, Kwilecki and Wilson consider Mother Teresa’s childhood in their application of rational choice and economic theories to her religious choices. Her mother was a devout woman who communicated her religious devotion to her children. Kwilecki and Wilson suggest that, for the marginalized Bojaxhius, the Skopje Catholic parish offered both a religious function and a way by which they might preserve their specific cultural identity.[footnoteRef:7] When considered in the light of rational choice theory, the family’s involvement within the Church yielded more benefits than nonparticipation and the Bojaxhius might be considered, “…avid religious consumers.”[footnoteRef:8] [6: Ibid, 27.] [7: Susan Kwilecki and Loretta S. Wilson, “Was Mother Teresa Maximizing Her Utility? An Idiographic Application of Rational Choice Theory,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37, no. 2 (1998): pp. 207-208.] [8: Ibid, 208. ]
In turn, Anjese was a pious child who attended daily Mass and prayer, participated in various parish events, celebrated sacramental milestones, embarked on pilgrimages, and engaged in religious scholarship.[footnoteRef:9] After hearing an address by a Jesuit missionary at age 12, Anjese spent her adolescence contemplating mission work. When she reached adulthood, she joined the Congregation of Our Lady of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Ireland, an order which sponsored missionary work and had established convents and schools around the world.[footnoteRef:10] From the time she commenced her novitiate in India in 1929 to her departure from the Sisters of Loreto in 1948, Sister Mary Teresa lived in the Entally convent and taught at St. Mary’s School in Calcutta.[footnoteRef:11] [9: Ibid.] [10: Greene, 34. ] [11: Ibid, 36.]
Cloistered life, however, did not fulfill the vision Sister M. Teresa had of her own vocation. Most accounts of her life point to the significant events of 1946 to explain her departure from the Loreto order. Overtly religious narratives describe a call from God Sister M. Teresa experienced while travelling to Darjeeling for her annual retreat while more secular accounts frame her disillusionment with the convent as a response to the destruction wrought by both the Bengal Famine of 1943 and increasing sectarian violence in India in 1946.[footnoteRef:12] Alpion notes that the Sisters of Loreto primarily provided educational opportunities for the daughters of privileged families in the region and did not provide much in the way of charity or service to the impoverished.[footnoteRef:13] Because the Entally convent and St. Mary’s School were quite proximate to one of Calcutta’s slums, Sister M. Teresa would have been aware of its presence and the plight of its inhabitants—even if she only left the convent for her annual retreat. The increase in violence during the 1940s may have brought the suffering of indigent Indians more clearly to her attention. Regardless of whether she received any divine communication, it is fair to suggest Sister M. Teresa was moved by the plight of her neighbors and that sentiment may have been the impetus of her renewed call to serve the poor. [12: Greene, 48-49. ] [13: Alpion, 37-38. ]
Alpion makes an interesting observation about other deeply unpleasant experiences Sister M. Teresa had during her time with the Sisters of Loreto. He describes the ways in which Sister M. Teresa differed from her peers in the convent and how that may have affected their interactions. The majority of the Sister of Loreto were of Irish origin and perhaps viewed the Albanian Sister M. Teresa as less European. Father Perier, the Archbishop of Calcutta, remarked in a letter to Mother Gertrude Kennedy, the order’s Superior General, that as someone of Yugoslavian nationality, she had been treated unfavorably because she lacked the same quality of education as her peers.[footnoteRef:14] This, of course, was a very diplomatic way of describing the rather racist treatment Sister M. Teresa received. That veiled racism is also present in remarks made by her contemporaries which allude to her accented English and her superiors’ decision to prevent her from teaching in English.[footnoteRef:15] Further, after Sister M. Teresa made her intention to leave the order known, her mistreatment became even more pronounced. Some of her superiors translated her desire to leave as a slight against the order while others questioned the veracity of her claims that she had received a divine calling.[footnoteRef:16] [14: Ibid, 37.] [15: Ibid. ] [16: Ibid, 39; Greene, 54.]
In addition to her basic desire to provide care for the suffering, Sister M. Teresa’s decision to help the most impoverished of Calcutta might have been informed by ostracization she had experienced up until that point in her life. While her family did enjoy a certain amount of privilege, they were still members of a community that experienced prejudice and discrimination as minorities. When she entered the order of the Sisters of Loreto, populated primarily by Irish nuns, she retained her minority status because of her ethnicity and nationality. As Alpion points out, these differences were noted by her peers and superiors and the ways in which she differed from them were amplified when she expressed her intention to leave the order. Sister M. Teresa’s experience as a Sister of Loreto shifted from one influenced by shrouded mistreatment to outright cruelty as her peers referred to her as a “freak” or “the devilish nun.”[footnoteRef:17] [17: Albion, 37, 40. ]
Mother Teresa was perhaps moved to serve those in the throes of extreme suffering and marginalization because she wanted to alleviate those feelings that she, herself, had acutely experienced. Indeed, she described the Missionaries of Charity as a congregation which offered, “…care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society…”[footnoteRef:18] Likewise, she spoke to the theme of unwantedness in her Nobel lecture when she described the simplicity of alleviating hunger compared to the difficulty in resolving the hurt associated with exclusion.[footnoteRef:19] One might connect Mother Teresa’s attention to the idea of unwantedness to the ways in which she, too, experienced marginalization. [18: Greene, 59. Author’s emphasis.] [19: Ibid, 59, 122.]
She was finally granted leave from the Sisters of Loreto in 1948 and embarked on her journey to establish the Missionaries of Charity.[footnoteRef:20] Despite initial hardships in establishing the congregation, her mission would prove to be a resounding success as she gained support from many people and organizations across the world. Despite this success, Mother Teresa was plagued by doubts about both her relationship with and the existence of God. This spiritual darkness is present in the narratives of other significant Catholic figures, including Jesus Christ, who cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” after his ninth hour on the Cross;[footnoteRef:21] St. Therese of Lisieux, who experienced “a night of nothingness;”[footnoteRef:22] and St. John of the Cross, whose Dark Night of the Soul is the term frequently used to describe periods of spiritual darkness or aridity among the especially devout and spiritual.[footnoteRef:23] [20: Greene, 58. ] [21: Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34. ] [22: Greene, 141.] [23: Smith, 70.]
While those of the religious persuasion attribute spiritual darkness to the endeavor, “…to complete Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross,”[footnoteRef:24] secular scholars have attempted to compare spiritual darkness to modern understandings of various forms of psychiatric pain and suffering. While scholars are careful not to equate the two or assign particular value to one interpretation of anguish, their insights are helpful in understanding the roots of Mother Teresa’s particular struggles. Williams, for example, points out the ways in which Mother’s Teresa’s personal writings (journals, correspondence, etc.) echo the loneliness, emptiness, and despair expressed in Depression narratives such as Prozac Nation, Darkness Visible, and A Melancholy of Mine Own. Indeed, the interior darkness expressed by Mother Teresa quite closely reflects the formal categorization of a depressive disorder as delineated in the DSM-5.[footnoteRef:25] [24: Ibid. ] [25: S. Taylor Williams, “Illness Narrative, Depression, and Sainthood: An Analysis of the Writings of Mother Teresa,” Journal of Religion and Health 53 (2014): p. 291.]
Psychoanalytical tools are also potentially helpful in understanding the thrust of Mother Teresa’s spiritual darkness. Mahmood connects a significant moment in Mother Teresa’s childhood, the loss of her father at age 9, to both her all-consuming relationship with God (who she addresses in her papers as Father) and the grief she feels with regard to their disunion.[footnoteRef:26] If one considers that Mother Teresa possibly transferred her feelings of daughterly affection from her deceased father to a heavenly father figure, her supreme desire to please and reach God through her work with the Missionaries of Charity is quite understandable. Despite her lifelong commitment to service, it appears she never reached fulfillment—as evidenced by her decades-long Dark Night of the Soul. Some scholars suggest this is typical of spiritual figures while others gently propose that Mother Teresa might have benefited from therapy or antidepressants. [26: Kaif Mahmood, “Psychoanalysis, Religion, and Enculturation: Reflections Through the Life of Mother Teresa,” Journal of Religion and Health 54 (2015): p. 644.
In spite of Mother Teresa’s own significant spiritual struggles, her work made a deep impression in the global community. While her legacy includes saintly patronage, schools, and Kosovo’s first Catholic cathedral, Mother Teresa’s lasting impact lies in the ways in which she embodied the importance of prayer, ministry, and devotional perseverance despite immense spiritual struggles. As evidenced by perennial interest and analysis of her life and records, Mother Teresa is a fount of important lessons and themes which speak to subjects ranging from the theological to the psychiatric. With regard to modern Catholicism, Mother Teresa provides a model of faith for those struggling to move through the modern world as devoted Christians. Though there is room in the study of her life for criticism, Mother Teresa’s dedication to her vocation is worthy of praise.
- Alpion, Gezim. “The Emergence of Mother Teresa as a Religious Visionary and the Initial Resistance to her Charism/a: A Sociological and Public Theology Perspective.” International Journal of Public Theology 8 (2014): pp. 25-50.
- Greene, Meg. Mother Teresa: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.
- Kwilecki, Susan and Loretta S. Wilson. “Was Mother Teresa Maximizing Her Utility? An Idiographic Application of Rational Choice Theory.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37, no. 2 (1998): pp. 205-221.
- Mahmood, Kaif. “Psychoanalysis, Religion, and Enculturation: Reflections Through the Life of Mother Teresa.” Journal of Religion and Health 54 (2015): pp. 639-648.
- Smith, Richard Upsher. “Behold a Pale Horse: Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the ‘Experience of Nothingness.’” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 16, no. 1 (2013): pp. 70-82.
- Williams, S. Taylor. “Illness Narrative, Depression, and Sainthood: An Analysis of the Writings of Mother Teresa.” Journal of Religion and Health 53 (2014): pp. 290-297.