Since a week ago Wednesday, Christians are observing Lent, a season of 40 days leading up to Easter. It’s a time for inner reflection, something I’m not all that fond of. But I began Lent this year by becoming better acquainted with Agnes Bojaxhiu, also known as Mother Teresa or Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
Born in Albania in 1910, she grew up reading books about missionaries, and, at age 18, she left home and went to Ireland to learn English, the language of missionaries to India. She arrived in India in 1929, learned Bengali, then taught school for almost 20 years. In 1931, she took religious vows and chose the name Teresa.
She enjoyed teaching but was disturbed by the poverty around her. In 1946, while traveling to her annual retreat, she received what she felt was an order to leave her convent and live among the poor. Two year later, she set aside her nun’s habit for a white cotton sari with a blue border, took some basic medical training and went into the slums of Calcutta. The next year she was joined by a few young women dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. They begged for food and supplies to carry out their work.
In 1950, the Vatican gave Teresa permission to form the Missionaries of Charity to care for, in Teresa’s words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all these people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for…and are shunned by everyone.”
It was also at this time that Teresa began to experience a spiritual crisis. Though often smiling and observed to be serenely at prayer, Mother Teresa’s letters to her spiritual directors reveal that she lived for decades with a devastating sense of God’s absence. Her Church overruled her desire to have these letters destroyed, and they were published in 2003 as Come Be My Light. The letters starkly reveal a modern saint’s long dark night of the soul.
Teresa’s correspondence shows her complaining of “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture.” She calls her smile a mask that hides her hypocritical self. She likens her experience to hell and finds herself painfully unsure of the value of prayer and the existence of God.
Rev. James Martin, author of the book My Life with the Saints, said, “I’ve never read a saint’s life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness.”
This is the part of Teresa I take into Lent with me. Her heart of faith was empty, and yet each day she rose before dawn and went about her difficult and discouraging work among destitute human beings. She felt she was a sham Christian, but she dedicated herself in Jesus’ name to merciful service to the least of the least. Over time, her order became a worldwide ministry with thousands taking up the task.
Though she was criticized for being in over her head, I find Teresa both astonishing and challenging. For most of her life she did the works of faith without the experience of faith in her heart. Teresa’s life shows us that having serious misgivings about the deepest elements of our spiritual lives is no excuse for not doing what we can to alleviate suffering in this world.
In 1979, in her acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, this little woman who had felt abandoned by God, summarized her personal theology. She said that on thecross, God made “himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one,” and we must find God’s hunger and alleviate it. In 2016, she was canonized a Saint of the Church.
My Lenten reflections on Saint Teresa cause me to wonder if keeping the faith may be less about believing in God and heaven and more about what we do for the least among us on earth. In much of what she did and said, she put that question squarely before us.
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.