One of the beautiful things about being a millennial is that I have never known a world without Mother Teresa. I didn’t know much about her when I was a child, but I knew she took care of poor people in India. I had just turned eleven when she died. As I came of age, she was beatified and then canonized. Now, I have a little girl whose middle name is Theresa (spelled with an “h” to also honor my mother-in-law of the same name). For many of us, St. Teresa of Calcutta has always been a light in the darkness of our world.
Somewhere along my journey in the Faith, I learned that Mother Teresa struggled with depression. I haven’t borne this cross myself, but in recent years, I’ve striven to accompany a couple of dear, faithful women who are living with postpartum depression. In hopes of inspiring and encouraging them, I sought to learn more about this “Saint of darkness.” I went to my favorite avenue for spiritual book recommendations—my regional Blessed s She Facebook group.
Mother Teresa’s Private Writings
The ladies of the Northeast delivered quickly and in chorus. I was to read Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”.
Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., whose commentary puts Mother Teresa’s letters in context, is well qualified to do so. He joined the Missionaries of Charity Fathers when they were founded in 1984, and later served as the postulator of Mother Teresa’s Cause of Beatification and Canonization.
While Mother Teresa wasn’t diagnosed with depression in her lifetime, she did experience decades of darkness and emptiness. Fr. Kolodiejchuk describes it as, “profound interior suffering, lack of sensible consolation, spiritual dryness, an apparent absence of God from her life, and at the same time, a painful longing for Him.”
Time and again, in fact, she struggled to even put into words her pain and suffering. She served Jesus despite her struggle, and really, through it. In accord with a private vow she’d made to never refuse Jesus anything, she consistently strove to respond to God’s will with a smile, even when it was only on the outside.
That may sound strange, and she often worried she was deceiving her sisters with an expression of happiness that didn’t live much below the surface. However, she discerned that her near-silence on the state of her interior life was a sacrifice she was being asked to offer up. She didn’t speak openly about her struggle and wanted her letters burned (clearly, that didn’t happen).
The spiritual poverty she experienced opened her to more fully experience the poverty of those she and her sisters served. “It often happens,” she wrote, “that those who spend their time giving light to others, remain in darkness themselves.”
Her Particular Call to Sacrifice
I don’t mean to suggest that those suffering depression should eschew counseling or treatment in the name of holiness. Mother Teresa’s situation was carefully guided by a series of devoted spiritual directors. She wasn’t trying to be strong or suck it up or anything of the sort. Rather, in every moment, she actively participated in serving Jesus in the Missionaries of Charity (what she called “His work”). In doing so, she was sustained, even when she felt so alone and empty.
Through the guidance of these spiritual directors, she was able to see the redemptive potential of her pain. “(A)ll the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution must be redeemed, and we must have our share in it,” she writes.
An Understanding of the Human Soul
She wanted so much to bring souls to Christ. Fr. Kolodiejchuk writes, “Mother Teresa understood the anguish of the human soul that felt the absence of God, and she yearned to light the light of Christ’s love in the ‘dark hole’ of every heart buried in destitution, loneliness or rejection.”
The purpose of her suffering was not to purify her from her sins so much as it was suffering of reparation. In a way unique to her vocation, she endured Christ’s pain at Calvary, His thirst for souls, and His Mother’s agony.
She didn’t see it for years, but her thirst for God was evidence of His presence. One of Mother Teresa’s spiritual directors, Father Neuner, commented, “No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart.”
Catholic Life is Full of Joy and Suffering
And so we are left with an image of a woman who was closely united with Christ, who lived with joy, peace, and serenity. But those qualities did not come without suffering.
What a benefit it is for us to see a contemporary example of the depths and reality of the spiritual life, as painful as hers was. We need to acknowledge that this Catholic life is not all rainbows and sunshine. In doing so, we recognize the reality of many followers’ journeys and hopefully we can encourage one another to persevere and trust in His love.
Mother Teresa had a beautiful soul, but not beautiful in the sense of unbroken or shiny and showy. In her words, “Suffering in itself is nothing; but suffering shared with Christ’s Passion is a wonderful gift.”
A Model of Radical Obedience
While her missionaries lived charity so fully and beautifully, I learned that even more compelling in this Saint was her obedience. She loved Jesus, even when she didn’t feel it. She is described as being “totally, passionately, madly in love with Jesus.” Jesus in the poor, Jesus in the Eucharist.
She wrote, “I want to love Him as He has never been loved before—with a tender, personal, intimate love.”
It seems to me, that’s exactly what she did in her time on earth, and I know it’s what she continues to do in eternity.
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Lindsay Schlegel is a daughter of God who seeks to encourage, inspire, and lift up the contemporary woman to be all she was created to be. She’s the author of Don’t Forget to Say Thank You: And Other Parenting Lessons That Brought Me Closer to God, as well as shorter nonfiction and fiction pieces, both online and in print. With joy, she speaks about recognizing God’s voice and living the truth therein. Lindsay lives in New Jersey with her high-school-sweetheart-turned-