Like most illustrations in children's books, the image of Mother Teresa is quite simple, showing her kneeling in prayer beside her bed in a dark room, facing a bare cross and a single candle.
The tiny nun's eyes are open and her expression is hard to read. The text on the opposite page is candid.
"Mother Teresa experienced a great sorrow. Ever since she had moved to the slums, she no longer felt the presence of Jesus as she had before. She felt as though abandoned, rejected by him," according to "Mother Teresa: The Smile of Calcutta," a storybook for young children. "In her heart, she felt darkness and emptiness. She experienced the suffering of the poor who did not feel loved. She shared in the loneliness Christ suffered on the Cross."
Only the priests who worked with her knew about this "dark night of the soul," an experience seen in the lives of some other saints.
Working with text by Charlotte Grossetete, originally written in French, Ignatius Press editor Vivian Dudro said she "spent lots of time working on how to phrase that part. … You picture a young child reading about this pain in a saint's life or having this story read to them. How do you explain something like this in a few simple words?"
This dark night is clearly a crucial part of the life of the Albanian nun who was canonized this past weekend as St. Teresa of Kolkata. The formal petition to Pope Francis concluded: "Despite a painful experience of inner darkness, Mother Teresa travelled everywhere, concerned … to spread the love of Jesus throughout the world. She thus became an icon of God's tender and merciful love for all, especially for those who are unloved, unwanted and uncared for."
St. Teresa's sense of spiritual loss was the mirror image of the intense spiritual visions that, in 1946, inspired her to plunge deep into the slums of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) to serve the poorest of the poor. This move eventually led to the founding of the global Missionaries of Charity.
Early in this work, in 1951, her private letters and journals indicate that she prayed to be allowed to experience the isolation and pain Jesus suffered on the cross. Her visions immediately stopped.
"Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The one -- you have thrown away as unwanted -- unloved," she wrote in 1957. "I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer. … Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives."
It will be a challenge to explain this concept to young children, said Father James Martin, the author of "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" and many other popular works of apologetics. He has called Mother Teresa the greatest Catholic saint of modern times because of her faithful service to the poor -- even while experiencing such a profound challenge in her prayer life.
Asked to explain this painful puzzle -- as schoolteachers and priests will do in the years ahead -- he said he would focus on the common experience of prayer.
Martin offered, by email, these thoughts for children: "Do you know how sometimes it's hard to pray? Well, believe it or not, Mother Teresa didn't feel like God was close to her. Even though she knew that God was close she just didn't feel it. She felt very lonely. When she talked to a friend about it, though, he said that even Jesus felt lonely. And poor people feel lonely too. So Mother Teresa started to understand that this was one way she could be closer to Jesus."
This is the key point, stressed Dudro. St. Teresa used her suffering as a motivation to continue serving the poor and abandoned, rather than as an excuse to flee to safety elsewhere.
"She asked for this experience and she got it," said Dudro. "That's a powerful and beautiful thing, but that's also the kind of beauty that strikes a chord of terror in me. But she wanted that sense of communion with her Beloved. …
"So be careful what you pray for. Right? … But whatever happens, be faithful and keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep going."