Mother Teresa

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

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.

Mother Teresa's private battles on the long path to sainthood

While no one knew it at the time, 1951 was a pivotal year for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the start of a private battle for the tiny nun millions hailed as a living saint.

"When we talk about Mother Teresa we celebrate her victories and all the good works she accomplished in her life. But what did this victor have to overcome? That's an important question," said journalist Kenneth Woodward, author of "Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why."

"We often miss this spiritual warfare component in the lives of the saints, that whole element of struggle and grace. … With Mother Teresa, this just has to be there or her story is not complete."

It was in 1928 that 18-year-old Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu left her family in Macedonia to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, first working as a teacher in Calcutta.

Then, on Sept. 10, 1946, Sister Mary Teresa experienced a vision of Jesus calling her to move into the slums while serving the poorest of the poor. After this "call within a call" she created the Missionaries of Charity, beginning the work that produced waves of support for the Vatican to proclaim her a saint -- which will occur in rites on Sept. 4, the eve of the anniversary of her death on Sept. 5, 1997.

But another story was unfolding that remained a secret for decades.

It was in 1951 that Mother Teresa prayed that she be allowed to share the pain and loneliness that Jesus suffered on the cross. Her private letters made it stunningly clear that this prayer was granted. Her visions stopped, replaced by silence.

Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps Howard)

Mother Teresa was having a bad press conference.

Journalists gathered for her 1989 Denver visit seemed determined to ask a litany of questions about her views on every imaginable issue in world affairs and American politics. The soft-spoken, yet often stern, nun seemed confused and kept stressing that her Missionary Sisters of Charity would always focus on the needs of the needy and the sick, including those suffering from AIDS.

One television reporter even asked if the day's main ecumenical event -- a "Celebrate Life with Mother Teresa" prayer rally -- would include a Mass. Once again, the tiny sister from Calcutta was confused. How could there be a Catholic Mass if the rally included Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, Pentecostal believers and clergy from other churches?

"We will pray together," she said. "That is what we can do."

I raised my hand and asked another question that I knew she might not want to answer. I had heard that she had privately toured Northeast Denver, an impoverished area hit hard by gangs. Might she open a mission there?

Mother Teresa smiled, but gently deflected the question, noting that Denver had recently been added at the end of a long list of dioceses worldwide making just such a request.

What happened next was a singular moment in my journalism career, one that awkwardly blurred the lines between the personal and the professional.

Why bring this up right now? For more than 25 years, I have written this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service, a streak that ends this week with the closing of the wire service. My "On Religion" column will continue to be carried by Universal Uclick, formerly known as the Universal Press Syndicate.

During this quarter of a century, readers have asked one question more than any other: Who is the most remarkable person you've met while covering religion? That's a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L'Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?

My answer centers on what happened after that Denver press conference, after Mother Teresa -- now the Blessed Mother Teresa, one step from being recognized as a saint -- finished her private prayers before the ecumenical service.

The clergy taking part in the rally were gathered in a holding room deep inside the arena and, eventually, security guards moved through to remove the reporters. I was in a corner, hidden behind the Greek Orthodox cathedral dean in his flowing vestments. The guards missed me.

Suddenly, Mother Teresa entered, spending a few moments with each of the clergy. When a priest tried to introduce me, she took my hand. "Yes," she said, smiling. "He asked me earlier about starting a house here." We talked briefly and she said she was surprised that a reporter had asked that question.

Hours later, as the rally ended, Denver's archbishop followed protocol and gave the elderly nun several gifts from the people of Colorado. Then she raised her hand to silence the crowd.

"I have a gift for you," she said, gesturing toward members of her team. "I will give you my sisters and I hope that, together, we are going to do something beautiful for God."

Archbishop J. Francis Stafford -- now a cardinal in Rome -- flushed red with shock. The work to build a Denver mission would begin immediately, rather than many years in the future.

Mother Teresa's gift was the story of the day and my editors kept asking a blunt question: What led to her shocking decision?

Well, I had a quote from Stafford, who said: "She is a spontaneous person. Maybe we will never know why she made her decision now."

But I also told them about my strange encounter with the woman that millions already considered a living saint. Could I include this factual material in a news report, even though I was directly involved in what transpired?

What happened really happened. The quotes were in my reporter's notebook.

Nevertheless, we decided to play the main story straight.

The problem was that I was the eyewitness. I mean, I was there and so was Mother Teresa, the most remarkable person I have encountered in my journalism work.