There is an eternal truth to Pope St. John Paul II’s declaration: "Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."
However, in order to reach Easter, we must pass through Holy Week.
After a year of pandemic that has upended much of life as we knew it, this Holy Week may be particularly painful. In the United States alone, we may reach the grim marker of 550,000 deaths by Easter Sunday. Millions of people have lost their jobs, small businesses are shuttering in record numbers, and hunger/homelessness has increased in proportions not seen since the Great Depression. Collectively and individually, we have so much suffering to unite with Christ this year.
In the midst of trials, it's natural to turn to God, like Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, and plead, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me." But when we must drink from the cup of suffering, we can turn to Mother Teresa who said,
"If I ever become a Saint—I will be one of ‘darkness’. I will continually be absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth."
In 1946, Mother Teresa was given a “‘call within a call’” to satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving Him in the poorest of the poor”. Mother Teresa answered this call by founding the Missionaries of Charity, which ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the poorest of the poor living in the slums of Calcutta, India.
They began as a humble group of 12 sisters, and by the time Mother Teresa passed away in 1997, there were 3,914 sisters and 363 brothers serving the poor in 120 countries. (Today, they number over 5,000.)
Mother Teresa's ministry, which she only credited as Jesus's "work," was blessed by a superabundance of graces, and she left her mark on the world. Mother Teresa's single most important reason for the Missionaries of Charity was to satiate the thirst of Jesus, through serving Him in the poor.
But it wasn't until after her death, and the publishing of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light in 2007, that the world learned of the deep and long-lasting spiritual darkness and suffering she experienced.
In 1956, Mother Teresa had shared her experience with a few close spiritual advisors, and one letter to her confessor summarized the ordeal:
"There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal… Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place—the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God.—Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."
The priests Mother Teresa confided in reassured her that the darkness she was experiencing was an experience that most likely all saints have gone through—the dark night of the soul, as St John of the Cross called it—and the dark night of the spirit, that fewer have saints passed through. Archbishop Ferdinand Perier counseled Mother Teresa that the darkness was a "purification and protection against pride in the face of the remarkable fruitfulness of her work."
Mother Teresa also shared a letter with a priest who had asked her to write to Jesus.
"In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—there is so much pain—the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is a terrible separation. I don't pray any longer—I utter words of community prayers—and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer."
When Mother Teresa was first called by Jesus to begin her mission in the slums, she had written about the poor who suffer terribly in this life and then spend eternity in darkness because there were no nuns or other religious to give them a helping hand in their own dark holes. She insisted:
“[It would be] worth going through every possible suffering just for one single soul and offering everything—for just that one—because one would bring great joy to the Heart of Jesus.”
In 1961, Fr Joseph Neuner, SJ helped Mother Teresa find new meaning in her suffering by linking it to that missionary call. He explained that her darkness was the spiritual side of her work—that by her spiritual darkness, she was sharing in Christ's redemptive suffering. And that through her pain of feeling abandoned and unwanted by God, she was drawn mystically into the deep pain of rejection felt by those to whom she ministered.
As I sat in Mass on Palm Sunday, with the crucifix and holy statues and images shrouded, I thought of Mother Teresa, and how for over forty years she too was shrouded in a cloak of darkness and suffering. Jesus was there—just hidden and inaccessible to her senses.
It's believed that Mother Teresa's specific experience is very unique and possibly only shared by St. John of the Cross himself. Most of us will not experience what she endured. However, we all still suffer pain.
What we can learn from Mother Teresa’s experience is that God is always there even when we can’t feel Him. We, too, can offer our suffering in union with Christ’s, like St Paul taught, to make up for what is lacking.
Moreover, even when we feel we’ve reached our limit, even when we feel like Jesus and ask God, “Why have you forsaken me?”, we can be assured that Easter will come. Whether in this world, or upon entering the Kingdom of God, we can rest assured that Jesus has overcome the powers of darkness, and that if we cling to His promises, we too will have the victory.
"In this time of Lent, the time of greater love, when we look at all that Jesus chose to suffer out of love for us, to redeem us, let us pray for all the grace we need to unite our sufferings to His, that many souls, who live in darkness and misery, may know His love and life... May Our Lady be a mother to you and help you stand beneath the Cross with great love."
Alessandra Harris is an author, wife, mom of four, and Black Catholic who earned a Bachelor's Degree in Comparative Religious Studies. Her third novel will be published in 2021.