|Writing in the Dark: Kent Ira Groff on Mother Teresa's secret grief|
|Written by introduction by Earl S. Johnson Jr.|
|Thursday, 31 January 2008 12:00|
Recently the world of spiritual study and practice has been shocked by a previously unknown revelation about the severe doubts of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. For years she could not find Christ and at times doubted her calling to serve the poor. Some people wonder if they should continue to honor her as a spiritual mentor if she had such trouble finding her way. |
Recently the world of spiritual study and practice has been shocked by a previously unknown revelation about the severe doubts of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. For years she could not find Christ and at times doubted her calling to serve the poor. Some people wonder if they should continue to honor her as a spiritual mentor if she had such trouble finding her way.
Kent Groff's reflections on the benefit of her writings and the lesson they leave with us for our Lenten meditations give us hope when we encounter our own doubts and fears:
Since the recent release of secret writings in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the "saint of the gutters" has made headlines again. The world's popular icon of integrity and love reveals that for more than fifty years she felt a sense of emptiness without the inner peace that she brought to others. Many feel puzzled.
A Jesuit priest near Calcutta told how five years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, "Mother came ... to speak about the excruciating night in her soul. It was not a passing phase but had gone on for years" (Time, September 3, 2007). We want to ask, "What enabled her to give the world such beautiful pieces of light out of her darkness? "
Many of us serve as spiritual guides for others, sometimes without even knowing it. Yet we may wrestle with our own doubts. What clues can we take from Mother Teresa when we feel like hypocrites?
In the light of such desolation, her amazing life of love seems like even more of a miracle. I will focus on two ordinary "miracles" that empowered this tiny Albanian nun to move mountains when most human beings would have given up.
First, the process of writing into her doubts saved her from drowning in the emptiness. Second, behind-the-scenes spiritual guides who were there for her provided perspective for her to inhabit the emptiness as a valid form of faith.
How can we pray when we can't pray? Writing into her confusion and emptiness became for Mother Teresa a way of expressing her longing for God, her yearning for joy. To yearn is to pray, and writing is a way to give voice to our yearning.
Keeping a spiritual journal creates space for exploring our doubts and emptiness. (I tell myself that if after I die someone searches my journals, it may be my final ministry of humility.) If tunneling down into our confusion enables us to love, then it's not self-preoccupation but a tool of compassion.
In 1999 I had the privilege of a sabbatical retreat in India directed by Father Carl Dincher, a Jesuit priest who I learned was Mother Teresa's spiritual director for much of her life. Some mornings at 5 a.m., I would ride with Fr. Carl to various centers of the Missionaries of Charity, where he would celebrate Eucharist. In every chapel a plain wooden crucifix would hang with Jesus' words from the cross: I thirst.
While writing this, I discovered that Fr. Carl was on leave in Pennsylvania, where I was able to visit him. We discussed how Mother Teresa came to understand that her own inner thirst for God was her way of identifying with Jesus' loneliness when he cried, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34). In such a way she embraced Jesus' forsakenness inside herself on behalf of all forsaken people.
By quenching the thirst in dying and rejected people, she came to believe she was quenching Jesus' thirst in them and herself. It was with one of her spiritual confessors that she came to this insight. She wrote, "For the first time in 11 years -- I have come to love the darkness" (America, September 24, 2007). On that day she said she felt deep joy "for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness & pain."
Here we see writing and spiritual guidance coming together to inspire one of the world's beloved active contemplatives. I want to suggest that both are ordinary small ways that we can find grace in our own dark times and help others do the same.
A spiritual counselor tells of meeting with a young man who had just lost his father. Toward the end of the session, the counselor told him the Serenity Prayer. Not knowing the prayer, he asked, "Can you write it down?" Instinctively, he handed the man pad and pen to write it for himself. As he wrote, "God, grant me the serenity... to accept the things I cannot change..." he began to weep with each phrase, "...the courage to change the things I can... and grant me the wisdom to know the difference." Writing unlocked the gates of his grief.
Maybe writing in the dark enabled Mother Teresa to live and love in the light. What if she had never written these private letters and journals? Would she have given into despair?
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is pastor of First Church in Johnstown, N.Y. and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.
 Kent Ira Groff, a retreat leader, spiritual companion, and writer, is a member of Spiritual Direction Colorado, and an ordained pastor in the PC(USA). First published in the November/December, 2007 issue of the Colorado Episcopalian, portions above are adapted from his latest book Writing Tides: Finding Grace and Growth through Writing (Abingdon Press, 2007) and are printed with permission. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.