Mother Teresa – “Love is Left Alone”
Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
The Time cover story was not really news to me. I had read about Mother Teresa’s time of spiritual dryness in My Life With the Saints, by Fr. James Martin, S.J. Like most people, I never suspected that Mother Teresa’s spiritual silence and emptiness had lasted so long.
In the secular science of the soul – psychology – the current ideal of human development is one of balance. There is supposed to be an apportioning of time and energy for your internal, personal, and professional life. We are supposed to pay attention to our own personal space, our spouses, families, colleagues, communities, and the environment.
Like most ideals, it is unattainable. If we could achieve a balance in all of these relationships, we would implode under the disappearance of our own uniquely unbalanced personalities. If personal fulfillment and psychological health is not balance, it would seem that some portion of our efforts should be focused on many of these areas. What happens if your life is comprised only of ministry?
Mother Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) led a life beyond balance. She had no secular career, no family, no apparent hobbies. She had an all consuming ministry to those completely abandoned by society. Founding and leading a religious order and expanding the work of the Missionaries of Charity, left little time for sleep, let alone rest and relaxation.
Mother Teresa’s hyper-focus and zeal appears to go against most of the consensus about the development of the spiritual life. Spiritual directors and teachers prescribe adequate sleep, relaxation, and attention to personal and community relationships. The Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (c. 530) comes to mind, since it has been the de facto standard in monastic living. There is a large body of Christian literature, from the earliest times, advising prudence and temperance in the spiritual life.
St. Ignatius Loyola referred to dark periods, when there is little feeling of the presence of God, as periods of desolation or aridity. Early hermits in the Egyptian desert referred to this state as the “noonday devil.”
My first thought was that Mother Teresa’s lack of prudence and temperance had gotten the better of her. Yet, how could I make such an observation without knowing Mother Teresa? So, I decided to talk with someone whose home in Madras Mother Teresa had visited several times. Paul D’Souza is an old friend of ours who met her when he was 3 years old. What struck Paul was that, although the house was full, she always first sought him out and the other small children, before paying attention to any one else. Paul has had his own thoughts on harmony and balance for some time. As a management consultant and healer, Paul has his own theory of Beyond Balance.
When I asked him what he thought might have been the cause of Mother Teresa’s very long dark night of the soul, the reply was unusually sharp for someone with a master’s degree in social work. Paul remembered that Mother Teresa continually reminded her Missionaries that the face of Christ was to be found in every child, in every human person. The arduous work of caring for disabled orphans is a direct service to Christ. “What about balance?” I asked. In tones of not so patient exasperation, Paul said that in his study of leaders, “No one whoever accomplished anything was balanced.” When I pressed him on Mother Teresa as a person, he told me to talk with his mother who had met Mother Teresa several times.
I had a pleasant talk with Christine D’Souza, who is also an old friend. (Our children call her Grandma Christine.) She and her late husband, John, met Mother Teresa in 1968 in Madras, now known as Chenai. As many have recounted elsewhere, Mother Teresa was not demanding or seemingly driven. According to Mrs. D’Souza, she normally sat quietly and spoke in a soft voice while looking at her hands. Mother Teresa “put her cards on the table,” according to Mrs. D’Souza, and allowed her listeners “to pick up what ones they would,” without asking them to make any choice. Mrs. D’Souza recalls, “She had such humility, but with a strength and dignity. She reminded me of the beatitude, ‘Blessed are the meek.'” The only time Mrs. D’Souza recalls her making a request was when they first met and Mother Teresa asked her directly if she and the lay co-workers could meet at the D’Souza’s home.
When I asked Mrs. D’Souza what she thought about Mother Teresa’s decades of spiritual dryness, she responded with the wisdom of age and grace. Mrs. D’Souza said that she couldn’t speak for anyone else. She recounted that in her youth she experienced a closeness to Christ but that this emotional awareness and feeling waned over time. This absence did not keep her from raising a family, being a music educator, and engaging in many other activities in a spirit of faith.
Mrs. D’Souza recalled a few lines of a poem in a pamphlet her husband had given her:
God gives us love.
Something to love He lends to us.
Love reaches ripeness,
and of that on which it throve,
Love is left alone.