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Mother Teresa's Private Agony

By Richard N. Ostling
The Associated Press

October 18, 2003

As the Roman Catholic world prepares for Sunday's beatification of Mother Teresa, she is being revered as a missionary to India's poorest of the poor, someone whose close relationship with God seemed obvious from her willingness to undergo incredible hardship.

"If we went to [the poor] with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed," she once explained. And following her own admonition, Mother Teresa's perpetual smile was as integral to her image as the weathered face and blue-trimmed white robe.

But exterior sunniness masked an astonishing secret -- known solely to a handful of clergy counselors -- she was afflicted with feelings of abandonment by God from the very start of her work among the homeless children and dying persons in Calcutta's slums.

From all available evidence, this experience persisted until her death five decades later, except for a brief interlude in 1958.

Ordinary Christians might assume the holiest people exist in continual divine ecstasy. But many saints and mystics have felt the opposite: a keen sense of God's silence or absence. Paradoxical as it seems, confidants say that Mother Teresa came to understand such suffering was a necessary aspect of her heroic vocation.

Her interior struggle is revealed in letters from the 1950s and 1960s to her spiritual directors, along with the priests' recollections about her later years.

While bleak statements did not predominate in Mother Teresa's private writings, they occurred repeatedly:

"I am told God lives in me -- and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul," she wrote.

And this remarkable cry from the heart: "I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing."

But her words are only shocking if they are thought to be "a real doubt of faith," according to the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk of the Missionaries of Charity. He is the postulator, or chief advocate, of her sainthood cause.

The divine silence was especially excruciating for Mother Teresa because she enjoyed vivid experiences of God's love and immediate presence in 1946, when she was called to enter the slums and leave behind the comforts and joys of teaching at a convent school.

She never wavered in the conviction that God directly commissioned her ministry. She said she distinctly heard his voice say, "I want to use you for my glory. Wilt thou refuse?"

After examining Mother Teresa's life, Kolodiejchuk says that she believed the worst poverty wasn't material but total abandonment by other people. That was, of course, the plight of those to whom Mother Teresa ministered.

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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