Few figures in the 20th century were more influential or more widely loved than Mother Teresa of Calcutta. For most of us who are Christians, if challenged to put a face to The Spirit, hers would quickly come to mind. She loved the poor, the sick, and the dying with a selfless devotion. And even when the world in various ways sought to pay her homage, and even when she received a Nobel Peace Prize, she didn’t cash in her servant’s role for a chauffeured existence of caviar and Caribbean cruises. She stayed the course, offering hands-on ministry to (in her words) “the poorest of the poor” through the organization she founded, The Missionaries of Charity. They operate hospices and homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; medical dispensaries and mobile clinics; children's and family counseling programs; orphanages; and schools. Members must adhere to the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. Teresa gave her entire adult life to that, even to the very end in 1997.
An interesting insight about Mother Teresa became public only after her death. She kept a spiritual journal, kind of a prayer-and-reflection diary. Though it was her desire that the journal be destroyed upon her death, it was instead read and distributed for others to read. In it we learned that very early in her life, the young nun was spiritually ecstatic. She used to pray, "O Lord, I want to love You as no one else ever has." But her journals also revealed that for the next forty-three years she frequently prayed, "Lord, where are You? How did I lose that original ecstasy? Where did You go?" Once she said, "If I am ever named to be a saint, let me be the saint of those wander in the darkness searching for light." Teresa was a woman, despite her profound Christian ministry, who experienced the very human and painful reality of doubt.
So, what do we learn from this? Two things, I think. First of all, it is impossible to remain consistently on emotional or spiritual mountaintops. There will be moments of ecstasy, moments when we know beyond question that God is real and God is with us. But, it is inevitable that sometimes we will descend into life’s valleys, the shadows will close around us, and the God we could see so clearly before will seem nowhere to be found. Often that is the result of pain or loss or tragedy or daily tough times. Sometimes (as was, I suspect, the case with Teresa), it is the result of fatigue. If we do not set aside ample time to care for ourselves, we burn out and cannot provide adequate care for others. Put another way: where our bodies go, our emotions and souls go with them. So, do not feel less than faithful when moments come that you don’t sense God’s nearness. It even happened for Mother Teresa. It even happened for Jesus when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” But the truth is, God is always near to us, even when the shadows make it difficult to see God.
A second important thing to note as we reflect on the life of Mother Teresa is that her own words offered an answer to her plaintive prayer, "Lord, where are You?... Where did You go?" Do you remember what she often said? “The poor are Christ to me.” Even though in her weariness she sometimes wondered where God was, in her daily ministry of love she saw God. She held Christ in her arms as she held to sick or dying people who needed to be loved. In the hungry children and their homeless parents, she saw the face of a Savior who once said, “The birds of the air have nests, and the foxes have holes, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Every time she loved someone and helped them and nurtured them and extended kindness to them, the God she sought was present. If God does not feel close to you, then do something kind for someone who cannot repay the favor, and in that moment God will become evident again.
Many of us often feel that we are wandering in darkness, searching for light. But the fact is, “the Light of the World” is always with us. And whenever we tenderly love others, the darkness is shattered and we see His smile again.