It is always tempting to see the saints, not as individuals with the very human struggles that afflict us all, but surrounded with an aura of sanctity, symbolised by a halo. This does the saints a disservice as it dehumanises them; it does us a disservice as they seem too far removed from our own lives for us to imitate them.
David Scott’s The Love That Made Saint Teresa is refreshing for this reason. He ponders aspects of the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (as she is generally known) which are often glossed over, such as the 18 years she spent in the privileged surroundings of the Loreto Convent in Calcutta, during which she barely mentioned the misery beyond the convent gates. “Her conversion to the poor came slowly,” he suggests.
More extraordinary are the details Scott gives which have only come to light since Mother Teresa’s death in 1997: her 50-year long dark night of the soul, and her initial visions of Jesus and His Mother in 1947 which led to her new vocation to the poor and the dying. Although she destroyed her notes and diaries, a small cache of letters written to her spiritual directors during that momentous year reveals that for some time she resisted Jesus’ explicit request for “Missionary Sisters of Charity, who would be my fire of love amongst the very poor – the sick, the dying, the little street children.”
Jesus told her she was “the most incapable person, weak and sinful, but just because you are that, I want to use you for my glory! Wilt thou refuse?” Mother Teresa describes how she disputed with this urgent request “and told [Jesus] to find somebody else, that she was frightened of the hardship and the ridicule she would have to endure. She promised to be a good nun if only he would let her stay put in her comfortable convent. But he kept cajoling her, challenging her with the refrain: ‘Wilt thou refuse to do this for me?'”
All this rightly disturbs us in our own, rather sentimental, image of sanctity. But it shows, as nothing else can, how like us in some respects the saints are, and the spiritual travails they sometimes endure in accepting divine invitations. It prompts the question: what if Mother Teresa had said “No”? Also, how many people decline the promptings of the Holy Spirit or of Christ himself and thus thwart the work of our salvation?
In 1957, during the early years of her sense of abandonment by God, though after she had begun her great missionary activity, Mother Teresa wrote to her spiritual director, “They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God… In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss…of God not really existing… I feel like refusing God. Pray for me that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness.”
She had asked that her letters to others be destroyed. I am glad that in these instances her wishes were ignored. They teach us how heroic she was – and also how human.