Americans voted her the most admired woman of the 20th century. When Mother Teresa’s (1910-1997) personal letters and papers were published in 2007, the book took everyone by surprise. Come, Be My Light chronicled her 50-year struggle with doubt and depression. Early in her ministry as a nun, Mother Teresa felt a deep connection with Jesus. She experienced repeated visions of Jesus calling her to begin the Missionaries of Charity work. She became easily recognizable, dressed in her distinctive blue and white habit, caressing poor, abandoned children. We admired her loving manner and resilient generosity. So, what are we to make of her letters, that she never wanted to make public, which describe her acute desolation? Some conjecture she suffered from depression. The telltale signs of melancholy are evident in her words about darkness and loneliness. The fact that her misery didn’t respond to pastoral counseling or staying busy with work could be an indicator of clinical depression. Others explained her affliction in spiritual terms, in what St. John of the Cross called, “a dark night of the soul.” Her letters reveal a decades-long struggle with doubt and dryness in prayer. Perhaps her struggles were both physical and spiritual. We want to place our spiritual leaders on superhero pedestals. It’s official now–Mother Teresa is not a Plaster-of-Paris saint. Her perseverance in serving the Lord, despite mental distress, wins my admiration. It makes her more believable and accessible. Faith can coexist with doubt. Jesus commended the man who exclaimed, “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Mother Teresa’s daily prayer becomes more powerful, given what we know about her now:
help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life.
Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours.
Shine through us and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul.
Let them look up and see no longer us, but only Jesus.
Stay with us and then we shall begin to shine as you shine,
so to shine as to be light to others.
The light, O Jesus, will be all from you.
None of it will be ours.
It will be you shining on others through us.
Let us praise you in the way you love best
by shining on those around us.
Let us preach you without preaching,
not by words, but by our example,
by the catching force–
the sympathetic influence of what we do,
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.
Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.