In the beginning of his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI pronounced that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
I love this quote because it highlights the fact that the center of our faith is a person, Jesus Christ, who became man, suffered, and died for each one of us, thereby revealing and inviting us into the love-life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I have to admit that I am challenged by this notion of an “encounter with an event.”
Thoughts, ideas, and distinct ethical choices—these are all under my control. If the Christian life is about them, I seem to have a sure path, a clear way forward. But an “encounter with an event” feels risky and uncertain. Encounters are things that happen to me; events are things that erupt in my life. And yet Benedict is insisting that the Christian life is lived in this space of risk, with a focus not on what I am doing, but on what is happening to me.
This was a favorite theme of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose feast we are celebrating today. When asked “How can we know the will of God?”, her answer was simple: “Watch and see what happens.” And so, Teresa is a good saint to learn from as we embark on this path of “being Christian.”
“What happened” for Mother Teresa started with her First Communion at age five-and-a-half—when she was still little Gonxha Agnes, daughter of a devout Albanian family. That day, she had a profound encounter with Jesus that jump-started her life of prayer. By twelve, Gonxha was sure she wanted to give her life to God and at eighteen she left home to become a missionary with the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. She received the name “Teresa,” learned English, and went to teach schoolgirls in India.
Encountering God in prayer, the sacraments, and teaching the girls, Teresa found herself wanting to give God everything in return. She decided, with the approval of her spiritual director, to “never deny him anything”—which is to say that she firmly committed herself to always remain on the level of “what happens,” to never retreat into her own idea of “what could be.”
At this point, Teresa encountered God more definitively than ever. He entered her prayer by way of interior words and began to ask her to do extraordinary things. He wanted her to be his “light to the poor,” to become a comfort to the abandoned souls of Calcutta. He wanted a new religious order to support this work, and he told her to leave her current situation to start it.
For the next two years, Teresa worked through the long process of being released from her order. At last, on August 17, 1948, she left her convent to live and work in the Calcutta slums—the beginning of the Missionaries of Charity, whose nuns, priests, brothers, and numerous lay collaborators serve in 133 countries today.
But in this same moment, reality for Teresa suddenly changed. The beautiful encounter with God in prayer, the sense of his presence and love, disappeared. In its place was an interior “darkness.” She later described it to her spiritual director:
The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—Heaven—souls—why these are just words—which mean nothing to me.—My very life seems contradictory.
It was not a wholly unique experience. Many saints have reported such “dark nights,” purifying experiences that detach the devout soul from all sensible consolations in order to foster complete dependence on God. Elizabeth Ann Seton told of a similar period in which God seemed utterly absent:
I love and live, and love and live, in a state of separation indescribable. My being and existence, it is true, are real, because I meditate, pray, conduct the community, etc., and all this with regularity, resignation, and singleness of heart; but yet, this is not I, it is a sort of machinery, no doubt acceptable to the compassionate Father, but it is a different being from that in which the soul acts. In meditation, prayer, Communion, I find no soul; in the beings around me, dearly as I love them, I find no soul; in that tabernacle I know He is, but I see not, I feel not.
Like Mother Teresa, Elizabeth felt the deprivation as an intense pain— a “daily martyrdom.”
But these experiences of darkness and absence seem to challenge Benedict’s teaching. If being a Christian is about an “encounter with an event,” what happens when nothing is happening? What is it to be Christian when God seems absent?
Here the witnesses of Teresa and Elizabeth reveal something unexpected. In the face of darkness, neither women shut down. Both continued to act. Elizabeth confessed feeling that she was going through the motions like a “sort of machinery,” yet she was leading her sisters and teaching the girls. Mother Teresa felt like a fake, a hypocrite, yet she continued to guide the Missionaries. In fact, faced with the absence of God, both women were thrown more definitively into contact with those whom God had given them. In his absence to them, God became the “event” of other people.
From this experience came Mother Teresa’s famous description of caring for the poor person as “encountering Christ in distressing disguise.” It was not just that she wanted to love the poor man as Christ did or love Christ in him. Rather, for Teresa, in this moment, this poor man was Christ. He was the only Christ she knew.
With the help of her spiritual director, Teresa was able to go even deeper into this experience. He explained to her that the loneliness that enveloped her was a sharing in Christ’s own anguished cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Hearing this gave her unexpected joy for it enabled her to see that even in the darkness, she was encountering Christ; she was sharing in his ultimate act of love.
“I have come to love the darkness,” she declared, “for I believe now that it is a part, a very small part, of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.” And this experience opened up the possibility of being present to others in a new way. It broke open her heavenly mission. “If I ever become a saint,” Teresa said, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
In going “all the way with Christ,” through abandonment to mysterious joy, Teresa’s witness becomes an invitation to the risk of the Christian life. And, having walked this path already, Teresa—like Elizabeth and the rest of the saints—is there for us now, as she was for those whom she loved in life. And so, it seems natural to pray, “Come, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, be my light!”
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.