Mother Teresa

Ten years after Mother Teresa died in 1997, an edited collection of her personal writings from 1929-1994 was published in a book titled Come Be My Light. These writings surprised both her supporters and detractors alike, revealing that she had suffered from ‘the dark night of the soul’ throughout her celebrated charitable and missionary work.

New research, published in Critical Research on Religion, has examined the impact that the extended crisis of faith had on Mother Teresa’s work, using a biographical and new sociological approach.

Dr Gëzim Alpion, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Birmingham, the author of the study, who has been conducting research on Mother Teresa’s complex personality for over twenty years, said: “In Roman Catholic spiritual theology, the concept of ‘the dark night of the soul’ refers to a period of extreme spiritual agony that eventually leads to a complete mystical union with God.

“Mother Teresa was always a controversial figure, but after Come Be My Light was published, this perception increased significantly, chiefly as it revealed a lifelong struggle with her faith, which disrupted the image many had of her - a devout and unwavering servant of God.”

Mother Teresa was always a controversial figure, but after Come Be My Light was published, this perception increased significantly, chiefly as it revealed a lifelong struggle with her faith.

Dr Gëzim Alpion, School of Social Policy

The study outlines that despite Mother Teresa’s influence and following growing exponentially, her writings reveal that she experienced deep loneliness and that she struggled to find God in a world of pain and suffering.

To achieve her goal of finding God, the study argues she employed numerous helpers including the poor, former pupils, nuns, volunteers and others. She even admitted on one occasion that she was doing her work with the poor primarily ‘for the sake of her soul’, and that she was uncomfortable about ‘deceiving’ those working for and trusting her.

Dr Alpion continued: “Teresa’s struggles with her faith became her main motivator for her work, and this continued as she got older. We can see this clearly in 1953 when her ‘darkness’ had become so ‘terrible’ that she wrote that she felt ‘as if everything’ within her was ‘dead’. From then onwards, her decisions to expand her work across India in the 1950s and overseas from the 1960s were geared towards easing this pain.”

The revelation of Mother Teresa’s struggles has led many to raise questions about her mental health, and the possibility that she may have been depressed, although this has split scholars.

Dr Alpion continued: “Her defenders resist the idea that her struggles with her faith were symptomatic of depression, whereas a few admit that her writings display signifiers of a depressed person. This reluctance to acknowledge the link between the dark night and depression points to the bias and the stigma surrounding mental health within the Catholic and Christian communities.”

At the end of the 1950s, Mother Teresa seemed resigned that darkness would never leave her, and in 1962 at the height of her spiritual crisis, Mother Teresa wrote that if she was to become a saint, then it would be one of darkness. She became increasingly reticent about her darkness from the 1970s onwards hoping it would become less intense. By then, she ventured into communist countries, including her native Albania in 1989. The “godless” world was her last hope to get rid of her doubts in God.

Dr Alpion concluded: “To diminish Teresa’s struggle with her faith is to diminish her efforts. This research outlines that her lifelong battle with her faith not only influenced her work but determined her choice of vocation and every decision after, including the charism of the Missionaries of Charity and the stages of her ministry.

“If Mother Teresa achieved anything in her life, it was her ability to raise awareness of the sacred dignity of human life, unlike anyone else, spiritual or nonspiritual. This is no small feat for someone who seemed to be so tormented.”