One of the most surprising things I ever heard about Mother Teresa was her lifelong struggle with doubt and spiritual emptiness. The most famous nun in the 20th century confessed to her religious advisors that she regularly felt an absence of God in her ministry. After years of caring for the sick and dying in India, she wrote to a friend, “The silence and the emptiness is so great—that I look and do not see—Listen and do not hear.”
We know the classic image of the aged and wrinkle-faced woman clothed in a white sari accented with blue. Beneath the garments was a woman racked with the same spiritual wandering that so many of us experience. But what kept her faithful to her gospel work was an incredible call of God.
She famously said it was a “call within a call.” Already a Catholic nun and missionary in India, Mother Teresa heard another message from God to tend to the sick and dying in one of the worst slums in the world. God had sent her on a journey as a nun, a lifelong and unique commitment, yet He had even more plans for her life.
Mother Teresa started the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. The mission was simple—serve the starving and the dying with Christ-like love. She and the other nuns gave food to orphans and widows and set up health care centers throughout the city.
She eventually became a religious superstar. Although a controversial figure to many, she was a witness for Christ to the world. And she did all of this as an unmarried woman. She left her family at age eighteen and never saw them again.
When God calls someone to a lifetime of singleness, it’s more than just giving up a spouse or family. He is offering a different type of relationship. Nuns like Mother Teresa consider their religious vows to be a marriage with Jesus, which, unlike regular marriages, is an eternal union.
The nuns aren’t losing a family. They’re entering a different type of family with their fellow sisters. This bond is not about blood but about spiritual union through Christ. This is the kind of fellowship that Mother Teresa joined and the community with which she suffered through many spiritual trials.
Traditional marriage has its own special role in God’s Kingdom. Parenthood is a high and vital responsibility that God allows us to participate in. In a way, Mother Teresa was treating the orphans and widows of Calcutta like her children. She felt a responsibility to care for the outcasts and the weak. She was surrounded by a network of Christians who supported her work and also ministered to her personal spiritual needs. Singleness didn’t mean loneliness because God provided her with a new family.
Regular correspondence with friends and clergy helped her bear the pain of not knowing God’s presence. She famously said that if she were made a saint, then she would undoubtedly be one of darkness, just like the mystics throughout Church history.
Our churches today are usually family-centered. Sermons and programs focus on spousal relationships and children. God gives us the Church community to help bear our burdens. It’s supposed to run like a big family. I noticed that many of my friends in church who came from broken homes or non-believing families understood this very well.
I think if Mother Teresa were trying to do God’s work all on her own, she wouldn’t have been able to finish the race. God gave her the grace of a spiritual family to support her in her dark nights of the soul. God knows the depths of despair that His people can go through. Few escape the feelings of emptiness during a lifetime of walking with Christ, but we don’t walk alone, even the most remarkable children of God.
Featured Image by James Coleman