Come Be My Light

By Mother Teresa

Doubleday Religion. 2007

Reviewed by Ceal McLean, CBWC’s Senior Writer and Editor

Come Be My Light

Mother Teresa’s private letters shocked the world when they were first published in 2007. World famous because of her lifetime of sacrificial service to the poor, she was esteemed universally as an exemplar of Christian love in action. Her extreme dedication to loving the poorest of the poor as she loved Jesus Christ led everyone to believe her relationship with God must have been exceptionally intimate. Yet, as the letters reveal, this was not the case: for 50 years, starting soon after she established the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, she was utterly bereft of the awareness of God’s presence in her life.

The letters, written to Mother Teresa’ spiritual directors from 1928 until her death in 1997, are painful to read. They reveal a simple, uneducated woman who wishes only to love God and know His presence in her life. She had experienced union with God as a young nun, so she wasn’t chasing some impossible fantasy of what a close relationship with God could be like, yet she was never able to escape her spiritual darkness from the mid-1940’s onwards. Despite this, she remained faithful, loving and serving God fully, outwardly manifesting God’s love though she didn’t feel it herself.

This is a remarkable book for several reasons. Rarely do we get such an opportunity to understand such an important Christian figure and have the opportunity to admire her all the more. The letters are also surprising, especially to people with preconceptions about the Roman Catholic faith, because they portray her as someone fully committed to evangelism. Her single-minded desire is to save souls, even offering up her own suffering if that would save just one more soul. Another surprise is how simple and single-minded she was in her devotion, and how unchanging she was throughout her life.

For non-Catholics, the letters are an intriguing window into the Roman Catholic understanding of suffering. In general, Protestants tend to see God as being with us in our sufferings and understanding our suffering because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. For Mother Teresa, the roles are inverted: she tries to take on Christ’s suffering. Indeed, her attitude towards suffering is one of the most perplexing of the book. Mother Teresa fully embraces suffering, so much so that it would seem a psychological aberration were it not for the fruit borne through her life. As a young nun, she asks for, and receives, permission to make a vow to God never to refuse Him anything, on pain of mortal sin. In Catholic theology, this means that if she is not fully obedient in everything, large or small, she would be condemned to Hell and utter estrangement from God, forever. What normal person in their right mind would raise the stakes on their behaviour in this way? Again and again, she asks God to increase her suffering if this will save souls and glorify God. She seems to seek out suffering as a mark of faith, an attitude that seems psychologically unbalanced. It is disturbing. Equally disturbing is that her spiritual directors, whose responses we know only partially, seem unable to help her.

Mother Teresa wanted all of her letters destroyed. She certainly destroyed her own copies and most of the letters she received from her spiritual directors in response. Fortunately, the Roman Catholic church has preserved them as a window into her interior life. Now, the letters are part of the process by which the church intends to create her an official ‘saint’ of the church. The letters are well worth reading by anyone wishing to reassess one of the most beloved and well-known Christians in our contemporary world. Though she lived in darkness, she displayed the light of God.