"The Secret Life of Mother Teresa" was the main feature in Time magazine recently (Sept. 3). The cover story, based on a new book titled...

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“The Secret Life of Mother Teresa” was the main feature in Time magazine recently (Sept. 3). The cover story, based on a new book titled “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” (Doubleday), recounts this beloved holy woman’s 50-year crisis of faith.

In extensive correspondence with her spiritual confessors, she anguishes that her prayer lacks any sense of the presence of God.

Though this relentless desert in prayer seems like a contradiction, it has been, in fact, the experience of many of the great saints. The 16th century Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, for instance, experienced 20 years of interior darkness. At one point she cried out to God: “If this be the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

What does seem unusual in the case of Mother Teresa is the long, unbroken duration of her interior darkness.

The well-balanced, sensitive Time article recounts that by 1979 when she received the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa had become a global beacon of self-abnegating care.

Garbed in her familiar white sari with the blue trim, she proclaimed to the world: “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor.’ “

And then she explained that in dying on the cross, God had made “himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.” So she urged that Christmas should remind the world “that radiating joy is real” because “Christ is everywhere — Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.”

Yet, in a letter to her confessor three months later, she said, “As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear.” She believed that her own prayers were spurned or empty.

To the atheist Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa was a fraud. Hitchens claims in his new bestselling book, “God is Not Great”: “She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person.”

Hitchens’ cynical view, and that of others, raises questions about God and faith, about the divine and human, and how and whether we actually can experience the presence of God.

There is, of course, no answer that will rationally satisfy the Hitchenses of this world, but there is the sure knowledge that comes from faith.

In “Guidelines to Mystical Prayer” (Dimensions, 1980), the Carmelite sister Ruth Burrows perceptively explains from her own mystical experience that those who have some level of union with God will likely “know” God, but they will not know how they are knowing. The knowing bypasses our finite intellect and consciousness so we can know that we know God, yet we may spend our lives in a spiritual aridity.

That is why in writing about the dark night of the soul, the classic mystics such as the 16th century’s Spanish saint, Teresa of Avila, always stressed that our feelings and any experiences of God are not indicators of spiritual depth or union.

Rather a genuine life is the most profound witness to a life of union with God.

In a time of aridity, Saint John of the Cross, another Spanish mystic and a contemporary of Teresa of Avila, advised in his book, “Dark Night I”: “Be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God.” To some, that advice can seem like a cruel joke. How could I be lovingly attentive to someone who seems so completely absent?

In his commentaries, John of the Cross uses “night” as a symbol of humanity’s pain. “Night” holds such a sense of alienation from God, he wrote in “Dark Night II,” that the inner self feels dismantled — “Like one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hand and foot, unable to move or see or feel any favor from heaven or earth.”

Night signifies that which comes upon us and takes us out of our own control — an echo of the Easter night where the paschal candle pierces the darkness as a sign of the rising Christ. For ultimately, John of the Cross contends, God heals in darkness. In the dark night, God quietly purges the soul of narcissism and self-centered desire so that one’s entire soul is centered on the Other — on God and on God’s creation.

Such darkness, we might suspect, was also the source out of which Mother Teresa became the hands and feet of God to bring healing to the destitute, to the lame, to the oppressed — to those most broken in the world. Although she experienced darkness in her core, God’s light radiated out from her. Can there be any clearer sign of the holiness of God pervading her life?

For just as light comes out of the darkness of space to illuminate the Earth, Mother Teresa’s luminous life came from the interior darkness of her own union with God.

The Rev. Patrick Howell, S.J., is vice president for mission and ministry at Seattle University. He and other columnists take turns writing for the Faith & Values page. Readers may send feedback to faithpage@seattletimes.com