If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of ‘darkness. ‘ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth. -Mother Teresa
If you who struggle with infertility are at all like me, you’ve amassed a list of saints and corresponding prayers, chaplets and novenas. I grew up in a faithfully Catholic home, learned my prayers and paged through the volumes of “Lives of the Saints” stored on a bookshelf in our hallway. And yet, when I was in the thick of blood draws and medicines, hormone injections and discarding test after negative pregnancy test, I was introduced to saints I’m sure I never saw in those pages as a kid. A whole new world was opened up to me in prayer, which was amazing, because the more “spiritual friends” we make, the closer we should grow toward God. Yet for me, the experience of meeting these new friends was often less prayerful and more perfunctory. I became caught in a loop of what felt like transactional business dealings with them: I pray to you, dear Saint, and you will in turn procure from God the gift that I want – a baby.
For me, this endless cycle of prayer, searching for new intercessors and that one prayer that will result in conception and wipe away all of my pain and suffering (or so I thought), was unsustainable. Already in our 40’s when we married, time was not on the side of my husband and me, and the pressure of “getting it done” before the clock ran out was often overwhelming. If all of this caused tension and upset in our marital relationship, it most certainly did the same in my relationship with God. I cried out to Him continually for an answer to my prayers! The answer that I wanted, that I believed best for me, that I was convinced would set my life and marriage in order; happily ever after, for ever and ever. Amen. Every negative pregnancy test felt to me like a flat-out denial of my pleas. I began to wonder if God loved me, if He was holding back a gift that I didn’t deserve, in punishment for a life not always lived well. Had God abandoned me?
You will not find Saint Teresa of Calcutta (or as most of know her, Mother Teresa) among the pantheon of “Saints of Infertility,” but in my own struggle, I have come to regard her as a close spiritual friend and intercessor. In some ways, I think Mother Teresa saved my faith and taught me important lessons I needed to learn about my relationship with God, loving my husband, and what this cross of infertility could mean for my actual, if not physical, maternity.
Born on August 26, 1910, Sister Teresa entered the order of the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland at the age of 18. In 1946, while riding in a train, Sister Teresa had a profound experience of Jesus’ presence. He spoke to her interiorly, instructing her to leave Loreto and found her own religious order to serve the poorest of the poor in India. Of course this took Sister Teresa by surprise, but the overwhelming presence and intimate love she felt from Jesus convinced her that she must do as she was told. In 1950 she received final permission from Rome to found the Missionaries of Charity. Now Mother Teresa, she and her sisters ministered to the sick, the homeless and the dying on the streets of Calcutta. Mother herself held men, women, and babies as they breathed their last. Whether Christian, Hindu, or without a faith, Mother met each one and saw in him or her, Jesus, “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” Internationally acclaimed for her work, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize, did interviews, gave speeches, and had audiences with Popes, Presidents – and even a Princess.
While most of us know Mother Teresa as a shining example of generosity, selflessness and spiritual motherhood, there is a side of her life that was only revealed after her death on September 5, 1997. The profound intimacy with Jesus that she first experienced on that train continued through the founding of the Missionaries of Charity. After the Order was firmly established, for Mother Teresa there was suddenly and unexpectedly…darkness. It was as if God had withdrawn Himself from her completely. She felt no spiritual consolation, none of the deep presence of Jesus in her heart that she’d so grown accustomed to for years. This was an agonizing pain, but one which she never expressed to her Sisters, or to the world. In letters to her Bishop, spiritual fathers and confessors, collected in the volume titled Come Be My Light, the full depth and breadth of that pain is revealed. In one letter she wrote,
In my soul, I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.
I read Come Be My Light before I was married, before I had any idea of the struggle ahead of me. Rereading Mother’s words now I hear my own voice, expressing the same pain at what I perceived as God’s distance from me as I suffered. Today I have a much different understanding of these words, and of Mother Teresa, because of my suffering. In her I see the pain of spiritual infertility. I see mirrored in my physical longing, and the pain of the loss of something hoped for but unfulfilled, the spiritual longing and pain she experienced. But I see something else, something I didn’t fully internalize when I first read her letters: Mother Teresa’s spiritual poverty – her spiritual infertility – gave birth to an amazing, selfless love for each individual person she encountered, whether a dying child on the street, or the countless numbers of people who met her, watched her on television, or read about her in books and articles. Mother’s life and work influenced the masses, yet touched individual hearts; “person-to-person,” as she described her work. In the pain, in the darkness, in the distance, Mother maintained her faith, believing that she was intimately united with Christ on His cross, experiencing the same distance and anguish He willingly chose to suffer for our salvation. This was more an explanation than a consolation for her, yet she understood and could see with her own eyes the fruitfulness borne from what she could only perceive as darkness.
In a favorite passage of mine from the collection of letters in Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa offers a priest encouragement in his spiritual life. She instructs the priest to, [t]ake your eyes from your self and rejoice that you have nothing – that you are nothing – that can do nothing. Give Jesus a big smile – each time your nothingness frightens you. I take such comfort in these words, because I feel like “the poorest of the poor” before God. So many times in my infertility I have gone to God with nothing to give. I have nothing to offer when I’m asked intrusive questions about my lack of children. There is nothing I can do to change or control my situation, except to practice my “smile” for Jesus, and rest in the truth that it is enough to lay my nothings at His feet.
Let us take up Saint Teresa of Calcutta, a Mother who knows well the poverty in our particular struggle, and ask her to “be absent from Heaven” to bring the light of Christ into our darkness.
Ann Koshute and her husband Keith live in Central Pennsylvania, and are Byzantine Catholics who recently celebrated 10 years crowned in marriage. Ann is co-founder of Springs in the Desert.