In 2007, almost ten years after her death, it came into more public knowledge that Mother Teresa experienced a terrible sense of separation from God throughout the majority of her ministry. Less than three months before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she wrote in a letter to one of her spiritual confidants, “Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me—The silence and the emptiness is so great—that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear.”

Under the arresting weight of my own Dark Night tendencies, it gives me great comfort that although Mother Teresa experienced such intense pain and emptiness, she never seemed to fully waver in her certainty that God was actually there, no matter what she did or didn’t feel. “Thank God we don’t serve God with our feelings, otherwise I don’t know where I would be.”

I recently began reading Come Be My Light, a collection of Mother Teresa’s personal letters to her most trusted advisors that detail her inner struggles. According to the book, Mother Teresa first revealed her silent pain in a letter to her confident, Archbishop Perier,

Your Grace,

…Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’ Ask our Lord to give me courage.”

In the same letter in which she expresses her desire to start a leper colony, she also confesses, “If you only knew what goes on within my heart—Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel as if everything will break. The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.”

This lady was clearly reading my diary.

Life and ministry, in any official or lay capacity, is difficult and beautiful all at once. You might look at the revelation of Mother Teresa’s private spiritual life as shocking, perhaps even negating the profound impact she had (and still has) on the world during her time on earth. To me, this revelation is pure relief. Because it means she and I are the same.

I’m not calling myself a saint – the thought of total self-sacrifice, of spending every waking hour in service to the poorest of the poor (without a husband) sounds beautiful and noble, yes, while a touch on the boring side (did she ever flirt, or enjoy cinematic masterpieces like Sixteen Candles?).

But I know well the inklings of doubt butting up against spiritual, historical, and logistical certainty. I know what it’s like to long for a God who seems to have flown the coop. I’ve laid awake in the quietest hours of the night, feeling utterly alone despite all the loved ones dreaming and breathing tender breaths around me. And I know what it’s like to fervently preach what you are confident in your mind to be true, as if the strength and passion in words could make them come alive not only for an audience, but for yourself.

 Mother Teresa wrote in another letter to the Archbishop,

Please pray for me, that it may please God to lift this darkness from my soul for only a few days. For sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the longing for the Absent One so deep, that the only prayer which I can still say is—Sacred Heart of Jesus I trust in Thee.”

Having also just finished the final season of HBO’s The Leftovers – which remained as ever, pretty square in the middle of science and faith – I so long to see God tangibly, leaving no room for doubt or fear or desperation. In the terrible constraints of my own very real depression, pressing against me from every which way, I wear a smile like a “big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.” I want to see God, to feel him with me as the lap beneath my troubled head, the fingers running through my unwashed hair, and the capable arms pulling me up and out of it all.

The Archbishop responded to Mother Teresa’s confession saying,

With regard to the feeling of loneliness, of abandonment, of not being wanted, of darkness of the soul, it is a state well known by spiritual writers [sidenote: woop!] and directors of conscience. This is willed by God in order to attach us to Him alone, an antidote to our external activities…To feel that we are nothing, that we can do nothing is the realization of a fact. We know it, we say it, some feel it. That is why we stick to God and like the little Bernadette at the end of her last retreat wrote: God alone, God everywhere, God in everybody and in everything, God always.”

With the plight of Mother Teresa (and the Leftovers) fresh on my mind, I scrolled through Instagram a few days ago to see that one of my best friends had posted a pretty typical social media sunset video. But the caption she wrote alongside the imagery hit me straight in my sweet spot.

Her words read: “Thought I was just headed to my car in the Kroger parking lot, but then the sky did this and I suddenly found myself at church.”

God gave me new eyes, if only for just a moment. He was everywhere. I saw myself one minute, lying on an unremarkable medical table in my chiropractor’s office, and the next I was in a church, being adjusted by this precious old man whom (it occurs to me now) has been treating me in ways that far supersede my spine. He listens to me as a wounded person in need — not unlike Mamma T’s lepers – a person for whom life has been hard; a person whose body has been unreliable, even indignant at times, but a person worthy of being tended to.

Next, I was standing on a broken sidewalk in front of my kids who were locked in yet another bickering match over who got what toy. I looked beyond the stroller, tears burning behind my exhausted eyes, to a pier that reached out into the ocean like an opened hand, as far as the eye could see. We walked there. As the stroller began to bounce along the weathered wooden planks, the kids turned silent. The wind blew through me. And the world was as wide and wild as I wanted it to be as a child. We were at church.

An unexpected invitation in the middle of the day found me first achingly alone, and then face-to-face with a new friend enjoying meaningful conversation over fries and a burger at In-and-Out. What was this spontaneous lunch and an unlikely friendship other than church? Or the wallpaper in our master bedroom, chosen haphazardly for its beauty, painted with green trees, limbs winding and entangled. While working from bed (my creative and productive place) this plainly “pretty” wallpaper began to look like blessed signs of life that had literally surrounded me, hemmed me in, like a sanctuary. At actual church, with the dull pangs of darkness sitting heavily on my chest, burning hot on my palms, the worship leader sang, “It is finished! He has done it! Let your weary heart rejoice / Our redemption is accomplished / Raise a shout with ragged voice. And go bravely into battle / Knowing he has won the war / It is finished, lift your head and weep no more.” Church that day – at one moment a triage tent for the dying – became the holy green room for a New Earth.

God alone, God everywhere, God in everybody and in everything, God always.

Mother Teresa said, “[W]hen I walk through the slums or enter the dark holes—there our Lord is always really present.”

One of the hardest truths for me to grasp is that our suffering, loneliness, and sorrow have zero impact on the fact that Jesus did live, he did die on a cross, and he walked the earth three days later, alive. That same, living Jesus, has given me both spiritual and bodily life – and he’s painted life all around me, like wallpaper, life that breathes abundant with his bewildering, hidden beauty, even in the darkest of places.

In a letter to Father Neuner, Mother Teresa said:

Before I could spend hours before Our Lord—loving Him—talking to Him—and now—not even meditation goes properly—nothing but “My God”—even that sometimes does not come.—Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. When outside—in the work—or meeting people—there is a presence—of somebody living very close—in very me.—I don’t know what this is—but very often, even every day—that love in me for God grows more real.—I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously most strange tokens of love.”

In this manner, about eleven years into her unrelenting darkness, she came to love it in a way (although it would continue to afflict her throughout her life). Father Neuner later spoke on this strange transformation saying,

It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus’ passion. . . . Thus we see that the darkness was actually the mysterious link that united her to Jesus. It is the contact of intimate longing for God. Nothing else can fill her mind. Such longing is only possible through God’s own hidden presence. We cannot long for something that is not intimately close to us. Thirst is more than absence of water. It is not experienced by stones, but only by living beings that depend on water. Who knows more about living water, the person who opens the water tap daily without much thinking, or the thirst tortured traveler in the desert in search for a spring?”