01. 08. 2015. 14:22

The dark night of the soul

An interview with Zsuzsa Takács

I am sure that Teresa of Calcutta did not think that God has a religion. This is what those who consider themselves believers cannot forgive her, whereas radicals attacked her for administering the anointment of the sick to dying people they took home from the street.

How did you meet Teresa of Calcutta, and what made you write your ‘India’ cycle of poems?

About eight years ago, I read an article in the Newsweek about Teresa of Calcutta, who died at the age of 78. It turned out only after her death that she lived in a spiritual darkness from the age of 38 to her death. In 2008, Brian Kolodiejchuk’s book, a compilation of Teresa’s diary entries and her letters, was published in Hungarian. I read a few pages, and immediately bought the book, the written documentation of a staggering dialogue with God, first present, then more and more distanced, and finally hiding from her. From the day Teresa heard the calling of Christ on the train from Darjeeling to Calcutta, calling her to leave the lyceum in Loreto and go out into the street to help the miserable in India, she did everything to obey that voice. As soon as she put her plan into practice, and started to work in the streets with a few other women, with four rupias in her pocket, she desperately realized that God was further and further away from her. Gradually she arrived at the conclusion that perhaps God does not even exist after all. She continued her work for many decades, doubting all along in her heart and her brain, saving the lives of tens of thousands with her fellow sisters, recuperating the newborn babies thrown into the garbage, accommodating and schooling starving children who lived in the streets, curing women who were victims of rape and abuse, collecting beggars who were terminally ill and helping them to die in dignified circumstances. For me, it was not the excesses of her responsibility felt for others, the extreme degree of compassion and self-sacrifice that were incomprehensible but the faithfulness to her calling and her vocation. I was intrigued by how she eliminated the boundaries of her own personality. That is why she became the heroine of two of my volumes of poetry.

Was this a dark night of the soul? Uncertainty, doubt, denial of God – are these progressive stages of development? Can one transcend the boundaries of reason and faith?

I am quite certain that we can talk about a dark night of the soul in her case, a phenomenon known by mystics. However, I don’t know any other saint who could bear the tribulations of the dark night of the soul as long as she did, who could hide her wounds so successfully and with so much forbearance, remaining seemingly cheerful in front of her companions as well as the poor and the outcast. Her story goes far beyond solidarity awakened by the misery of humans and the jarring consequences of giving up individual interest and her own personality. Reading her diaries, letters and conference talks I was shivering as I felt that yawning abyss that opened up between the figure of Teresa of Calcutta, so close to God, and me. If Teresa was a fictional character invented by me, I would represent her as a depressed heroine, guided by a Kantian sense of duty. Yet I felt that this response was inauthentic from the psychological and false from the artistic point of view. At most, I can ask questions, similar to what scholars of mystic literature pose about the religious ecstasy and self-sacrifice of holy men and women, or what writers articulate when they encounter individuals who are different from ordinary, down-to-earth people. This is an exceptional example of talking differently, of a shift of emphasis, of an attention focused on the essence, and an attitude that follows the teaching of Christ literally, which, in Teresa’s case, was coupled with enormous stamina, sober judgment and a great talent for organizing.

Writing as a therapy and self-expression – is that the case with her writings? Her poems and diaries are the impressions of an age rather than literary works; the inner motions of a doubting soul.

Some poems are extant from her youth that can hardly be called poems and do not deserve attention even within her biography. Her diaries and letters, as well as her notes written in preparation for confession, on the other hand, are touching confessions of an adult, then elderly, nun, written without embellishment and a writerly ambition. So this is not like Meister Eckhardt, St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila, or St Augustine – this is in a way more, and in a way less then that. These are infinitely personal reflections that she refused to publish to the end of her life, and that were among the material of the beatification tribunal, later published in a volume, edited by the postulator of the cause of her beatification.

The inner being of Mother Teresa was characterized by religious tolerance. Can one function that way, doesn’t this conviction make one helpless and at the mercy of others?

From her birth, Teresa lived in a multicultural setting. Her ancestors were peasants. She was born in Skopje in 1910, at the time of the Ottoman Empire. She was Albanian, but she wrote her letters in Serbo-Croatian as she studied in Belgrade. Then she went on to university in Belgium, and then to Loreto, from where she left to India, and lived there to the end of her life. She considered herself Indian; she prayed in the Hindu way at Gandhi’s grave. I am sure that Teresa of Calcutta did not think that God has a religion. This is what those who consider themselves believers cannot forgive her, whereas radicals attacked her for administering the anointment of the sick to dying people they took home from the street. As I imagine it, this was not more than an attempt to give consolation, to deliver the dying person to the grace of the Christian God. If there are modern saints as some claim then she definitely belongs among them. Yet I think that she is a contemporary of Saint Francis of Assisi, not in a historical sense, of course – she is timeless as the Gospel. She is completely defenceless.

You have written a radio play on Teresa of Calcutta. Did you manage to come closer to the mystery?

I researched the topic and wrote the radio play for three months. Eventually, as it usually happens, I realized that the answer was already there in my text in the form of a quotation, I just hadn’t heard it before. It was uttered by a reporter who said, speaking about Mother Teresa, that the elect start to shrink from the moment of the calling, becoming ever more insignificant, making place in themselves for a force that is greater than them. In the end, they become completely empty, and it is Christ who lives and works in them. The practice or the idea of emptying oneself is, by the way, part of Buddhist or Christian (or for that matter Sufi and Hassidic) meditation as well.

This interview was originally published in Hungarian at litera.hu.

Zoltán Tamás Varga

Tags: Zsuzsa Takács