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Originally published August 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 25, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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A private struggle with faith

Mother Teresa, a globally beloved symbol of saintly devotion to the poor, spent her last 50 years secretly struggling with doubts about...

New York Daily News

Mother Teresa, a globally beloved symbol of saintly devotion to the poor, spent her last 50 years secretly struggling with doubts about her faith, her newly published letters show.

"If there be God — please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul," she wrote.

The letters paint an astonishing portrait of the nun revered for her selflessness and serenity. In reality, she was tortured for decades by her inability to feel even the smallest glimmer of the Lord's presence.

She felt abandoned by Christ, referred to Jesus as "the Absent One" and called her own smile "a mask."

In the 1960s, after receiving an important prize, she wrote, "This means nothing to me, because I don't have Him."

Sixty-six years' worth of her personal letters to superiors and confessors — preserved by the Roman Catholic Church, despite her dying wish that they be destroyed — are published in a new Doubleday book, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light," and excerpted in Time magazine.

The book is by the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, director of the Mother Teresa Center and the driving force behind efforts to canonize her.

She has been beatified, the step before formally being declared a saint by the church.

"I've never read a saint's life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented," Kolodiejchuk said.

He said the depth of her spiritual suffering increases her saintliness.

Most believers suffer crises of faith, but the duration of Teresa's alienation seems extreme.

It began, she said, soon after she set up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the late 1940s to help India's poor. And it lasted, with only a five-week respite in 1959, until her death at 87, in 1997.

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"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,' " she wrote in 1953.

After Pope Pius XII died in 1958, Teresa prayed to him for proof that God was pleased with her work. "Then and there disappeared the long darkness ... that strange suffering of 10 years," she wrote.

But five weeks later, she reported being "in the tunnel" again, and the darkness never lifted.

The nun, born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to ethnic Albanian parents in what is now Macedonia, likened her "spiritual dryness" to Christ's doubt on the cross.

"I have come to love the darkness for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness & pain on earth," she wrote in 1961.

Teresa was a 36-year-old convent teacher riding on a train in India on Sept. 10, 1946, when she said Christ spoke to her, telling her to become a missionary in the slums to help the poorest of the poor.

Back then, she felt a deeply personal bond with Jesus, recounting conversations and visions. It was that loss that she mourned the rest of her life, although she never abandoned her work.

The writings address numerous topics, but the ones most likely to create a stir are what Doubleday calls the "dark letters."

In 1956: "Such deep longing for God — and ... repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. (Saving) souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."

In 1959: "If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no Soul then Jesus — You also are not true."

At times she also found it hard to pray.

"I utter words of community prayers — and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give — but my prayer of union is not there any longer — I no longer pray."

Information from Reuters was included in this report

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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