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For decades, Mother Teresa ministered to the poorest of poor on the streets of Calcutta in her signature blue-and-white sari, picking maggots off the face of a diseased outcast or cradling an AIDS patient in his dying moments — and assuring them of God's love.

The world's most recognizable nun, however, had a secret: She no longer felt that divine affection herself.

And, like an abandoned lover, "Mother" — as she was known — never gave up yearning for its return.

"The place of God in my soul is blank," she wrote to her priest confessor. "There is no God in me — when the pain of longing in me is so great — I just long and long for God — and then it is that I feel He does not want me — He is not there. ... The torture and pain I can't explain."

On Sunday, the Catholic Church is poised to canonize her as St. Teresa of Calcutta, recognizing her untiring efforts on behalf of society's throwaways. When she died in 1997 at 87, Mother Teresa left behind more than 5,000 members of the Missionaries of Charity and other religious orders, with projects in more than 130 countries.

As Utahns join millions of others around the globe in extolling the new saint's virtue, her "long loneliness" is seen not as a contradiction but rather as an integral part of her holiness.

"I can identify with Mother Theresa's devotion and don't feel it is so extreme that I can't relate to it," says Mary Reade, a member of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "Actually, quite the opposite."

The nun's wanderings in a "spiritual desert," Reade says, "normalize my experience with my own devoutness. Sometimes I feel an almost evangelical 'on fire' and other times ... not so much."

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of "My Life With the Saints," argues Mother Teresa is "the greatest saint of modern times."

Many, many Catholic saints "have done what she did — found a religious order, work with the poor, lead a life of outstanding holiness," Martin tells Religious News Service. "None of them, however, have done that without the benefit of a rich interior prayer life, which is what she had to confront in the last 50 years of her life. ... None of the saints had to do the kinds of things she did on an empty tank."

With her charity work, she earned the title "saint of the gutters," but she now may also be known, he says, as "saint of the doubters."

Feeling the divine tug • The newly minted saint, who began life in August 1910 as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, an ethnic Albanian living in what is now Macedonia, was drawn to religious service at an early age.

She left home at 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland, where she took the name Sister Mary Teresa after St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a 19th-century Catholic nun.

After Sister Teresa's first "Profession of Vows" in 1931, her Vatican biography says, she was assigned to the Loreto Entally community in Calcutta and taught at St. Mary's School for girls.

Six years later, she took her final vows, becoming the bride of Christ for "all eternity."

In 1946, while taking a train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, India, the feisty nun heard the voice of Jesus, urging her to reach out to slum dwellers and "radiate God's love."

"Come be my light," she says Christ told her. "I cannot go alone."

The diminutive sister felt embraced by this love, graced by it, filled by it in every part of her soul.

Directed by such mystical encounters, Teresa launched the Missionaries of Charity in the Archdiocese of Calcutta. It wasn't long before young women flocked to join, identified by their blue-trimmed saris and their drive to touch the so-called untouchables.

Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity Brothers in 1963, the contemplative branch of the Sisters in 1976, the Contemplative Brothers in 1979 — the same year she received the Nobel Peace Prize — and the Missionaries of Charity Fathers in 1984.

On Oct. 19, 1972, Mother Teresa came to Utah, stopping at the Trappist monastery in Huntsville to address the Co-Workers of the Missionaries of Charity. She told the monks it is easy to spot those without many material possessions.

"But with a personal union with Jesus," she told them, "we can see that the poor are Christ himself.''

Left on her own • Mother Teresa had felt emboldened by Jesus to "be that light of God's love in the lives of those who were experiencing darkness," writes the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk in the introduction to "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light - The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta."

"For her, however, the paradoxical and totally unsuspected cost of her mission was that she herself would live in 'terrible darkness.' "

That darkness would become "the greatest trial of her own life," writes Kolodiejchuk, a member of the Missionaries of Charity Fathers who led the effort to canonize her, "and a fundamental part of her mission."

At first, she blamed this heavenly "absence" on her own "sinfulness and weakness," he explains, but she eventually came to see that her "painful inner experience was an essential part of living out her mission. It was a sharing in the Passion of Christ on the Cross."

Many Catholic saints have described periods of anguish and feelings of spiritual emptiness, says Monsignor Francis M. Mannion, emeritus pastor at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Holladay.

"Generally it passes," he says, "but it is a reality."

There is a difference, though, between a feeling of loss and disbelief.

"It is one thing to have a complete collapse of faith in God," Mannion says. "The 'dark night' is believing God is there but not experiencing him."

University of Utah religious studies scholar Colleen McDannell sees the famed nun's plight as true to her religious tradition.

"It is very Catholic to do good without a spiritual payback," says McDannell, who has written several books on Catholic topics. "You continue to do it because you know it's right. This is what Jesus did — he took care of the marginalized."

By sharing the loneliness, which is key to the 20th-century equivalent of being without family or community, Mother Teresa recognizes that "mental suffering is as real as physical suffering."

With her providential call, she caught a glimpse of "the divine aura," McDannell says, and was sent to the streets to "get back to work."

Even if it meant, as the saintly nun came to realize, doing so in the dark.

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