"Darkness and Light"
Why would a Christian like Mother Teresa undergo extreme desolation of faith -- and how could this persist for many years? Aren’t Christians supposed to be joyful? Shouldn’t our faith as Christians make us experience happiness? Did she lose her faith?
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) was beatified on October 19, 2003 -- a year after a portrait of her interior life appeared, drawn from her personal notes to her spiritual directors, gathered by the Vatican’s Postulator of her “cause” for canonization. Now in book form, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, will be published in October -- and it has captured the attention of the secular and religious press.
“I find no words to express the depths of the darkness”, Mother Teresa wrote to the Archbishop of Calcutta about her spiritual trials, soon after she began the work she had heard a call from Christ to undertake.
The world saw in Mother Teresa one who voluntarily took on the dismal life of the “poorest of the poor”, sharing their diet, caring for them in their physical agonies -- solely because of her love for God and sustained by her own strong personal relationship with Christ. Are we now to think her witness that brought the “Light of Christ” to those who suffer was false? How do we ordinary people understand her spiritual suffering?
I can’t even attempt to summarize here the descriptions of this spiritual dryness or darkness by Christians throughout history. (In the 16th century, John of the Cross described this as “the dark night of the soul”; and his metaphor for the soul undergoing this purgation was a log of wood being prepared to be consumed by the fire.)
We are assured that this suffering that Mother Teresa underwent is somehow a sign of her blessedness, rather than the opposite. But most of us have no vocabulary from experience to even begin to talk about what all this means.
It may help to look at Scripture. First, we recall that during His physical agony of crucifixion Jesus uttered alarming words from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” What did this mean?
He was quoting Psalm 22, well known to all His disciples -- and He also knew that they would recognize it.
1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day,
but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
The Psalmist describes this suffering as being torn apart by animals, despised, spat upon by evildoers:
16 Yea, dogs are round about me;
a company of evildoers encircle me;
they have pierced my hands and feet
17 I can count all my bones they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my raiment they cast lots.
Christ’s words from the Cross recall this entire Psalm to us today, as well as to those who actually witnessed His suffering:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise Him!
all you sons of Jacob, glorify Him,
and stand in awe of Him, all you sons of Israel!
24 For He has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and He has not hid His face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to Him.
25 From Thee comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear Him.
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek Him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live for ever!
The paradox is that during the time that one is undergoing this “dark night” of utter abandonment, beset by fears and (especially in our era) by doubt even of the existence of God, one is unable to see any way out. If we could see, of course, that would cancel out our experience of total loss, of darkness.
Paul gives some perspective on human limitations affecting even believing Christians, when he writes in his second letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 4:7-11):
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (Emphasis added.)
And he explains our clouded vision (v.18):
because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
In Mother Teresa’s story, there should be consolation even for most of us who will never reach anything close to her experience -- either of her early certainty and intimate communion with the Lord -- or of her sense of profound darkness and loss.
The Christian life is not meant to be an experience of unremitting joy, nor is it true that we should always feel happy if we are true believers. Human beings are more than the sum of our emotions. We have wills as well as feelings -- even when these may conflict.
One of the writers who reviewed the new book about Mother Teresa’s spiritual suffering commented that she was like a woman in a country-and-western song whose husband went out to get a pack of cigarettes thirty years ago and never returned, yet she remains faithful, waiting -- against any hope that he will return.
This image may not be far amiss. Mother Teresa sets an example for us all of commitment, of real faithfulness, and of acting on that faith, whatever our feelings may be. We will love though we may not feel loved in return. We must do what we must do to bring God’s love and light to the world.
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