Musings, Nits, and Praises: Mother Teresa's "Dark Night of the Soul"

Musings, Nits, and Praises

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Mother Teresa's "Dark Night of the Soul"

As someone who grapples with his faith quite regularly, I was instantly intrigued when I saw a copy of First Things with an article entitled "The Dark Night of Mother Teresa" by Carol Zaleski on our "up for grabs" table at school today. You can read the entire article here (Sorry, the "insert a link" doesn't show up as an option at work for some reason): http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=486

Zaleski explains how Teresa began her work with the destitute and sick in India with a real sense of God's presence, even a vision of Christ. However, in the decades that followed, she often struggled with intense doubts. Here are some of the more salient passages from the article:

"The Dark Night. Throughout 1946 and 1947, Mother Teresa experienced a profound union with Christ. But soon after she left the convent and began her work among the destitute and dying on the street, the visions and locutions ceased, and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death. It is hard to know what is more to be marveled at: that this twentieth-century commander of a worldwide apostolate and army of charity should have been a visionary contemplative at heart; or that she should have persisted in radiating invincible faith and love while suffering inwardly from the loss of spiritual consolation. In letters written during the 1950s and 1960s to Fr. Van Exem, Archbishop Périer, and to later spiritual directors, Fr. L. T. Picachy, S.J., and Fr. J. Neuner, S.J., she disclosed feelings of doubt, loneliness, and abandonment. God seemed absent, heaven empty, and bitterest of all, her own suffering seemed to count for nothing, “. . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”

"The dark night of Mother Teresa presents us with an even greater interpretive challenge than her visions and locutions. It means that the missionary foundress who called herself “God’s pencil” was not the God-intoxicated saint many of us had assumed her to be. We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. How else could this unremarkable woman, no different from the rest of us, bear to throw her lot in with the poorest of the poor, sharing their meager diet and rough clothing, wiping leprous sores and enduring the agonies of the dying, for so many years without respite, unless she were somehow lifted above it all, shielded by spiritual endorphins? Yet we have her own testimony that what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God’s presence."

". . . by converting her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God. It would be her Gethsemane, she came to believe, and her participation in the thirst Jesus suffered on the Cross. And it gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness. To endure this trial of faith would be to bear witness to the fidelity for which the world is starving. “Keep smiling,” Mother Teresa used to tell her community and guests, and somehow, coming from her, it doesn’t seem trite. For when she kept smiling during her night of faith, it was not a cover-up but a manifestation of her loving resolve to be “an apostle of joy.”
One can better understand, having read The Soul of Mother Teresa, why she insisted that adoration of Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament should occupy the center of the Missionaries’ daily work; and why she felt it imperative to establish purely contemplative communities that would make the Missionaries of Charity an order of adoration as well as apostolic service. Adoring Christ in the Sacrament is also a way of dark knowing and dark loving. To all appearances he is absent, as Aquinas says in the Tantum ergo Sacramentum, so faith must supply what is lacking to our feeble senses. Humanly, there were times when Mother Teresa felt burnt out, but faith supplied what was lacking even to troubled faith; spiritually she was often desolate, but her vow endured and her visible radiance-to which everyone attests-was undiminished. This lifelong fidelity should not be confused with a Stoic determination to keep going in the face of defeat. It was something else entirely: objective Christian joy."

In one sense her feelings of abandonment were very much akin to Christ's struggles in Gethsemane. And perhaps that's one of the most profound ways in which Christ participated in our sufferings. But although her life is certainly a testament of perservering faith, the skeptic in me asks why she would so fully abandon her life to her faith when she felt no "sensible awareness of God's presence." Sure, the Bible speaks of God as a comforter, but how can someone derive comfort with no sense of God's presence? My wife wouldn't believe that I love her if all I did was tell her so. I have to actively demonstrate that love. Of course, one could argue that God, in Christ, has offered the ultimate demonstration of His love. I agree. But if He was willing to do something of that nature, why not decidedly smaller demonstrations of His presence? I mean, I'd like to think that someone who sacrificed her life as Teresa did would get some assurances from God once in a while. Was it because God felt she didn't need them? I know people often speak of God comforting them in suffering. I, too, have felt the same way at times. But are we comforted by God's presence or solely by our belief in Him acting as a coping mechanism? Is there any way to know the answer?

5 Responses to “Mother Teresa's "Dark Night of the Soul"”

  1. # Anonymous Anonymous

    David Walker for mayor of Memphis. When I become Mayor, I will build you your own private golf course with taxpayer money!

    David Walker, your best student ever  

  2. # Blogger Jason

    Thanks, David. I'll need one with wide fairways.

    There's an ongoing discussion related to the Mother Teresa article here:

    http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=4023969926#comments  

  3. # Blogger pastorkes

    “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods” -C.S. Lewis

    I have always liked Lewis' take as a response to my own doubts as well as those of others. Lewis once said that he would never ask someone to accept Christ "on faith" if they found the weight of the evidence was unreasonable. Faith isn't about accepting things as true that you know are false, but moving forward in the midst of doubts about what you know is true.

    Bruce Springsteen once wrote, "God have mercy on the man who doubts what he's sure of." Indeed. That is not a fun place to be. But it isn't the same as not being sure.

    I think Mother Theresa had doubts about what she was sure of. I think her faith moved her forward in the midst of doubt. I don't think she ever found the weight of the evidence made faith unreasonable, but experienced moods in which that faith was brought into question.  

  4. # Blogger Steve

    We Protestants worry so much about whether God is or isn't. But the real question is, if there is a God, what kind of God is it? Usually it is the grandaddy/santa claus/alpha male in the sky kind of guy who thinks and feels like we do. That is the kind of God that Dawkins and Hitchens don't believe in. I've never felt the presence of that kind of God either. The best coping mechanism for me is to smile in the face of this mystery. My faith is that somehow it all means something. Perhaps Teresa recognized that doing is more important than feeling.  

  5. # Blogger Jason

    Thanks for your thoughts, Steve. I wonder if the idea of God as a Santa Claus-like deity has more to do with living in an affluent culture than it does with being Protestant. I suspect Christians living in third-world countries would find some of our Americanized "health, wealth, and happiness" prayers downright appalling.  

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