I hope you ate your Wheaties -- this is a loooong post....
It's everywhere. Time Magazine started it (address above), and now many voices, Christian and secular, are chiming in on the reports of Mother Teresa's spiritual doubts as related in the just-released book of her letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday). I'm sure that blogs galore are discussing the Time article, and I found myself addressing the topic in Sunday School at Lake Murray and again today with our piano teacher.
The thing is, this idea of the spiritual darkness that Mother Teresa experienced is not new to me. I read a little about it this summer in the chapter devoted to her in James Martin's My Life with the Saints that I have mentioned in this blog previously. And you know what: it didn't really surprise me.
You see, I've been rather fascinated with the sixteenth-century monk St. John of the Cross since I first read an excerpt of his Dark Night of the Soul in Richard Foster's Devotional Classics four years ago. St. John writes about how those people whom God wishes to draw especially close to Him will experience this "dark night of the soul." The "darkness" will grow these blessed ones in their faith and cleanse them of their sins. He writes, "For the truth is that the feelings we receive in our devotional life are the least of its benefits. The invisible and unfelt grace of God is much greater, and it is beyond our comprehension." Wow.
So for someone as led of God as Mother Teresa, I'm not at all surprised that she experienced the "dark night" that St. John describes. The aspect of her "dark night" that most impresses me is that despite it lasting for well over fifty years (with a five-week break in 1959), Mother Teresa kept serving. She kept "seeing
Jesus" in the face of the sick and dying she helped each day in the ghettos of Calcutta. She didn't throw up her hands and declare "I quit" merely because she didn't FEEL God's presence. She expressed her darkness to her superiors who continued to encourage her (with varying effectiveness), and she just kept on "keepin' on."
The thought that occurred to me today after chatting with our piano teacher, who is a great fan of Teresa and was quite upset at the Times article, originally came from Dr. James Dobson. In one of his early books on marriage entitled Love Is a Decision, Dr. Dobson wrote about how we can't rely on our feelings in our marriages. We may not always feel "in love" with our spouse, especially if he leaves his socks on the floor again or if she backs into the mailbox again. Love is a DECISION. We have to DECIDE to love, even when we don't especially feel like it. It's the decision, not the feeling, that's of the utmost importance.
James Martin, whom I mentioned before and who is quoted in the Times article, also makes this point: "'Let's say you're married and you fall in love and you believe with all your heart that marriage is a sacrament. And your wife, God forbid, gets a stroke and she's comatose. And you will never experience her love again. It's like loving and caring for a person for 50 years and once in a while you complain to your spiritual director, but you know on the deepest level that she loves you even though she's silent and that what you're doing makes sense. Mother Teresa knew that what she was doing made sense.'"
This advice runs counter to much of today's postmodern culture. Many people today file divorce papers if they no longer FEEL in love (I have a family situation right now that backs this up). Look at what happened to Terri Schiavo who was put to death as a result of her husband who had already moved on and fathered two children with another woman rather than remaining faithful to his injured wife. The analogy between marriage and faith holds, I think. If people don't FEEL God, they may believe that God no longer loves them, that they have lost their faith, that God is holding back on them and therefore He is not a God to be trusted or believed. My credit goes to Teresa for continuing to believe, even when God hadn't made Himself known to her for YEARS after He had been most mystically communicative with her early in her life. In my eyes, that's FAITH with a capital everything.
Earlier in her life, Teresa had prayed a very bold prayer: she asked God to help her to truly share in Christ's passion and suffering on the cross. One of her spiritual advisors remarked to her that perhaps her prayer was answered in that she was experiencing Christ's moment of abandonment by God, the moment in which He cried out, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" The Times article quoted one of her spiritual advisors: "Neuner would later write, 'It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus' passion.' And she thanked Neuner profusely: 'I can't express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in ... years — I have come to love the darkness.'"
Teresa's spiritual darkness, and even her few doubts, reminded me strongly of the Psalms of David, particularly Psalm 42, starting in the ninth verse:
I say to God, my Rock,
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk around mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?"
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say continually,
"Where is your God?"
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him,
My help and my God.
David often cried out to the Lord in the Psalms. He moaned and complained; he railed and even doubted. But he always returned to praise, and that's what Mother Teresa's letters show more than anything else: faith despite the lack of "evidence" that God was present and active in her life. And David's expression of his very real feelings have become perhaps the most beloved portion of the Old Testament, if not of the entire Bible. The Psalms are more than history; they are the cry of a man's heart, as well as many of our hearts. Teresa's cries seem very like David's poetry.
Reading what Teresa wrote to her spiritual advisors over the years strikes me with her honesty, especially since she had asked to have all these letters destroyed after her death. It bothers me that her letters were published despite her requests to keep them private, that the Church overruled her wishes. That really bugs me. But at the same time, I recognize that while some may say something like, "See? God doesn't 'talk' to everyone who wants to hear Him -- he didn't 'talk' to Mother Teresa, so why should He 'talk' to me," others will say, "She kept on trying, working, serving even though she didn't feel God's presence. Maybe I can keep going, too."
The writer of the Time article quoted Rev. Matthew Lamb who asserted that this book, controversial as it is becoming, may end up becoming as helpful a work of devotion as those written by St. Augustine and Thomas Merton. I think that her letters may have the same sort of eternal impact as other great devotional letters and spiritiual autobiographies. But to quote the old adage, only time will tell.
When I Googled "Mother Teresa," I found a short article by Brian McLaren, the emergent church leader. He wrote, "What we need is what Mother Teresa had: a faith that is tried and tested by doubt, and remains strong enough to send us into the world with love for God expressed through love for our neighbors, especially those most in need." May the universal church acknowledge this gift left, albeit unwillingly, to those of us who remain on this earth and hope in heaven.