The Dark Night of Spirit
Hugh Hewitt looks at Mother Teresa's crisis of faith. The general argument is that without doubt faith is unnecessary. They are twinned. Where one is, so is the other. But Cafe Theology, takes another tack. It compares Mother Teresa's inner journey -- her "darkness" -- with that of St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Spirit.
Jesuit Father Joseph Neuner, who knew her, has written, “With the beginning of her new life in the service of the poor, darkness came on her with oppressive power.” A few brief passages suffice to give an idea of the density of the darkness in which she found herself: “There is so much contradiction in my soul, such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual — yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. … Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place.”
It was not difficult to recognize immediately in this experience of Mother Teresa a classic case of that which scholars of mysticism, following St. John of the Cross, usually call “the dark night of the soul.” Tauler gives an impressive description of this stage of the spiritual life:
“Now, we are abandoned in such a way that we no longer have any knowledge of God and we fall into such anguish so as not to know any more if we were ever on the right path, nor do we know if God does or does not exist, or if we are alive or dead. So that a very strange sorrow comes over us that makes us think that the whole world in its expanse oppresses us. We no longer have any experience or knowledge of God, and even all the rest seems repugnant to us, so that it seems that we are prisoners between two walls.”
Everything leads one to think that this darkness was with Mother Teresa until her death, with a brief parenthesis in 1958, during which she was able to write jubilantly: “Today my soul is filled with love, with joy untold, with an unbroken union of love.”
I wrote in the comments section of the post Last Rites, following a long quote from the Ambulance Driver, who like Mother Teresa, lived in a world without illusions, that for some only source of hope came not from a promise of eternal life but from the experience of love. It was the existence of love that provided the promise of life. The promise of life by itself was of comparatively little importance.
St. John of the Cross spoke of the "dark night of the spirit" in which we are broken by the weight of God. Our self love is dismantled by a terrible realization of where we actually are "in contrast to the grandeur and glory of God." A philospher, I forget who, was lay awake nights terrified of the vastness of the Cosmos. How, he thought, could such a thing have a place of love for such as he?
John of the Cross reverses the equation. The problem for him, is not how to make such a vast God love us, but how a person can "die to itself and to all these things and to begin the sweet and delightful life of love with God."
I don't know much about these things, but it seems to me a way of repeating the old Gospel message that we must pass away in order to blossom. That a life well-led must should end in ashes, not dust, if it is to flame. That we must walk upon the water, even though we are sure to drown. For the glimpse, for the touch of the hand whispering in the gale.
It is enough to know God in order to understand that whatever else happened, everything will be alright. But as Cafe Theology, understands, this attitude is perilously close to effectively doubting the Resurrection or least regarding it as irrelevant. Cafe Theology has a quote which puts it succinctly, arguing interestingly enough, that people like Mother Teresa are the ideal saints for a doubting world.
The mystics arrived within a step of the world of those who live without God; they have experienced the dizziness of throwing themselves down. Again, Mother Teresa who writes to her spiritual father: “I have been on the verge of saying — No. … I feel as if something will break in me one day. … Pray for me that I may not refuse God in this hour — I don’t want to do it, but I am afraid I may do it.” Because of this the mystics are the ideal evangelizers in the post-modern world, where one lives etsi Deus non daretur (as if God did not exist).
But I think Cafe Theology's argument on this last point is wrong. Mankind has always believed. And it has always doubted. People at different times in their lives both believe and doubt. The 21st century is as much an Age of Faith as the Middle Ages and as full of doubt as any other. We still need saints of all kinds. Simple ones, brave ones, tormented ones, joyful ones. Saints will be with us for as long as we are human. Our longing to know God, even in the negative, is part of our nature. Atheism, ironically enough, is obsessed with God. So be it; for my heart shall never rest, until it rests -- one way or the other -- in Thee.