Friday, August 31, 2007

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.


Blogger What is "Occupation" said...

real faith is the choice to do right without reward...

to be selfless without the promise of heaven or riches..

I respect those who are not believers who dedicate themselves to those just to simply improve the human condition,

8/31/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

I've watched militant atheists become believers. I remember a Communist who whose son was killed in combat and who haunted the cancer ward at the Philippine General Hospital distributing religious tracts. It's a fact that people dying of cancer don't care much for the collected works of Mao Tse-Tung.

I've known priests who've lost their faith and gone on to become communists in counterfeit of Christianity; I've known murderers who were in the grip of a crisis of faith; who on their way to killing a man for money would clutch at me to guide them to spiritual safety. Before I left for graduate school I sought spiritual guidance from a man who had gone from being a parish priest to a guerilla chieftain to a Trappist monk. Which way did he go?

What do you call an atheist who loses his faith in the nonexistence of God? I've sat in with men who watched men march off to the electric chair, men who would have hardly cared for God in their lifetimes, Rosary in hand as their fellows beat out the time with their tin cups as they walked the last yards to the execution chamber.

And as for Mother Teresa I think her life was the ultimate answer to the question of her faith. She lived as if God mattered; as if each and every piece of human detritus that washed up at her doorstep was precious beyond imagining. What answer better than that?

Stalin was a student of divinity before he came to worship himself. And I'm convinced that many a man who considers himself to be an atheist will die, scapular around his neck and prayer upon his lips. That's the way things are. Even the godless wrestle with God.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

8/31/2007 06:32:00 PM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...


You wrote:

What do you call an atheist who loses his faith in the nonexistence of God?

I like that way of putting the question, and whatever you call such a person, the word would apply to me.

I have found Paul Tillich's The Courage To Be very useful in puzzling over these questions.

Jamie Irons

8/31/2007 07:38:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

Gen 32:28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have wrestled with God and and with men and have won."

8/31/2007 08:35:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

someone posted something somewhere about a line from the screwtape letters in which the chief demon explains that joy is one God's attributes. the only part of joy that belongs to satan is too much too little or a perverted or distorted part of the good thing. I can't find the quote.

Does anyone have the quote handy?

8/31/2007 08:45:00 PM  
Blogger Belteshazzar said...

I have observed all the same things you have, although not from a soldierly perspective. Believers fallen from the faith who go to the absolute opposite extreme and the defiant who end up clinging to that which alone has not betrayed them, the faith proclaimed in the Old and New Testaments. A close reading of the Old and New Testaments will show that it's never been different for any who believe and, for the defiant, it often happens that they become the most effectual of the believing.

You speak like a Roman Catholic, but observe and comment like a Roman Catholic of five centuries earlier whose name was, against his will, pasted on that which he never intended to be a mere denomination of Christianity.

Keep writing on the broad spectrum you've been writing about. You do more good than you know.

8/31/2007 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger Belteshazzar said...

When it comes to Mother Theresa, one should really not expect anything to the contrary. To be a believer in the Christ means that one is a sinner who believes, and as such is subject to all the same weaknesses of the flesh. Remember, it was Christ Himself who taught His disciples, the believing, to pray "forgive us our trespasses" etc. That she should struggle with doubt in the midst of faith is no different than the course of faith for all who have gone before her.

But it was quite sad that that which she confessed in confidence and which she specifically said she wanted never to see the light of day was brought into the light by one who should have known better. One can argue about means and ends, but the confessional is to remain confidential ... between the one who confesses and God. But then, ethics seem to have little place in our sophisticated age.

8/31/2007 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger Valentine Smith said...

Zealots know, the faithful struggle. When you know, there is no fear—anxiety is bound by certainty. Unlike the decision to trust in the existence of God, a decision (seemingly) laden with risk, the only decision necessary for the atheist relates to the actions that need to be taken to meet the desired endpoint. And if the individuals atheism is only a mask for hatred of God, the ends always justify the means.

8/31/2007 11:34:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

On militant atheists becoming believers, an article a few years ago stated that there was a powerful evangelical awakening amongst erstwhile members of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Talk about plumbing the depths of nihilism and finding your way back home.
CS Lewis has some profound writings on the crisis of faith while observing his wife suffering from cancer.

9/01/2007 01:35:00 PM  

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