Saturday, September 15, 2007

Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul

On Tuesday, I will be taping a TV program with Lorna Dueck's Listen Up TV, which examines the spiritual side of news and current events, on the recent revelation that Mother Teresa suffered much from depression and doubt. According to the publisher (Doubleday),
Compiled and presented by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., who knew Mother Teresa for twenty years and is the postulator for her cause for sainthood and director of the Mother Teresa Center, MOTHER TERESA brings together letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors over decades. A moving chronicle of her spiritual journey—including moments, indeed years, of utter desolation—these letters reveal the secrets she shared only with her closest confidants. She emerges as a classic mystic whose inner life burned with the fire of charity and whose heart was tested and purified by an intense trial of faith, a true dark night of the soul.

Of course, Mother Teresa has always had her detractors, and they had a field day recently, on discovering that she had never been the fanatic they insisted to the world that she was.

Rather, she was one of the rare souls who are able to sustain what mystic poet and theologian John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul." - the lack of any emotional sense of the presence of God, accompanied by a great willingness to continue to do the things one knows he would want.

Mother Teresa is one of the people we discuss in The Spiritual Brain. Long before the subject hit the mainstream media, I was aware from various sources that she suffered much from depression (not too surprising, given her surroundings). As Carol Zaleski puts it in First Things,
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.

I'll be writing/blogging on this in more detail of course, but here are some rough notes from an e- mail I wrote to someone at the studio, mainly in the form of questions and answers:

1. What exactly happened to Mother Theresa?

(She had several profound spiritual experiences in the late 1940s that motivated her to go to live among the wretched of Calcutta, when she might have had a relatively comfortable life as a nun. She was determined to embrace utter poverty for the love of Jesus, who could be seen in the faces of the poorest of the poor. And she did that until the day of her death in 1997.

But Jesus apparently accepted her offer (of utter poverty) because she never had another profound spiritual experience and lived without any of the spiritual consolations that many of us take for granted. Yet she persisted all those years, so obviously something was upholding her.

Something upholds the sisters of her order who worship at my parish church in the Parkdale area of Toronto today. And it is not a delusion.)

2. Is being close to God the same thing as feeling close to God?

(No. Feelings are about emotions, a natural part of our makeup, but not, in isolation, the whole story about us.)

3. Why might a person who really IS close to God not feel that way?

(Depression, privation, persecution, terrible pain, betrayal - all things that Jesus suffered, until his fourth word from the cross was My God, my God, why have you forsaken me - a quotation from the opening of Psalm 22.)

4. How can you know if you are close to God even if you do not feel that way? (Are you walking the walk? Compassion rather than self-involvement is a useful clue.)

5. Are there instances in the Bible, for example, where people who are in fact doing God's will are living in utter despair? (Hint: See the Book of Job. That is its principal theme. Yet it was Job who was vindicated in the end, not the people who had easy answers.)

6. How can we understand the difference between emotional satisfaction from religious experiences and spiritual growth? (The closer we come to God, the less concern we have for our own satisfaction and the greater concern and compassion we have for others. Closeness to God always results in a reduction in selfishness.)

7. How does this relate to The Spiritual Brain? (We discuss in some detail the teachings of the greater mystics of the Western Christian tradition, and those who studied them. They cautioned against seeing the spiritual life as an easy path of emotional satisfaction. )

If Jesus, who was sinless (according to the Christian tradition, which I accept), learned obedience by the things that he suffered (Hebrews 5:8), I can be fairly sure that I am getting closer to God when I am learning something I don't want to learn than when I am finding life easy. And there will be times when I despair of him as well as myself. The main thing is to keep going, submit to the hardship, run the course, finish the race, as St. Paul says in many places. If that is not a message that I can accept, then my spiritual growth will be deferred until I can accept it.

8. The atheists who carry on about how Mother Teresa didn't "really" believe if she didn't feel good about it reveal the utter emptiness of their own view of the human being. She chose to feel forsaken with the forsaken. It was the only way to be utterly poor, while making many rich.

Note: St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics of all time (who suffered much for the love of Jesus and for all who came his way) said, "That which properly and generally comes from God is a purely spiritual communication." John discouraged an emphasis on emotional excitements, for good reason.

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