Mother Teresa’s dark night of the soul has been getting a lot of buzz lately, due to published excerpts of her private correspondence:
These revelations will hardly tarnish her reputation as a popular saint. To the contrary, I’m sure they will enhance her reputation.
Her devotees will react in the same way that theological liberals responded to The Last Temptation of Christ. They will read about her turmoil and exclaim, “I can relate to her! She’s one of us! Better than us, but still one of us. She may be a saint, but she’s not a plaster saint!”
It will make them feel saintly just to have something in common with Mother Teresa.
In addition, they will feel that her ubiquitous doubts are downright meritorious. She was faithfully faithless to the bitter end. How noble! How selfless!
Now, the way many people feel about Mother Teresa is interchangeable from the way many other people feel about Elvis Presley or Princess Diana. They bond with celebrities as if these strangers were their very own mothers or brothers or sisters.
Indeed, there’s a sense in which celebrities are better than family because you don’t actually have to live with them day in and day out. The charm would wear off rather quickly if their teary-eyed fantasies came into direct contact with the hot pavement of reality.
But for those of us who are not caught up in the cult of celebrity or the cult of the saints (a distinction without a difference), how should we evaluate Mother Teresa’s experience?
1.Some men and women lack a sense of God’s presence in their lives for the rather straightforward reason that God is, in one important sense, absent from their lives. They don’t sense his presence because they are dead in their sins. They remain strangers to grace.
I’m not saying for a fact that Mother Teresa was unregenerate. But if she keeps telling us that God wasn’t real to her, maybe we should take her at her word. Maybe she didn’t experience God—in the way his sheep know their Shepherd.
You can be very devout, and still be very dead in your sins. A pious Hindu or Muslim is very dead in his sins.
2.However, that’s not the only interpretation. One thing that leaps off the page as you read about her complaints is the practical impact of bad theology. And this operates at several levels.
Human beings are holistic creatures. Faith does not exist in an airtight compartment. Rather, it’s integrated into our whole psychological make-up.
This means that if you’re emotionally dry, you will be spiritually dry. If you’re miserable, this will depress your faith.
For your faith is not something other than you. It’s a part of you. You are a believer. You are also a human being. Whatever affects you as a human being affects you as a believer.
3.One of Mother Teresa’s problems was the lack of a normal family life. Her father died when she was 8 years old. And, of course, she never married.
It is any wonder that she was lonely? Isn’t there a fairly obvious and humdrum explanation for her loneliness?
When you lose a parent, you lose someone irreplaceable—at least in this life. And this cuts deeper if you lose a parent during your formative years.
But, ordinarily, life does afford some emotional compensations for the loss of a parent or grandparent or sibling. For you develop other relationships, in terms of friendship and especially a family of your own—which compensate for your loss. They don’t make up for the loss, but at least there’s more to life than one loss after another. There are gains as well as losses. Not a chronic hemorrhage without transfusions.
4.By contrast, Catholic piety makes a virtue of misery. A woman like Mother Teresa goes out of her way to make herself miserable by denying herself the natural blessings of life. She then bemoans her self-inflicted misery.
There’s a sadistic side and viciously ingrown quality to Catholic piety. Make yourself miserable. Convince yourself that you’re doing this for God. Then pat yourself on the back for your praiseworthy unworthiness.
5.This spiritual conceit is ratcheted up several notches by imagining that you can share in the Passion of Christ. You literally identify with his agony on the cross. Your dark night of the soul mirrors his dark night of the soul on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. You recapitulate Holy Week in your own heart and soul.
6.She also suffers from a false expectation. In a fallen world, God does, in some measure, maintain radio silence. Sin does, indeed, alienate us from God. Up to a point, the silence of God is part and parcel of the Fall—although God’s silence is by no means unbroken.
7.Never having had a husband or boyfriend, Jesus becomes her boyfriend. After all, she’s a nun, and a nun is literally married to Christ.
But Jesus proves to be a very neglectful and distracted boyfriend. He can’t make time for her. She makes a lunch date, but he stands her up. He doesn’t return her phone calls. Or send her birthday cards. Or a dozen roses on Valentine’s Day.
And because Mother Teresa lived and died within the warped world of Rome, no one ever pointed out to her that perhaps, just perhaps, her problem was not with an illusory Jesus, but with an illusory image of Jesus.
8.Finally she has a very unrealistic grasp of what it means to experience the reality of God. For her, God is absent unless he’s present in some extraordinary way. A mystical encounter. Signs and wonders. Visions and auditions. Trumpets and fireworks.
She doesn’t perceive the existence of God because of where she’s looking for God. She isn’t looking for God in the ordinary and the mundane, so she ends up overlooking God as she stumbles over God every step of the way.
Mother Teresa is like a tourist who bought a ticket to the Museo Picasso. By purchasing a ticket, she was hoping to meet Picasso in person. Have a private audience with the artist.
But as she wanders the galleries, lined with Picassos, she can’t find Picasso. “Where is Picasso?” she asks, as she stands behind a row of Picassos, facing another row of Picassos, with Picassos on either side.
Wall-to-wall Picassos. Every surface covered by Picassos. But even though the paintings are staring her in the face, she’s utter blind to the existence of the painter.
She leaves the Museo Picasso deeply disillusioned. Now she doubts the existence of Picasso. If Picasso is real, why wasn’t he there?
Mother Teresa could never see the light because she was searching for a candle at noonday. Surrounded by light, she lived in darkness. Tunnel vision, created by the cardboard blinkers she wore.
Her powers of recognition were distorted by her pious expectations. Sunshine didn’t count. Unless the light could take the form of some portent or prodigy—a solar eclipse or comet—then all was darkness and night.
How could Jesus give her the silent treatment? It doesn’t even occur to her that you can hear Jesus speaking in the four gospels or the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor. She can’t hear the voice of Christ because she’s tuned him out. Her radio is set to a different frequency.
That’s because Catholicism is not a Word-centered faith. It is geared to the eyes rather than the ears. To the sacraments and the Beatific Vision. And, from that standpoint, even the sacraments become a wall rather than a window.