March 28, 2017

Mother Teresa and the Mystery of God’s Absence

070129_rain.jpgUPDATE: I am not going to publish comments claiming that Roman Catholics are not Christians.

Critics- atheistic, fundamentalist, truly reformed and those too correct to be labeled- will probably go completely bonkers with pleasure at the revelation that Mother Teresa struggled with the dark night of the soul much of her life and ministry. In letters kept after her death, her doubts and struggles confided to spiritual directors and confessors tell a story of lifelong struggle with a sense of God’s presence and the certainties of faith. Time Magazine’s detailed quotes from an upcoming book and sympathetic story and analysis will only feed those who already consider Mother Teresa to be a phony, over-rated, medieval throwback and Roman Catholic myth.

Of course, many of us will recognize in Mother Teresa’s words the familiar story of our own faith and the faith of others we revere and seek to emulate. While none of us are cut from identical cloth or have identical experiences of God’s presence or absence, there is a familiar aire to what Mother Teresa writes. Many of us have been there; some of us for years; some for a season; some of us for longer than we can recall. If you are familiar with the stories of the spiritual journeys of other honest human beings, you will recognize in Mother Teresa a fellow pilgrim down what is often a dark road.

Christianity’s promises of the present presence and apprehension of God are not simple. In many ways, it seems to me that neither scripture nor recorded experience gives a coherent, teachable view of the subject. (Anyone out there heard a sermon or teaching series lately on the Experience of God’s Presence? It takes some pretty confident Charismatics to go there.)

What we do know is that from Job to David to Jesus to Teresa to Jack Lewis to Michael Spencer, those who belong to God and have His Spirit go through times, even entire chapters of life, where God’s presence does not come in simple, “felt” ways. God seems to be hiding; to be purposely staying out of reach and out of touch. To what end? For what purpose?

Such questions do not have simple answers, and even if someone were to undertake a survey of the most eloquent writers on their own experience of God’s absence, I dare say that no two would be so alike and instructive that any of us would be able to avoid the experience. We would be affirmed that we are not unique, atheists would be encouraged to announce the death of God, and religious bigots and bullies would put their targets on our backs and fire away.

It is interesting to me that Teresa’s experience seems to be, in some way, tied to the same personality that worked tirelessly and cared endlessly. We learn, according to the excerpts, that at the times she was the most devoted and sacrificial, God’s face was often hidden from her. Of course, those who point at Teresa’s experience of darkness might want to look at the testimony of joy and divine presence that is part of the story of many other Christians. We are not, in any way, cut from the same cookie-cutter spiritual material.

I remember the depths of my own dark night in September of 2001. I was at the point of breaking down and being unable to preach or teach, a condition I had never faced before. I was as far from God as it was possible to be, and I felt myself in the grip of despair. But I came to work every day. I taught. I preached–with unparalleled fear and shame–and I ministered to others. In my community of faith, these daily activities filled in the empty places, and in these moments I experienced the mixture of despair and faith that the Psalms report to us again and again. Where are you God? I cannot see you or sense you, but you are there. In the very absence, there is a different and sustaining kind of presence. This was not a certain absence–which so many flippantly assume–but a mysterious presence, entirely congruent with what I know of myself and of the God of the Bible.

The lived spiritual life is a frequent contradiction. I reject the kind of “victorious life” formulaic teaching I grew up hearing in fundamentalist circles, and I must also reject the kind of consumeristic emotional junk food that is found everywhere in evangelicalism as a substitute for the presence of God. As much as I count myself a Christian hedonist, I am suspicious that “Delight yourself in the Lord” is often deeply and significantly misunderstood.

The assurance of God’s presence and the certainties of answered questions are not the same thing. I find far more rational certainty in the resurrection than I do existential experience of the presence of Jesus. Spiritual experience takes the shape of the incarnation itself, with God inhabiting a fallen world where human beings have become insensitive, fearful and callous to the glory of God that pours forth from every crack of the universe. If the fall is true, then none of us are “in tune” with the presence of God, and particular theologies of God’s presence may let us down profoundly.

The kinds of doubts that I read in Mother Teresa’s memoirs make me wonder what kind of expectations of God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic theology of religious vocation? What kinds of stories of God’s presence are collected around the theology of the Eucharistic presence of Christ? I am not the person to answer these questions, but I know my own tradition has its own collection of promises and mythology that ignore the typical experience of human nature.

Where do I look for the presence of God? I have learned that looking for such signs in a spirituality of isolation is pointless. For me, the presence of God meets me in community. In worship. In narrative. In story. In communal prayer. In the imitation of Jesus in serving others. At times, it arrives with surprise, and departs abruptly. The wind blows where it will, and we are pilgrims in the life of prayer and faith. We are not called to be pretenders of certainties that do not exist in our experience.

Because my tradition devalues the sacraments, I can rarely look for the presence of God there, but I surely would come to the Lord’s Table as often as possible, not for a magic dispensation of awareness of God, but entirely because God does meet me in the places where He promised to be present, even if I am not emotionally registering that presence. The life of faith is exactly that: the silent moment of believing the promise of a God who may overwhelm, or hide; come near in glory or hide in darkness.

Mother Teresa will become a more human fellow pilgrim through this book, and that can only be good. We do not need saints unlike us, but saints like us, including those voicing questions, doubts and lament in the context of prayer to Jesus whom we do not see, but who gives our lives meaning.

Comments

  1. Heather, I am very sorry to hear about your friend. We have had similar physical and mental health issues in my family. The darkness and pain can be excruciating. I hope your friend is receiving excellent medical, mental health and spiritual help. The depression appears to be distorting her image of God and a proper understanding of suffering, so I really hope she finds a good spiritual advisor to help her come to see the infinite love and mercy of God (something that helped our family very much was discovering St. Faustina and the message of Divine Mercy, in particular, a booklet called “Conversations with the Merciful God”. She can find these at thedivinemercy.org.) I’m afraid your friend misunderstands – the Catholic Church does not teach that suffering is good. Rather, it is a consequence of original sin and part of our fallen world. The Church seeks to alleviate suffering and bring Christ’s healing love, most notably in the sacrament of annointing of the sick. The Lord works through skilled doctors and medical advances, so all of these gifts are to be utilized as well. But as the Catechism states in paragraph 1501, “Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” But he did not heal all the sick. His healings were signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. They announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover. On the cross Christ upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the “sin of the world,” of which illness is only a consequence. By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering; it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.” So the Lord did not take away suffering, but he redeemed it. It has meaning and merit in him. As members of his mystical body we unite our inevitable sufferings with his passion and the Lord uses them for the benefit of his body, the Church. (Col 1:24). “Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” CCC paragraph 1521. A practical way to do this in the case of depression is to meditate on the Lord’s agony in the garden and then, with an act of the will, offer the Lord your terrors, desolation, loneliness, etc. to be joined with his passion for the salvation of souls (conversion of sinners, end to abortion, etc.). By all means though, your friend should continue to pray for healing and seek medical and spiritual treatment and assistance. Hope this helps.

  2. “Not everyone who thinks they’re hearing God’s voice really is. And now I’m wondering if it isn’t safer for us to assume that we probably won’t ever legitimately hear God’s voice more than once or twice in our lives — at best.”

    Seems fairly honest. And right.

  3. It seems like many comments miss the real problem. MT not only had doubts and a dark period, but the literally defined the entire latter half of her journey. It wasn’t a patch, it was a second and final half of life. 20 some years. And this was someone so much more sold out than the normal Christian! Didn’t St Teresa say, “Lord if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies?”

  4. Yes, Anne, this does help me understand the Catholic concept. Thank you very much.

  5. Nicholas Anton says:

    I am deeply disturbed by your reply to the one who’s comment you deleted. Would you say the same to a Catholic who stated that he believed that Baptists are not Christians? Are we to become universalists in order to pass through your gate of censorship? Have you by your personal sacramental authority declared the Catholic post Trent doctrine of salvation to be “The Gospel”?
    I cannot speak for the person who’s comment you deleted because I never read his comment; however, I believe I can speak for many who believe in the Gospel as given by Paul, as you profess to do, who have read the anathemas of Trent, and must therefore conclude that the gospel of Trent is not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can you who seem to believe in “Sola Gracia” “Sola Fide” accept those who seemingly do not, as believers? I am not denying that there are true believers within the Catholic camp, neither that there are millions of unregenerate, so called “born again” unbelievers within the evangelical camp, because it is not the church nor any denomination, nor any sacrament, but God through Jesus Christ Who saves. Nevertheless, because the Bible declares there to be false christs and false gospels, not all who make a profession of faith truly believe.
    It is Christ Who justifies!

  6. If you want to comment on doctrines, feel free.

    I will not publish comments that announce that those who trust Christ for salvation are not Christians, I don’t care who it is. If a Roman Catholic says the same about Baptists, as persons and as a group, I won’t publish the comment.

    That’s been my policy for years and will continue to be.

    When Jesus tells me to reject those who confess the Apostles’ Creed along with me, I’ll do so. Until then, my unity is not in theology, but in the person of the mediator.

  7. “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe…. God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise.” 1 Corinthians 1:20-21, 27

    In this day and age, one who seeks humility would be considered a fool. As a Christian…I would much rather take note of the preceding scripture inspired by the Apostle Paul and I would much rather be noted as a fool, seeking answers from the Master…our Lord and Savior. We must first know our shortcomings, our struggles and confess it…before we can be accepted as Disciples of Christ. How quickly He can strip us of our grand apparel and how easily our theological wisdom disappears into the air. Charles Spurgeon wrote, “How little do they imagine that their grand theories and learned essays are but methods of the madness of folly and, like paintings on the windows of their understanding, assist to shut out the light of the Holy Spirit.”

    God is Sovereign. His resolution and grand plan at times escape us and are far beyond our human comprehension. To try and answer questions outside of the Bible would be like the Greek philosophers who challenged the Apostle Paul. We don’t have the answers and trying to put God into a box is like trying to put square pegs into round holes. God is God and that is that. He will answer prayers in His own time and place and in His own way…not ours.

    After reading the preceding comments, I do have the following questions for us all.

    1.) Why do so many people today claim to have answers concerning spirituality, yet refuse to respond simply to the Gospel message of Jesus?

    2.) Why must we be ever cautious about elevating and relying upon our human wisdom, even when we question God’s sovereignty?

    I remember in Acts Chapter 1 and 2, soon after Christ’s death and resurrection the Apostles and women were sent to Jerusalem to wait on the Lord and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. I could not imagine the thoughts racing through their minds after just being involved in Christ’s ministry and witnessing His death and resurrection. Just before that…they had felt abandoned and alone at the loss of their Master. There in Jerusalem they spent time in prayer, evangelism, worship and fellowship. In these verses from Acts, we see the apostles actively engaged in sharing the gospel and building the church body among the communities, but not at the expense of sacrificing the joy they shared with each other as believers. They also did not rest on their own merits, but on God’s provisions. I think it is all too easy for us to give credit to ourselves for the work we do in God’s kingdom. The reality is, it is God doing the work through us as noted in Acts 2:46, when… “ the Lord added to their number daily”. Let us pray as believers, to reject pride…to reflect upon our own unworthiness and to constantly be in debt to God for who we might be if not for God’s divine grace. Let us also not abandon the need for fellowship and discipleship with other believers, at the expense of seeking the lost. We need each other…Christ called for men and women to respond to His grace…whether they be Catholics, Baptists, Methodists…etc…etc…

  8. Nicholas Anton says:

    Michael

    Thanks for the clarification. I realize that we will never wholly agree on everything, and, even issues on which we might agree, we frequently word concepts differently. Semantics plays a major part in our understanding both the past and one another.
    That is why I shy from the Apostles Creed. I have yet to find one consistent interpretation of it. Furthermore, it simply outlines the parameters of the early Christian faith without answering the interjections of heretical attacks that followed (E.g. Arius).
    Now, regarding “Sola Gracia” and “Sola Fide”. It would seem to me that Trent in fact anathematized everyone and anyone who held these views. If these views were in fact what Scripture teaches in the New Testament, does Paul not in fact place an anathema on any doctrine contrary to what he taught?
    Where then does this place those who hold to the views of Trent?

  9. When I was in RCIA (Catholic adult catechism), I was told by several sources that many or most of the canonized Saints had similar “dark nights of the soul” and struggled with depression & despair on a regular basis. Their holiness was in spite of (and in contrast to) their struggles with depression and despair.

    While it’s possible to go overboard into the “I’m So Messed Up” trip (see St Rose of Lima), contrast this with Saints Who KNOW How Holy They Are (usually self-proclaimed and always informing you of that fact; I’m sure you’ve run into a few).

  10. This is very beautifully written; thank you.

    St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote about how desolation could either be a result of one’s own omissions, or it could be that God has permitted desolation to happen to allow us to examine the quality of our own spirituality. In the first case, the human being feels desolation because he himself has not been praying, has not been faithful, and thus, consolation has withdrawn from the person. (Ignatius emphasized, however, that this does not mean that consolation is a product of humans’ “work”; more about this below.)

    But Ignatius also said that even though desolation never comes from God Himself, sometimes, He allows it to happen, as a purgation experience. In those cases, desolation allows the human being to “interiorly feel” that consolation is never a “product” of human striving, but rather, is always and entirely a gift from God. Moreover, the experience of desolation allows us to examine whether our own prayerfulness is a merely a result of our disordered attachment to “happy feelings,” and whether, without these “happy feelings,” our faith and faithfulness diminish. This in turn, allows us then to purify our own faithfulness and motivations for prayer.

    (St. John of the Cross also made a similar distinction between the “active” and “passive” purifications of the soul.)

    =======

    Carmelite spirituality–particularly the spirituality of St. Terese of Lisieux and St. John of the Cross, which has some of the most profound insights into this experience of darkness–has more reflections on how and why God allows this dark night to happen. For St. Terese, “Everything is grace!” Blessed are the people who never undergo the dark night of the soul; that is the journey God has chosen for them. But when God does allow a person to experience the dark night, that experience is grace too, and God works on the person’s soul through that experience as well, as, I suppose, the potter working the clay. St. John of the Cross, who wrote painfully through his own dark night and experiences of persecution, realized that ultimately, God was there, too, in the darkness, within that experience of absence and isolation.

    =======

    Ditto on the suggestions to read “Silence” by Endo. You might also want to look at “Diary of a Country Priest” by Georges Bernanos, if you haven’t read it. I actually haven’t read it myself (I’ve only heard about it), but it seems like a book you’d like: it’s about a French priest in a rural village and all his interior struggles as he ministers to them and deals with his own desolation.

    God bless you.

  11. Heather, regarding my story, you commented: 3. Check it out with other believers. (*This* is certainly a crucial step your friend’s mom skipped.)

    Actually, she did get confirmation from others in their shared church group. To me, in fact, that’s one of the most telling parts of the story.

  12. Forgive me if someone has already pointed this out — with 60+ posts I can’t read them all — but I wonder if MT’s sense of God’s absence doesn’t directly correspond to her calling. She worked with people who are essentially abandoned by society, outcasts of society, people who experience the lonliness, despair, and depression that poverty itself brings. Is it not possible that God’s “abandoning” of MT is subsequently tied up in her calling? She said that God called her to go to the poorest of the poor and experience their life. And she did so materially, and I’m wondering if it wasn’t also that way spiritually/emotionally. She knew their feelings of abandonment. And it could be all part of God’s plan.

    MT testified that it was in the faces and lives of the poor she worked with that she saw Christ there. If true (and that seems so very true) she wasn’t abanded by God — it was the Presence was withdrawn so that she could see Him in others, in her neighbor. Just a few thoughts on this whole thing.

  13. That’s a beautiful thought, Aaron.

    St. Therese of Lisieux, towards the end of her life, thought of her own dark night in a way similar to what you suggest. St. Therese thought that maybe (following the Catholic doctrine of redemptive suffering), she was undergoing her dark night so that an atheist out there might, before their death, experience the light which would have been hers.

  14. Memphis Aggie says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful post Mike. We Catholics are gratified to read your generous and charitable treatment of Mother Theresa.

  15. Eugenia Chang says:

    After reading this post, I read with great interest the TIME article, which I thought was a great piece. As for many people, it gave me a deeper respect for Mother Theresa but I also felt compassion for her — because I experienced the same type of spiritual depression throughout high school and college. I think Michael asked an important question about what kind of expectations the church places on individuals with regard to spiritual experiences. And I think other people have brought up questions about how theology could have impacted Mother Theresa (which I don’t think should be dismissed and I’m not saying that one’s spiritual dryness is necessarily linked to theology — often it’s not!). For the longest time, although I grew up knowing the “salvation invitation” version of the gospel (bridge diagrams and all), I didn’t understand how it was to impact my whole frame of thinking (and feeling!). The churches, youth groups, retreats, college fellowships I attended only preached the gospel during invitations and did not make it central to everything. That’s why for the longest time I couldn’t believe or understand that God loved me (b/c I felt that his love was subjective). To top it off, I hung out with a pentecostal crowd that insisted that I should be speaking in tongues and sensing God’s presence. When those things were not forthcoming, I panicked and thought that God must not love me and that I was doomed. Also, I read books that if I were truly walking in the Spirit, I would be sinless. Once I truly believed and understood that God’s love for me can be objectively known because of the Cross, that was the greatest release for me. It released me from the trap of experiencing God as a way to him or as a sign of approval from him. That’s why I am grieved today when the gospel is not central in a message or a church. BTW, a book I would recommend for anyone in the throes of spiritual depression is Martyn Lloyd-Jones Spiritual Depression.

  16. I feel like I am hearing some express a belief that if a person truly experiences the presence of the Lord at all, it will be a rare occurence; if a person experiences His presence more frequently in prayer, worship, or just the occasional wonderful surprise, it is a sign of an immature faith; a person needs to be very critical and suspicious of any experience that includes emotion, and better to not experience God at all, just in case one is “fooled” by emotion.
    I would simply say we need to be careful to not judge others by our own experiences or lack thereof, just as it is wrong to judge the relationship with Jesus of others, according to whether their experiences match our own. Yes, we need to be using our discernment, 24/7, and I would agree very much with Heather about using Hannah Whitehall Smith’s guidelines. And be very leery of people who think they have to drum up emotions to have an authentic worship time with the Lord. (Many times when I have felt His presence the strongest, it came with deep peace and quiet, during prayer and meditation.)
    On the other hand, can being critical and suspicious of any experience that includes emotion, blind us to the times when the Lord is trying to interact with us, or has been giving us His God-hugs in the midst of our mundane lives?
    Brother Lawrence’s writings are collected in a small book called Practicing the Presence of God. I wouldn’t call this humble man’s faith “immature”. He lived each day expectantly, watching for His Lord’s presence, and loving on Jesus even while he did the common kitchen work. He believed, as I do, that the presence of God is with us; we just need to be open to hearing Him, feeling Him, or however we become aware of Him.
    Yes, I think we all go through desert times, but to aspire to dark nights of the soul as a badge of Christian maturity seems counter to so many of the things Jesus said and described about His relationship with the Father,and what He expected us to experience as well.
    When I go to be with the Lord, I would rather hear Him say, “I enjoyed spending time with you.”, instead of “too bad you were blocking your ears from My voice and shrinking from My touch. But at least you’re here with me now!” (Just kidding…sort of!)

  17. * ADDRESS *

    What
    Kind of
    God
    Would have
    A
    Address

    It
    Would be
    A poor
    God
    If she lived
    In this town

    You can visit
    A
    God
    With a address
    Any time

    But

    A
    God
    With no address
    Who could think such thing –