UPDATE: 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.