Yesterday’s post dealt with two different perspectives on the upcoming release of a book containing personal letters from Mother Teresa detailing, among other things, her years of struggle and despair in her relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
In an article for Time written by David Van Biema, the author, by way of one of his own off-the-cuff remarks and a reference to works by one of her most outspoken critics, atheist Christopher Hitchens, seems amazed that any future saint of the Church could ever feel such a sense of detachment with God. Alternatively, Michael Novak of National Review Online’s Corner blog correctly pointed out that Mother Teresa’s struggles were not only a common state of affairs for “serious” Christians (his term), but, invoking such saints and doctors of the Church as St. Theresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. John of the Cross, a necessary one as well if one’s relationship with God is to mature and develop over time.
This whole idea of spiritual “dryness” or “darkness”, or whatever you want to call it is a subject near and dear to my heart and my soul. Not only because St. John of the Cross (he the writer of that wonderful masterpiece “Dark Night of the Soul”, which serves as the baseline from which all similar kinds of works down through the centuries proceed) happens to be my all-time favorite saint, but also because, like many others, I have spent more than my share of time in the “dark night” and have read numerous works by others who have as well.
What is the “dark night” St. John of the Cross and so many others have written about, and Mother St. Teresa seems to have suffered through most of her adult life? It’s that feeling of separation from God where you feel abandoned, hopeless, lost, and without any semblence of comfort in your walk with Christ. For some, this period may last weeks or months, for others (like Mother Teresa, it would appear), this can last for years. Some enter it and never emerge from it, their spiritual lives actually taking on permanently that “darkness”, “distance”, or “dryness” that others are fortunate enough to only experience for a time.
While there are some, like NRO’s Novak, the Catholoic apologists interviewed by Van Biema, and even those like St. John of the Cross himself and mystics like Thomas Merton, who view this “dark night” as an essential component of the spiritual life, a critical stepping stone to a more intimate and mature relationship with God – one’s soul having been purified by the fire of darkness and depair in order to progress in knowledge and wisdom of the Divine – others, Christians and non-Christians alike, find it hard to understand why God would want anyone wishing to grow and mature spiritually to go through such periods of despair and spiritual devastation.
While I don’t have the answer to that question (although books like “Dark Night of the Soul”, Thomas Green’s “When The Well Runs Dry” and Gerald May’s “The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth” help provide an understanding of this sort of thing from a variety of perspectives), I can tell you that, as someone who is way, WAY too familiar with the “dark night of the soul”, and someone who has had more than his share of periods of spiritual darkness (actually, I kinda find myself in yet another one of those things at the present time), while they are not necessarily pleasant by any stretch of imagination – after all, we all thirst for those magnificent and all-too-rare times when we feel totally connected to God and our spiritual lives – they don’t have to be crippling in terms of living your life and doing whatever you can to try and emerge from these periods psychologically unscathed.
Certainly, this kind of thing didn’t stop Mother Teresa in her ministry, neither should they stop anyone from trying to cultivate a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, I have learned to embrace these periods of darkness and love them deeply for the gift of humility and challenge they bring, and while I’m sure my own walk with Christ would be far more different if I wasn’t subject to regular attacks of this sort on my spiritual life, I still wouldn’t trade my own personal journey for anything in the world. (These periods of spiritual “dryness” and loneliness have taught me that my own darkness is the distance between the life I believe Christ has called me to and the one I find myself occupied with on a daily basis. Now whether that’s my own fault or just the way things happen to have turned out, that darkness is often the only means by which I can contemplate these kinds of things as time goes by.)
So much of our lives – spiritual and otherwise – are geared to the avoidance of anything unpleasant. We consider any kind of discipline, received or handed out, to be something negative and to be avoided at all cost. We bestow on our children and try and accumulate for ourselves every kind of material good possible, as if such possessions hold the key to a happy and successful life; that somehow the sheer accumulation of such will be sufficient to prevent any kind of bad or unpleasant experience from happening. The fact is, however, it is only through periods of struggle and want that we learn anything about ourselves. Of course, hopefully those times won’t comprise the majority of time in our lives, but the flowers that grow only result when a little rain is allowed to fall; the same holds true for our lives.
Spiritually, we need the dark night and those times of dryness, loneliness, and, yes, despair, if only to realize that individually, while we may be God’s precious child, we are not the world’s precious God-given gift (if you know what I mean). There’s nothing wrong with the humility, the longing and thirsting for God’s ear and touch, and the patience to endure and wait out these periods of time in our walk with Christ. In fact, it is times like these where we are given the blessed opportunity to talk less and listen more, to come to understand that our time really is God’s time, and to use this time as God would have us do as we await our emergence – hopefully with a better understanding of our own spiritual selves and God’s hope for our lives.