The person therefore feels spiritually unclean and wretched. There is an impression of being rejected and abandoned by God. It appears that the person will never be worthy again and that the lofty blessings already received will never return. One needs little imagination to grasp how extremely painful this is, for the soul vehemently wants God and nothing else. This feeling of the divine rejection is the deepest suffering in the second night. ... Individuals in this second night love God greatly, and they know that they do, but they find no relief in their knowledge. Rather, it causes still deeper suffering, because in loving God so much that they would willingly "give a thousand lives for Him," they cannot be persuaded that God loves them. Prayer, of course, seems impossible, and reassurances from the spiritual director are of little avail, for the sufferers feel that the director simply does not understand what they are going through. ... How long does the second night last? Just as was the case with the first purification, John [of the Cross] does not here assign a quantity of time, not even a usual length. Rather, he observes that the duration will depend on what is needed to render the soul delicate, simple, refined and pure enough that the final transformation can take place. And this will be according to the degree of holiness to which God wishes to raise each person and also according to the amount of purification needed.
That is from Father Thomas Dubay's Fire Within (Ignatius Press, 1989), a study of the spirituality and prayer of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. It is a fascinating and powerful work, especially for those people like myself who, frankly, know far too little about authentic mysticism and the "dark night of the soul." I quote it, of course, because of the recent story in TIME magazine about Mother Teresa and her "secret life" of doubt and spiritual aridity. The lengthy piece, "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith" (August 23, 2007), was written by David Van Biema and opens in this way:
On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the "Saint of the Gutters," went to Oslo. Dressed in her signature blue-bordered sari and shod in sandals despite below-zero temperatures, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu received that ultimate worldly accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance lecture, Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity had grown from a one-woman folly in Calcutta in 1948 into a global beacon of self-abnegating care, delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. "It is not enough for us to say, 'I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,'" she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had "[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one." Jesus' hunger, she said, is what "you and I must find" and alleviate. She condemned abortion and bemoaned youthful drug addiction in the West. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world "that radiating joy is real" because Christ is everywhere — "Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive."
Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. "Jesus has a very special love for you," she assured Van der Peet. "[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand."
The two statements, 11 weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.
The TIME article is based, in part, upon a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday, 2007), edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk (postulator of the cause of Mother Teresa's canonization) and is described as "consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years." Van Biema's piece is hardly perfect and is annoying at times—the description "extravagantly dissonant" may be better applied to some of his prose than to Mother Teresa's remarks. However, it is not a Christopher Hitchens' Hit Piece; on the contrary, it usually approaches the topic, which is a difficult one, with quite a bit of respect and nuance.
Of course, those who aren't overly concerned with respect and nuance will see the story (or the combination of "Mother Teresa" and "crisis of faith") as further confirmation of the supposed emptiness and silliness of belief in God. One letter writer to The Oregonian wrote, apparently with critical intent: "Mother Teresa's belief after decades of her God's 'absence' is the epitome of the definition of faith: belief in something for which there is no proof." Actually, that is fairly accurate; after all, if something could be proven, it wouldn't require faith to believe in it. Which gets to the real point: the skeptic's dismissal anything outside of the realm of scientific proof, itself a form of blatant faith in the scientific method. So what of Mother Teresa's mystical encounter of Christ as a young woman? I'm sure most skeptics dismiss it as some sort of delusion. What of her willful and seemingly despairing grasping at some sign of God's presence during her lengthy dark night? Where the skeptic sees further delusion, the Catholic recognizes the epitome of faith—a choice of will, aided by grace, even in the face of darkness, dryness, and anguish. ZENIT interviewed Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa about this story, and he made several insightful remarks:
Father Cantalamessa explained that the fact that Mother Teresa suffered deeply from her feeling of the absence of God affirms that it was a positive phenomenon. Atheists, he contended, are not afflicted by God's absence but, "for Mother Teresa, this was the most terrible test that she could have experienced."
He further clarified that "it is the presence-absence of God: God is present but one does not experience his presence." ...
Father Cantalamessa affirmed that Mother Teresa's dark night should not scandalize or surprise anyone. The "dark night," he said, "is something well-known in the Christian tradition; maybe new and unheard of in the way Mother Teresa experienced it."
He added: "While 'the dark night of the spirit' of St. John of the Cross is a generally preparatory period for that definitive one called 'unitive,' for Mother Teresa it seems that it was one stable state, from a certain point in her life, when she began this great work of charity, until the end.
"In my view, the fact of this prolongation of the 'night' has meaning for us today. I believe that Mother Teresa is the saint of the media age, because this 'night of the spirit' protected her from being a victim of the media, namely from exalting herself.
"In fact, she used to say that when she received great awards and praise from the media, she did not feel anything because of this interior emptiness."
While some skeptics will undoubtedly seize upon this story with a certain glee or "told you so" attitude (e.g., "Was Mother Teresa an Agnostic?" states the headline for a snippy piece written by "a working-class, atheist queer performer and writer"), some Catholics might be puzzled or even uneasy about it. I suspect that some folks will wonder how anyone like Mother Teresa could have doubts or experience such spiritual darkness. But as Father Dubay shows in great detail, this is neither new or unusual, as the lives and writings of many saints demonstrate. And doubt, in a certain sense, is constantly near the believer and must be dealt with on a regular basis, as Joseph Ratzinger explained in his classic work, Introduction to Christianity (Ignatius Press, 1990, 2004):
If, on the one hand, the believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt, if he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith, on the other, the unbeliever is not to be understood undialectically as a mere man without faith. Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off, self-sufficient life, either. However vigorously he may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain, he will never be free of the secret uncertainty about whether positivism really has the last word. Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question of whether belief is not after all the reality it claims to be. Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man. Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident. ...
In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one, it is his share in the fate of the nonbeliever; for the other, the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him. (pp 44ff)
Who really has the more open mind—the believer or the skeptic? And who is more honest about their doubts?
One thing that will hopefully come out in these stories about Mother Teresa is that Saints are not somehow superhuman or beyond us—that is, they also have struggles with doubt—but are made fully human through the purification granted by the holy, consuming fire of God's love. We shouldn't error in thinking that faith is somehow separate from love, but that the most profound faithfulness is a love that flows from a responsive will giving assent to God's beckoning—even in the darkest hours, months, and years.