Saint Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night” (Part II of II)
In part I, we discussed what [Saint] Mother Teresa’s dark night meant for her and what it means for us, the depth of her holiness, and how her dark night was different than what St. John of Cross describes. Today we will talk about her spiritual formation and how to identify the roots of spiritual aridity.
The Formation of a Saint
The Lord knew that the remarkable mission Mother Teresa was undertaking would be greatly blessed, and that the whole world would come to admire it. Mother Teresa received the gift of acute “spiritual poverty,” therefore, as a protection against pride. The experience of her “nothingness” and “emptiness” was a gift that God gave to protect her from the adulation she would receive, including the reception of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
In addition, because of the specific nature of the mission God called her to, He gave Mother Teresa the gift of knowing in the depth of her being what it was like for those she was serving–those who had been abandoned by their families, rejected, unwanted, and left alone to die in the streets of Calcutta. She was able to feel deep compassion for these abandoned ones, in part because of her own experience of “darkness” and abandonment.
Finally, Mother Teresa was given to a remarkable degree the gift of being one with Jesus in His Passion, out of which flows so much redemptive power. A gift she had asked for on more than one occasion.
Yes, she experienced temptations to give up, to despair, even temptations to blasphemy and unbelief, but to be tempted is not to sin. Her heroic perseverance in the face of such interior suffering is truly awe-inspiring. What an example to us in our need to persevere no matter what the difficulties, no matter what we experience or don’t experience.
Identifying the Roots of Spiritual Aridity
On the other hand, there are dangers in misunderstanding Mother Teresa’s unusually sustained experience of darkness. It was because of her special vocation that this darkness accompanied her for so long. Hers was not one of the normal purifying “dark nights” that St. John of the Cross spoke of, either for beginners or for those more advanced in the spiritual life. Nor is every experience of aridity, emptiness, or darkness a purifying or redemptive “dark night.”
It is helpful to avail ourselves of the wisdom of our spiritual tradition to better understand this.
In brief, St. John of the Cross taught that there are three reasons why someone may experience deep aridity, emptiness, or darkness in their prayer or relationship with God. (See Chapter 14 of The Fulfillment of All Desire for a much more complete explanation.)
One reason such aridity may be experienced is because of “lukewarmness” or infidelity in “doing our part” in sustaining our relationship with God. We may become careless about regular prayer and spiritual reading, we may not frequent the Eucharist and Sacrament of Reconciliation, we may fill our minds and hearts with worldly entertainment, we may not be diligent in rejecting temptation, or we may not develop relationships with others who desire to follow the Lord.
This carelessness and infidelity lessens our hunger for God and our desire to be with Him, producing lukewarmness and repugnance for things of the spirit. This is not a purifying darkness, but rather the result of laxity for which the only solution is to repent and to take up the spiritual practices that dispose us toward union with God.
A second reason why such aridity may be experienced is because of physical or emotional illness. The advice of the saints is to try to get better, pray for healing, go to the doctor, but keep on as best one can in living a fervent Christian life. And if one is not healed, this aridity is an invitation to join our suffering with the suffering of Jesus and to offer it as reparation for our own sins and as intercessory prayer for others.
A third reason why such darkness may be present is that we are ready to move to a deeper level of faith, hope, and love, and that God purposely removes the experience of his love, presence, or favor–but not their reality–in order to give us a chance to believe, hope, and love more deeply and purely. This is the true “dark night.” It may be quite intense and last for a long period of time, or it may happen intermittently, interspersed with times of sensible consolation. A true dark night is accompanied by deep and painful longing for God–a longing that was acutely present in Mother Teresa.
One sign of an authentic dark night is that, in our aridity, we don’t try to fill the emptiness with worldly or fleshly consolations. Instead, we remain faithful in seeking God even in the pain of His apparent absence. The authentic dark night isn’t an end in itself, but is intended to prepare us for an even greater union with and experience of God.
[Saint] Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!
Editor’s Notes: This post originally appeared in Lay Witness Magazine, November/December 2007. Used with permission.
Ralph Martin is the author of a number of articles and books the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call (2013), as well as Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (2012) and The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints (2006).
Art: Mother Teresa of Calcuta [sic], portrait painting by Robert Pérez Paulou, 1 January 1994, CC, Wikimedia Commons.