Understanding Mother Teresa’s ‘Dark Night’

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Ralph Martin recently spoke at Ave Maria University in Florida about Mother Teresa and John of the Cross: The Truth about Dark Nights. Since this is a topic of concern for many people, we are sharing condensed version of his talk below. We pray it is a blessing to you!

Even though the main lines of Mother Teresa’s experience of “darkness” had been known for several years, the full publication of her private letters drew world-wide media coverage.

Some secularists interpreted her talk of darkness as a sign of hypocrisy and even accused her of not really believing in God—but this signifies a very superficial and partial reading of her letters. Some believers were disturbed and confused to hear of her prolonged experience of aridity or emptiness in her relationship with God. Some thought the letters were so disturbing it was a mistake to publish them. This last concern, while understandable, is unfounded, since the letters in question are part of the official record compiled in the process of canonization and are generally made public. And by now we must know that efforts to “edit” the life or writings of a saint (as the sisters of Therese of Lisieux tried to do), only detract from the awesome witness to holiness that is found, albeit in sometimes unexpected and disturbing ways. In the long run, I think these letters will bear great fruit.

The book left me awe-struck at the depth of Mother Teresa’s holiness. Her faith and her heroic service were more profound than I ever imagined

While Mother Teresa received remarkable communications from the Lord and significant consolation at the beginning of her mission, for almost fifty years, she was left almost totally bereft of such consolation. She carried out her mission with almost no affective experience of God’s love and presence. She saw the fruit her work was producing. She saw that when she spoke to people, they came alive and grew in the experience of God’s love, but she herself for the most part felt only emptiness.

During the first ten years of this “darkness,” she was deeply troubled by it and sought to understand what was happening by consulting a few trusted priests. She wondered if this prolonged darkness was a sign of her great sinfulness and imperfection. It wasn’t until she met Fr. Neuner, a Jesuit working in India, that she came to grasp some her suffering’s special meaning. He explained this wasn’t the typical “dark night” St. John of the Cross describes; it wasn’t just for her own purification, but was a special gift from God to participate in Christ’s sufferings, particularly in His sense of abandonment in the garden of Gethsemane before His crucifixion. She was forever grateful:

For the first time in these eleven years I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a “spiritual side of ‘your work’” as you wrote. Today really I felt a deep joy; that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him. Yes, more than ever I will be at His disposal.” (241)

In fact, Mother Teresa had prayed for just such a participation in Christ’s agony years previously!

As a young woman, she had resolved “to drink the chalice to the last drop.” After founding the Missionaries of Charity, she again resolved “to drink only from His chalice of pain and to give Mother Church real saints” (141).

Fr. Neuner’s explanation gave her a measure of peace and even joy, but didn’t take away the pain of not being able to experience the sensible/spiritual consolation of God’s love and favor, which often seemed on the verge of being unbearable.

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa summed up well the reasons why God led Mother Teresa by this unusual path, and the publication of the full text of the letters and the commentary of Fr. Kolodiejchuk confirms this interpretation. I actually discuss Mother Teresa’s unique experience of her “dark night” and its relationship to the “ordinary dark nights” as taught by John of the Cross in chapter seventeen of The Fulfillment of All Desire.

Because the Lord knew Mother Teresa’s remarkable mission would be greatly blessed and that the whole world would come to admire it, the special gift of acute “spiritual poverty” was given to Mother Teresa as a protection against pride. God gave her the experience of “nothingness” and “emptiness” as a gift to protect her from the adulation she would receive, including the reception of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Also, because of the specific nature of the mission He called her to, He gave her the gift of knowing what it was like for those she was serving—those abandoned by their families, rejected, unwanted, left alone to die on the streets of Calcutta, or children abandoned by their parents. She could understand and feel deep compassion for these abandoned ones, in part because of her own experience of “darkness” and abandonment.

And finally, she was given to a remarkable degree the gift of being one with Jesus in His Passion, out of which comes 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!

On the other hand, there are dangers in misunderstanding Mother Teresa’s unusually sustained experience of darkness. This darkness accompanied her for so long because of her very special vocation. It is not the normal, purifying “dark nights” John of the Cross discusses. Nor is every experience of aridity, emptiness, or darkness a purifying or redemptive “dark night.” It is very helpful to avail ourselves of the wisdom of our spiritual tradition to understand this better.

In brief, John of the Cross teaches 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.) One reason 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 Reconciliation, we may fill our minds and hearts with worldly entertainment, we may not be diligent in rejecting temptation, we may not develop relationships with others who desire to follow the Lord. This carelessness and infidelity lessens our hunger for God and desire to be with Him, and produces lukewarmness and repugnance for things of the spirit. This is not a purifying darkness, but rather the result of laxity, and the only solution is to repent and take up the spiritual practices that dispose us for union with God.

A second reason why such aridity may be experienced is because of physical or emotional illness. The saints advise us 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, it’s an invitation to join our suffering with the suffering of Jesus and offer it as reparation for our own sins and as intercessory prayer for others.

A third reason why such darkness or aridity 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 true “dark night” 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, painful longing for God. This is acutely present in Mother Teresa. One sign that it is an authentic dark night is that we don’t in our aridity try to fill the emptiness with worldly or fleshly consolations, but 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.

Mother Teresa, pray for us!

Ralph Martin

Ralph Martin is president of Renewal Ministries. He also hosts The Choices We Face, a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world. Ralph holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome and is a professor and the director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He was named by Pope Benedict XVI as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and was also appointed as a “peritus” to the Synod on the New Evangelization. Ralph is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization, The Fulfillment of All Desire, and Will Many Be Saved? He and his wife Anne have six children and sixteen grandchildren and reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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