Tag: St. John of the Cross

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!

‘Fulfillment of All Desire’ Marks Ten Years

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This year marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Ralph Martin’s book The Fulfillment of All Desire. This book draws on the teaching of seven doctors of the Church to present an in-depth study of the journey to God. One Amazon.com reviewer noted that the best summary of the book is found on page 229: “We’re all in desperate need of God, of His forgiveness, of His love, of His Holy Spirit, and all of us need to abandon our pride, admit our need, and come to the foot of the Cross to receive mercy and forgiveness. And we need to stay there.”

During the past decade, the book has found success not only in numbers of sales—on Amazon.com the book has 134 reviews and a nearly perfect rating—but also in hearts touched and lives changed. In fact, the book is now used in more than twenty-four seminaries, novitiates, and universities. Ralph noted that “one of the first reviewers of the book, the president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, predicted that the book would become a ‘classic’ and become the standard spirituality text in seminaries and universities.”

Ralph described the process of writing the book as “a labor of love—lots of labor and lots of love.” He said, “it overall took about ten years to write the book, from when I was first strongly awakened by the grace of God to the depths of wisdom in John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle—at an airport in Zurich, Switzerland—to when I finished reading all the major writings included in the book and integrating the insights of those doctors of the Church into the book.”

It was very important to Ralph that his work shared the saints’ teachings in a manner that was accessible to many people: “The depth and practicality of their wisdom meant a great deal to me and still does,” he said. “I very much wanted to help those who have been attracted to this wisdom in these saints over the years to gain access to it in a more comprehensible form. I am profoundly grateful to God that He helped me to do this in a way that has benefitted so many people from so many walks of life and levels of education. In fact, one of the responses that has most moved me came from someone who volunteered that he had only an eighth grade education and that he was finding the book immensely helpful. Thanks be to God!”

Reviewers on Amazon.com agree that the ease with which they can understand the book is a big part of why they love it. One reviewer wrote, “In a very accessible style, Ralph Martin presents the teachings of six of the greatest saints in Church history, who by their lives and writings have bequeathed to us a treasury of wisdom. It’s amazing how clearly Mr. Martin plumbs the spiritual depths of the likes of St. John of the Cross, St Augustine, and St. Teresa of Avila, among others, in such a way as to make their writings both compelling and comforting at the same time.” Another reviewer noted, “The strength of this work is its accessible language; it is well written and opens up topics and authors that are not always approachable.” Another agreed, “You broke down the writings of these great saints without watering them down.”

Reviewers also seem to agree with Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who declared when the book was first published that “this is a book to keep at your place of prayer for years to come.” One reviewer said, “It is a ‘keeper’ to be read again and again. To ignore this book is to do yourself a great injustice. It is simply wonderful beyond words.” Another said, “If you are serious in your spiritual journey, you will keep this around, and read this one again and again. I’ve owned this book for three years now, read it as many times, and it is still an amazing reference. Its permanent home is not on my bookshelf, but on the table near where I pray, underneath my Bible. It truly aids in one’s faith journey by giving the thoughts and practices of some of the most holy saints and allows one to feel he/she too can travel in their paths to a richer and more joy-filled relation with God.”

Reviewers also commented that they appreciate The Fulfillment of All Desire because it can act as a spiritual director, when one cannot be found. “This is a ‘must-have’ for spiritual direction,” noted one reviewer. Another remarked that, “it is not easy to find spiritual direction today. Most of us will have to make do with books. There are some excellent classics, of course. But Dr. Martin has written a modern classic. This is a true gem that takes you gently by the hand and leads you along the classic way of the saints.”

Ralph concluded his reflections on the book’s anniversary by noting, “I am really grateful to God for allowing me and this book to be used by Him to help so many souls to make progress on the spiritual journey.”

The Fulfillment of All Desire can be found in Renewal Ministries’ Online Bookstore!

This article originally appeared in Renewal Ministries August 2016 newsletter. Click here to view the entire August newsletter!

Striking the Last Blow Against Pride

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Every day at Renewal Ministries’ office, we pray the Angelus together at noon, as a way of interceding for both our own needs and those of others who request our prayers. I think of it as “bundling” our requests and having the Mother of God present them to Jesus.

After three recitations of the “Hail Mary,” the Angelus concludes with a prayer that we “may by His passion and cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection.” For some years now, I have found these words especially pointed, even poignant. In the end, it is what Jesus has done for us—through His passion, cross, and resurrection—that saves us, even while we do our part.

It reminds me of something Ralph Martin recounts in his book The Fulfillment of All Desire. As St. John of the Cross—the great sixteenth-century man of prayer, prolific writer, and Doctor of the Church—“lay dying the friars reminded him of all he had suffered for God and of all the good work he had done, but his reply silenced them. ‘Father, this is not the time to be thinking of that; it is by the merits of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that I hope to be saved.’”

How much hope, strength, consolation, and conviction is to be found in both St. John’s prayer and the Angelus prayer! Yes, in order to be transformed in love (and enter heaven), we must live our lives wholeheartedly for God. But as Ralph also mentions in the book, these things are “necessary but not sufficient.”

In the end, our hope lies in what Christ Himself has done for us. If I were granted a dying wish, I often think it would be this: that I might have the crucifix in my hands in order to kiss his cross one more time in thanksgiving for what He has done for me, in the hope of heaven.

Thus would the last blow be struck against the pride that is constantly seeking to insinuate itself into our lives, and against which St. Paul speaks so eloquently.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”  (Eph 2:8-10).