“Mother Teresa's Dark Night of Faith"
Bishop Raymundo J. Peña
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Bishop Raymundo J. Peña was ordained a priest on May 25, 1957 at the Corpus Christi Cathedral in Corpus Christi, Texas. He served in several parishes in the Rio Grande Valley and along the Texas-Mexico border before being names auxiliary bishop of San Antonio on October 16, 1976. He was ordained a bishop on December 31, 1976 in San Antonio. Bishop Peña was appointed Bishop of El Paso on April 29, 1980, where he served for 15 years. On May 23, 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed Bishop Peña the Fifth Bishop of Brownsville. Bishop Peña writes a weekly column that is published in several local newspapers.
Many were surprised, and some apparently shocked, by the recent disclosure of private correspondence by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta to a spiritual confidant, in which she revealed an inner darkness and emptiness. At one point, she speaks of Jesus and writes, “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…” Elsewhere she states, “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not existing.”
Some commentators have mistakenly interpreted her revelations as admissions of a loss of faith, but I must hasten to point out that, at least in the portions of her private correspondence that have been disclosed so far, she never speaks of a loss of faith, but only of intensely painful feelings in her soul. Feelings and faith are two different matters.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of darkness in the soul, and careful spiritual discernment is needed to know which kind is being suffered. First is the darkness that results from sin. Grave sin destroys God’s life in us, and his absence may cause the soul to suffer the acute pain of loss. In the long run, though, what serious sin does is to deaden the soul to any awareness of God, and so to a loss of belief in his existence and to a corresponding loss of a capacity to know his love, peace, or joy. In extreme cases, sin can lead to hatred of God and of religion. One must always ask, then, when it comes to spiritual darkness, if there is a habit of grave sin or selfishness that has not been rooted out. When gross sins are present, the diagnosis of darkness is easy: it is because of sin.
When no serious sin is present, however, and especially when all the evidence indicates a desire to know and love God more, to please and serve him, and to accomplish his will, and when there is daily prayer and the daily practice of self-control and of charity, then the darkness is what some mystic saints have called the dark night of faith, or the dark night of the soul. This darkness is produced not by God’s absence, but by his immediate presence.
How can this be? It is simple to explain. Have you ever been momentarily blinded by the snapshot of a camera with a flash attachment? Have you ever been in a dark room and then turned on the lights, or walked out of a darkened movie theater into the bright daylight? We all know what happens. We are blinded by the light until our eyes adjust.
Paradoxically, when God reveals himself in a dramatic and immediate way, the soul is blinded by the light and so experiences God’s manifestation as darkness. The darkness may remain for a very long time, perhaps for the rest of one’s life. That, I am convinced, is what happened to Mother Teresa, because there were no indications in her life of gross sin or selfishness. On the Contrary, in spite of dark night, she continued to pray and to serve the most abandoned in society. We should see the darkness she experienced as additional evidence of her holiness and closeness to God.
By the same token, if we have rid our lives of gross sin and are seeking the Lord, we should not be concerned if we find ourselves without any sense of God’s presence. Our senses and emotions are no safe guide to judging God’s presence or absence. So long as we are not living in grave sin, we can be confident that the Lord is with us. In the normal course of spiritual growth, God provides moments of consolation, and allows long periods of desolation in order to purify us and perfect our faith.
St. Theresa of Avila warned against the pursuit of revelations and mystical experiences of God. First, she said, we can easily deceive ourselves about the nature of spiritual experiences. Second, receiving special revelations or graces easily tempt us to sinful pride. Third, we should not desire for God to manifest himself to us, because selfishness is hidden in that desire; rather we should be seeking to manifest ourselves to God. That is, we should present ourselves to him in prayer and focus on loving him with all our mind and heart and strength and being.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). The closer one draws to Jesus, the more does his light enter the world through us. If Mother Teresa was looking for the light of Christ and couldn’t find it, it is because she was so close to him that she had become his light!
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