September 7, 2007


Mother Teresa’s dark night

(Listen to this editorial being read)

On Aug. 23, the news media reported what they thought was sensational news: that Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta often felt abandoned by God and even had doubts about his existence. The reports implied that she wasn’t really as holy as she appeared to be.

The reports were based on a new book by Missionaries of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk titled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, released by Doubleday on Sept. 4. The author is the promoter of Mother Teresa’s cause for sainthood so he has examined letters she wrote from as early as 1956.

Although this might have been news for the secular media, it was not for readers of The Criterion and other Catholic periodicals. Father Kolodiejchuk told Catholic News Service about Mother Teresa’s “interior darkness” and spiritual emptiness back in 2002, prior to her beatification. He said that he was surprised about how much she was able to accomplish despite feeling that God had abandoned her.

We were pleased that one report, on NBC’s “Today Show,” included the fact that the Catholic Church believes that God permits some saints to experience what is known as “the dark night of the soul.”

Yes, we thought! The expression was right out of the writings of St. John of the Cross. That information was not in NBC’s report the previous night, and we would like to believe that the woman reporter who added it on the “Today Show” thought that the earlier story was inadequate and was able to convince her superiors to let her add to it.

That reporter didn’t mention any saints by name, but one of them was St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In her auto­biography The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote about what she called her “night of nothingness” when she couldn’t feel close to God.

However, it was St. John of the Cross who explained this darkness the best. He was a 16th-century Carmelite who worked closely with St. Teresa of Avila to reform the Carmelite order. He was a poet, theologian, mystic and later declared one of the doctors of the Church. Pope John Paul II had a particular devotion to him and wrote his doctoral dissertation about him.

His main books were The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. The second book, The Dark Night, really seems to be a completion of The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

For St. John of the Cross, the “dark night” signified purgative contemplation, a type of contemplation that produces the effect of purifying the soul of all that’s repugnant to God’s holiness. The person who undergoes this purification experiences a painful lack, including darkness in the intellect, dryness in the will, emptiness in the memory, and affliction and torment. The effect is the experience of being abandoned by God.

St. John wrote that God enables those who pass through this state to “reach that of the perfect, which is the divine union of the soul with God.”

We can understand somewhat what Mother Teresa apparently felt through St. John’s descriptions of those undergoing the dark night. He wrote: “Souls who are advancing in perfection receive great benefit from their humility. They think everyone else is far better than themselves. The more they do, the less satisfaction they derive from it. Their charity and love makes them want to do so much for God that what they actually do accomplish seems as nothing.”

He identified “two kinds of darkness or purgation. Hence the one night of purgation will be sensory, by which the senses are purged and accommodated to the spirit; and the other night of purgation will be spiritual, by which the spirit is purged and denuded as well as accommodated and prepared for union with God through love.”

He wrote: “This glad night and purgation causes many benefits, even though the soul thinks it is being deprived of them,” and he described some of those benefits (which take up many pages).

It seems clear to us that, far from making Mother Teresa seem less holy, it only adds to her saintliness.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

— John F. Fink

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