When the letters between Mother Teresa and her confessors were published in Mother Teresa: Come be my Light (2007, Doubleday), those who were not versed in Christian Mysticism were not quite sure what to do with all the darkness and doubt.
I was still in College when it came out and I remember having several discussions about it. A classmate who was a big fan of Mother Teresa was shocked by what she read. First, she was shocked that her confessors and superiors would publish these writings, especially since Mother Teresa expressly desired that her words would be burned. But, my classmate was also shocked to find out that Mother Teresa struggled with the faith and with the silence of God. How could she continue to believe and do all that immense work when dealing with the silence of God?
Consider this excerpt from the first two pages:
Now Father–since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss–this untold darkness–this loneliness this continual longing for God–which gives me that pain deep down in my heart–Darkness is such that I do not see–neither with my mind or my reason–the place of God in my soul is blank–There is no God in me–when the pain of longing is so great–I just long & long for God–and then it is that I feel–He does not want me . . .
She continued to write how in 1949, she entered into a period of darkness, only to have a short reprieve in the late fifties. But, by 1958, she was back in darkness and this period lasted presumably until her death in 1997. That’s almost forty years straight of the Dark Night of the Soul. I recommend that you read it, if you haven’t already.
The recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, the l’enfant terrible of Atheism, was no fan of Mother Teresa. He published his scathing attack of her in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995, Verso). Well, when it came to light almost a decade after his controversial polemic that Mother Teresa shared many of his doubts about faith, he had this to say about her:
She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.
Hitchens believed that if Mother Teresa should just have thrown in the towel and said that she didn’t believe in God anymore and that it was just a “fabrication”. After all, what use is there in following a silent God?
God is silent; therefore, God does not exist. Hitchens believed this, as do most of us. Is not the silence of God proof that God does not exist? Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov refuses to believe in God because of the inaction of God on part of the suffering of children. Why believe in a Deity who seemingly has no part in the world?
I’ve struggled with this a lot, myself.
But, then I thought, if God is a deluded fabrication, why couldn’t I just conjure up a god who is never silent and is always acting? I mean, I’m not that stupid; I could totally do it. I could fit the pieces of this broken world together like I did with all the seemingly-random information on Lost. I could just fabricate the fabrication a little bit more! Couldn’t Mother Teresa just fabricate a god who fixed all of her problems and suited all of her needs? Why don’t we manufacture a god who is never silent?
But, Mother Teresa was dealing with the God who is wily, with personality and demands. She dealt with the God who desired privacy and occasional separation from creation. This often private and seemingly separate God did not exist for her pleasure. In other words, she was dealing the true God — not one made by hands to suit her desires. In fact, the God she dealt with was so beyond her desires that she experienced these desires and expectations as pain and longing.
I imagine that this is spiritually the equivalent to the realization that dawns on all of us when we are teenagers and learn that our parents are separate from us, that they have their own lives, desires and dreams. “Oh,” we suddenly realize, “my mom and dad don’t only exist for my pleasure! They have their own lives!” Perhaps the silence of God is not a bad thing, but simply the fact that we’re growing up and realize that God is not there to make us feel good about ourselves or to suit our every whim. Perhaps, as several writers have suggested, these Dark Nights are a period of spiritual adolescence.
The Dark Night of the Soul is further proof, for me (at least), that God is real and, when I realized this, I took great comfort in the silence of God. Here, I am not dealing with a fabrication of a childhood whimsy or the psychological sublimation for the perfect father-figure, but in all this silence, I’m experiencing the true God.
Why would we imagine a God who is silent? Could we, even if we tried?