Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Teresa of Calcutta

There's been a lot of talk about Mother Teresa's "dark night," most of the talk not very helpful. I promised a friend to post something about it.

I'll just comment on some passages from her letters that I found in another article. I will follow St. John of the Cross -- though I know him mostly from secondary sources (especially Garrigou-Lagrange's Three Ages).

-"Always smiling, is what the sisters and the people say of me. They think that inside I am full of faith, trust, and love... If they only knew how true it is that my joyfulness is nothing but a cloak I throw over my emptiness and misery!"

Suffering, especially interior suffering, is said to be a gift from God, in order to draw us to him. We see that on the most superficial level in this quote. Someone who is holy, especially someone who is holy in a public way like Mother Teresa, is always at risk of losing her zeal for Jesus and getting caught up in the spotlight. I think the noisy atheist Christopher Hitchens has said that Mother Teresa was a product of television. Her interior suffering was a gift from God so that she could be deeper than television, so that her spirituality would not sink into self-worship:

"The interior suffering that I feel is so great that all the publicity and all the talk of the people has no effect on me."

-"Pray for me, that I do not reject God in this hour. I do not want this, but I am afraid I could do it."

These words go to the heart of it. The saint clings to Jesus. The saint knows that Jesus is everything, loves Jesus passionately, clings to Jesus. Because the saint knows that without Jesus, she will fall into nothingness. The sinner -- each of us -- thinks that he has it all together.

Jesus purified Teresa by letting her see the truth. There's nothing affected here. She's not preening, or anti-preening. She is just close enough to Jesus to see how far she is, to see how much she needs him. She knows that only grace, only the action of Jesus, can hold her close to Jesus.

-"There is so much contradiction in my soul, a deep longing for God, so deep that it hurts, a constant suffering -- and with this there is the feeling of not being wanted by God, rejected, empty, without faith, without love, without zeal.... Heaven means nothing to me; it seems a hollow place."

Again, we all think we are a gift to God. But in truth, there is nothing but his gift to us. This point is not marginal to the spiritual life. This is it, the whole thing. So deep that it hurts: she needs God, she loves him passionately. But she knows there is nothing lovable in her. It is all his mercy. And that makes her love him all the more. When she says she is empty, without faith, love, or zeal, that she does not long for heaven, she is just being honest. We . . . we think there has never been such sanctity, such spiritual perfection as ourselves. She has the courage to be honest.

But note: what makes all this so exciting for the press is that Teresa absolutely did not go on a speaking tour to talk about how humble she was. She did not "reach out" to people by saying that she feels like God doesn't love her. To others, she spoke the other side. To others, she was the example of sanctity, and of trust in God. Because she wanted to bring them to God. That is love. It is not love to talk up your doubts (and so get on Oprah). And this is not hypocrisy. She emphasized different things in different circumstances, and they were both true. To the public, she was holy. Before God, she realized that she was not so holy. Both are true: because she was holy, but only by the gift that God gave her, and never by her own strength. But what drove her choice of words in different circumstances was not a public (false) humility, not an eagerness to talk about her difficulties, but love: love for people, love for God, each requiring a different emphasis.

-"They say that the eternal pain that souls suffer in Hell is the loss of God... In my soul, I experience precisely this terrible pain of damnation, of a God who does not want me, of a God who is not God, of a God who in reality does not exist. Jesus, I beg you to forgive my blasphemy."

There's an irony here: it is only her trust in God that can let her admit her lack of trust. Only her trust lets her feel fear. Mother Teresa did not think God would abandon her. On the contrary, she could stand on the precipice, could see the possibility of damnation, could admit how unlovable she was, only because she trusted in mercy. And in this mercy, in her ever-deeper sense that God loved her because of who he is and not who she was, she could see more deeply how good he is.

-"If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation from you give you even a drop of consolation, my Jesus, then do with me what you will.... Impress the suffering of your heart upon my soul and my life.... I want to quench your thirst with every last drop of blood you can find in me. Don't be concerned about returning soon: I am ready to wait for you for all eternity."

And here is the ultimate love. Love is willing to do anything for the beloved. The deepest love is willing to suffer. The saints -- pretty consistently, and probably universally, if we could see their inner souls -- experience this willingness to hang on the cross with Jesus, to enter into the darkness of a dead God. Because only suffering allows perfect love. Only suffering gets to where love is not self-serving. Teresa doesn't want to be with Jesus just because he sure makes her feel good. She wants to be with Jesus because she loves him. And so she rejoices to suffer, rejoices, even, to feel distant from him. She is closest to him, loves him most perfectly, when she cannot see his face.

-"In this world that is so far from God, that has turned its back on the light of Jesus, I want to help the people by taking on some of their suffering."

And she shares in his love for sinners. On the Cross, Jesus takes on himself all the suffering of the world, all the abandonment brought on by sin. The Cross is where we belong, the only place that really makes sense in light of all our hatred and infidelity. But for most of us, if we saw the weight of sin, the weight of choosing self over love, of sin -- choosing anything over God -- if we saw this, we would be crushed.

But, say the saints, the process of sanctification involves entering ever more deeply into this darkness, seeing ever more clearly the truth of the human condition. This is only bearable for those who also see God. Until we know his mercy, we cannot bear to see the full weight of our sin. But in light of his mercy . . . ah, everything changes.

And that's all that happened with Teresa of Calcutta. Her interior suffering was only seeing clearly. It was a gift: the gift to see God's mercy and goodness in all its brilliance. But to see that, she had also to see her own darkness, the darkness of sin and of the human race. Neither really makes sense without the other. You can't understand her sufferings without also understanding her faith. And she couldn't see her faith, not fully, without standing before the Cross, and seeing her need in full relief.

Until she finally entered the final embrace. And now she sees nothing but light. . . .

(I don't know how to say all this without sounding trite. The thing about suffering is that it is real. This is the whole point: for Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, this wasn't a trite little theory, it was a direct experience of the horror of sin, of man's total distance from God. It's pretty hard to talk about that and put it into theological perspective -- especially on a blog -- without sounding trivial. Hmm....)