In September 2007, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light was published, bringing to light the letters and writings of one of the most loved and respected women of the twentieth century. On Thursday, 23 August 2007, Time Magazine published a review of the then-forthcoming book that focused primarily on a surprising and hitherto-unknown aspect of her life: a chasm that she perceived, a void whither flew her prayers and whence naught returned. Go and read the review–this essay will still be here, and it will perhaps impress you a little more solemnly with the anguish she faced.
Mother Teresa, who so fearlessly faced poverty and injustice, who fought boldly for the opportunity to change the world as she did, Mother Teresa suffered from the darkness without and within, the ‘dark night’ of St. John of the Cross. It was more than a casual faith that brought her through that Abrahamic trial, a trial which surely marked the deep compassion of her work in ways we cannot know in this world:
If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of “darkness.” I will continually be absent from Heaven—to lit the light of those in darkness on earth.
—Mother Teresa of Calcutta
There are spiritually deadened periods in our lives for a number of reasons. In the LDS Church, I’ve heard us speak of two kinds predominantly: those induced by our own transgression, and those induced to draw us towards greater light. A third is, I think, perhaps broader than the second; at least, it only meets the terms of the second in the most emphatic statement possible: we may feel the spiritual vistas before our eyes drawn away into obscurity to test our faith, to strengthen our resolve, and to refine us in the fire. It’s easy to be Christlike in a world where everyone is Christlike; similarly, it is easy to have faith when everything precipitates faith. It is not easy to have faith when the wellsprings of heaven have dried up and the memories of far green fields fade into the hazy past.
Joseph Smith cried out from Liberty Jail, in the anguish of his soul, after four months in the dank, shabby cell,
O God, where art thou? … How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, … behold from the heavens the wrongs of thy people and thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
The Prophet himself faced the silence of the heavens, at least for a “small moment” (D&C 122). Faith is the subjectively true, the certain knowledge that cannot, however, be communicated without the medium of the Holy Ghost. And no definition can capture the pure, simple strength of that conviction.
The universe seems silent to us sometimes, in poverty, in disease, in boredom, in abuse, in war, in famine, in death. Others hear the voice of God around, or even through, such trials, while some grow hardened and embittered. There is a narrow path some faithful few must walk, however, across a deep chasm of doubt, a silent path with footfalls echoing into the eternities and each step a leap of faith in the darkness, the Holy Ghost blazing occasionally over the scene like a flare, but then past again. I do not envy that path, but I have all the more respect for those who pressed forward because they knew it was right, and they knew it was their duty.
So how do we deal with the indications of a silent universe when the ringing in our ears grows too loud to ignore? That may be the value of past spiritual experiences, and, I think, one of the ultimate meanings of faith. I suspect that perhaps Mother Teresa, and a few others, have tasted the smallest portion of Christ’s experience: the gut-wrenching solitude of standing alone in the Absolute.
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. ∙And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
How can I even read those words lightly? As if the New Testament were a book of moral philosophy or esoteric history, as if torn flesh and crowns of thorns were the worst one could suffer, I pass over this passage too quickly. I fear the day when I may have to face such a trial, even in the least degree.
The promise of the Atonement, ultimately, is to bring us all at one, and such a trial must surely pass, as it certainly has now for Mother Teresa. For us, all that can be done is to gently work towards the day when a fuller dispensation of grace may gift us with greater certainty of the truth of the work in which we are engaged. As has recently been discussed elsewhere in the Bloggernacle, “all we can hope for is for God to bring us home,” regardless of the trials, loneliness, or heartache along the way.
The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?