In the autumn of 2007 a book entitled “Mother Teresa: come be my light, the private writings of the Saint of Calcutta”, edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, was published [by Doubleday] in the UK. It was about Mother Teresa, whom many think of as the saint of the twentieth century, and who died in 1997. She was known throughout the world as the face of compassion and care as a result of her work amongst the poor, the sick, the orphaned and the dying of Calcutta, and around the world. She won the Nobel peace prize in 1979 and many saw her as the contemporary face of God. So it was surprising that while the book was reviewed in the religious press, it was not easy to find in bookshops, and very few people I came across had heard of it. Surprising, that is, until you learnt about the story that the book was telling.
It is in effect her spiritual biography, because it brings together letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors over decades, and provides a moving chronicle of her spiritual journey. The story that it tells is not what you might have expected. An Albanian-born Roman Catholic nun, she first went to India to teach in 1929. On a train journey to Darjeeling from Calcutta, on September 10th 1946, made in order to enjoy a well deserved break from her work, she had a decisive mystical encounter with Christ. “It was in that train, I heard the call to give up all and follow Him into the slums – to serve Him in the poorest of the poor………..I knew it was His will that I had to follow Him. There was no doubt it was going to be His work.” Christ appeared to her on a number of other occasions, calling her to “Come carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be my light.” Hence the book’s title.
She was impatient to get started, but there were inevitably delays as she sought the necessary permission from her religious superiors to begin her new work. She found this time of waiting very frustrating as her letters make clear, although she later seems to remember it as a time when Christ was very close to her, and therefore as a blessed time. Eventually she was given the go-ahead on January 6th 1948, and entered her new calling. Almost immediately Christ withdrew His presence from her. “Before the work started [1946-1947] there was so much union –love – faith – trust – prayer – sacrifice. There [in Asanol] as if Our Lord just gave Himself to me – to the full. The sweetness and consolation and union of those six months passed but very soon.”
She later wrote of this time in a letter to one of her spiritual directors:
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 really do not see – neither with my mind nor with my reason – The place of God in my soul is blank. –There is no God in me………I just long and long for God – and then it is that I feel – He does not want me – He is not there…………Sometimes – I just hear my own heart cry out – ‘My God’ and nothing else comes. – The torture and pain I can’t explain. – From my childhood I have had a most tender love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – but this too has gone. – I feel nothing before Jesus.
On another occasion she wrote:
I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started – there was so much union – love – faith – trust – prayer – sacrifice. – Did I make the mistake in surrendering blindly to the call of the Sacred heart? The work is not a doubt – because I am convinced that it is His not mine.
Over and over again the letters in the book describe feelings like these, and they seem to have continued for the remaining fifty years of her life, with only one brief intermission. Yet she remained to the world the smiling, compassionate face of the divine, and hardly anybody knew of the inner spiritual turmoil that she was going through. If they had, she feared that people would have thought her a hypocrite, to talk so easily about the loving God whom we meet in the poor, and yet to feel no sense of the presence of that God within herself.
The book is very powerful and deeply moving: we owe a debt of gratitude to the editor for making it available. If it becomes widely known I think that it could have an influence as great in its way as all Mother Teresa’s practical compassion, for it names something that is rarely named in public and from a source that few can question. I’ve talked about it wherever I get the opportunity amongst Christian groups and church congregations, and everywhere the response is the same. People know this experience for themselves, but it’s rarely talked about, you hardly ever hear a sermon preached on it, and people often feel a deep sense of shame and failure in admitting that they’ve ‘been there’. Oddly enough that’s rather similar to the religious experiences that Alister Hardy was interested in researching. Most people seemed to have had those experiences too, but nobody ever talks about them either! Why is there this veil of secrecy over both our sense of the absence and the presence of the divine in our lives?
Yet if you read the right books, assuming you knew where to find them, you’d soon learn that both of these sorts of experience are the commonplace of the spiritual journey. Technically they are referred to as the ‘via positiva’ and the ‘via negativa’. The former, positive way, the way up, is when you find God in everything. The latter, negative way, the way down, is when you are only aware of what God is not: God is a mystery beyond our understanding and feels like an absence and not a presence. In between these two sorts of experience is where most of us spend our time, too busy and too distracted to be willing and able to engage with either, and possibly running as fast as we can from both!
Yet many relationships with God combine these two experiences, the positive and the negative; often, although not always, beginning with the former and then moving on to the second, more reflective, silence based one, later on. Nearly all of us will go through both, very likely more than once, during our lives. A healthy church needs to embrace both spiritualities.
One of the difficulties is that because nobody talks much about the negative way, when it comes it is a great and unwelcome surprise, and because nobody else is talking about it you feel that this must be something peculiar to you, and clearly in some way your fault, because nobody else seems to be experiencing it. Mother Teresa’s letters give the lie to this.
They also make it clear that she relied heavily on her spiritual directors throughout her life; that it was mainly but not exclusively to them that she spoke of her spiritual journey, and that it was from them that she eventually found the wisdom and resources to begin making sense of what was happening to her. We write elsewhere in the book about spiritual direction, and I will come later in this chapter to the advice that helped Mother Teresa, but for now I simply want to reiterate the point which we’ve made elsewhere, that it can be enormously helpful to have somebody else to talk with about your faith journey. Yes, God does speak directly to each of us, and Yes, we can for the most part trust life to teach us what else we need, but it remains true that it can be a great help to have someone else with whom we can talk these things through, someone who can act as a sounding board. That is especially true when dealing with what appears to be the absence or silence of God: not least because it is very easy to misread these situations, and self diagnosis is rarely the best way forward. It is astonishing how even the most spiritually mature person can’t see what is under their spiritual nose, although it may seem blindingly obvious to a perceptive spiritual friend!
Let me offer you a glimpse of the possibilities here. The spiritual journey, the faith exploration, call it what you will, entails both ups and downs. I take that to be a fact. You will hopefully know times of spiritual joy, when your spirit is uplifted and your soul dances. Enjoy these times, because they do not last for ever. The time will come when that joy ceases, and you will come down to earth with a bit of a bump: the greater the sense of joy the greater the bump, possibly! The bump isn’t likely to last for ever either; in time it will probably be replaced by a sense of lightness again. Life is a cycle of these highs and lows, some higher, some lower, some shorter, some longer. This is how it is.
The lows, the bumps, might be the result of all manner of things. The fact that you are feeling down today, either don’t want to or feel unable to say your prayers and find God to be largely absent, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are in the same spiritual place as Mother Teresa wrote about. What are the alternatives?
1. The most obvious explanation might simply be that you are tired and worn out, and what you need to do is to take your foot off the accelerator, slow down, have a holiday, and just be gentle with yourself for a bit. I often ask “What do you do for fun?” If you can’t answer this question, or have difficulty in answering it, then maybe you just need a break.
One of my favourite stories is of the priest who no longer read his Bible or said his prayers, and who felt that his faith had died on him. He was married with a working wife and several small children. “What do you do for fun?” I asked him. “Oh I don’t have any time for fun there’s too much to do.” he replied. “Well, what did you used to do for fun, before life got so busy?” I asked. He thought for a while: “Well I used to enjoy listening to jazz.” I suggested that he stopped saying his prayers, stopped trying to read his Bible, and stopped worrying about his faith. Instead he should give himself twenty minutes every day to listen to some jazz, not as background music, but with his feet up and a glass if wine or a cup of coffee in his hand, so that he could simply listen and enjoy. We met again a month later, and he was a changed man. He had taken the time to listen to some jazz every day, and would you believe it, he’d started saying his prayers again because he wanted to, and he was reading his Bible regularly as well. His faith was alive and well again. And all because he’d allowed himself some fun. It isn’t usually quite as easy and dramatic as this, but you get my point. Why is it that Christians are often strangely reluctant to admit to the importance of fun, regarding it as selfish?
2. It may surprise you to hear that religious folk can get a bit over-churched sometimes. A break from church-going – a sabbatical from church for a couple of months; or going to another church where nobody knows you and you can just fade into the background and be there without any responsibilities, can be as transforming as ‘listening to jazz each day’.
3. Sometimes your faith seems to go dead for no reason that you can see, and you wonder what is going on. Look at the rest of your life. Perhaps there is some other area of life that is very difficult and painful at the moment: a key relationship is going through a difficult time; somebody close to you has died; you’re anxious about work; fearful for your health; worried about somebody you love? Sometimes if there is pain and hurt in another part of your life it will affect your relationship with God, indeed it would be strange if it didn’t. If communication feels impossible with someone significant, it may well be difficult with God too. You might expect the opposite to be true, for God to be really there for you when the going gets tough, but it often feels like the reverse. It then easily feels like you’ve been abandoned by God just when you needed God most. It can make all the difference to name to yourself what the real problem is and ask yourself “What can I do to address this problem? What small step can I make that might move it forward?”
The Gospel story of Jesus telling people not to present their gift at the altar if they are out of relationship with their brother, might be addressed to precisely this situation. It won’t feel as if God has accepted your gift if a key human relationship doesn’t feel right, so start by putting that right first.
4. It might be that your current spiritual practice or your current image of God needs a shake up and a change. It can be that prayer goes dead because you have out-grown that way of praying and need to try something different. Rather that feeling a sense of failure it could be that God thinks that you are ready and is calling you to grow into something different. For example, I often find that someone for whom verbal prayer has dried up can find new life in being encouraged to pray any way they like but without using words. So they start praying by listening to music, or looking at pictures, or just by being silent.
5. It might be that a familiar image of God has reached it sell-by date. There is maybe nothing wrong with it as an image, but perhaps you have out grown it, perhaps you are ready to use a different image. This again is not a sign of failure but of growth. You are ready for a deeper knowledge of God and that requires you to find a new image. Actually, you don’t have to ‘find’ it all. If this is what you need then it will find you, you just have to watch out for it. You’ll recognise it if you stay alert, open and watchful. But you might have to wait a while. You cannot control when or how it will come.
Remember that story of the man who fell off a high cliff, but as he fell towards the ground many feet below, managed to grab hold of a branch growing out of the cliff-side, and hung there. He could see no chance of climbing back up to the top, and the ground was a terrifyingly long way down. He’d never much believed in God, but felt that this might be the time to give it a try, so he shouted out “ God are you there?”. “Yes, I’m here,” came back the reply. “I need your help, I’m stuck.” “Well let go and I’ll catch you,” said God. The man looked down at the ground many feet below. “Is there anyone else there I can talk to?” he asked.
You might just have to wait, having let go of your old image, and trust that God will provide you with another one. It might even be that the whole point of the waiting is that God is inviting you to learn to trust God more than you already do?
6. Sometimes people get confused between the ‘via negativa’ and a time of depression. They are not the same. This is not the place to get into a discussion about the difference between them, but they are different. If you are feeling depressed you need to get medical or therapeutic help, not spiritual counsel. Again, it is a benefit of having someone to talk with; they may be able to help you if you are not sure exactly what help you need.
The ‘via negativa’
It might be none of the above: there might be some other reason. Or it might be that God is leading you into a dark way of not knowing and of the seeming absence of God, the ‘via negativa’. Remember Mother Teresa’s story; she had a relatively short period of a year or so where God and Christ felt intensely close and where intimate communication seemed very easy: and then suddenly all that ended, and she felt herself plunged into utter darkness. She continued to long for God but God no longer seemed to be there, and the absence, coming after such intense intimacy, was excruciatingly painful. It led her to question her original experience. Had she mis-read her sense of closeness?, Was her sense of call a mistake? Deep down she seems to have known that neither question was true, but they continued to haunt her.
I wrote earlier that one of her spiritual directors was able to offer her some wisdom that helped her find her way forward. We need to remember that what helped her isn’t necessarily going to speak to us but it is nevertheless interesting to know what he said. A number of things that he said seemed to have helped her:
First, that this experience was not her fault. It was not a sign of her failure. It was not a judgement from God upon her. These experiences happen to nearly everybody. They are a part of the spiritual journey. She should not take it personally.
Second, there is nothing very much that we can do about it, beyond accepting it. We cannot end it, or get rid of it. It is not in our power to do so. It will pass when the time is right and we have no control over when that might be.
Third, the fact that she cannot feel God’s presence is not in itself evidence that God is not in fact present. Feelings are not everything. We also have our brains, and we have to use them too and not be governed just by our feelings. Our brains tell us that God is always present even if we are not aware of it. We have to learn to trust our brains and not just our feelings.
Fourth, her thirst for God whilst in this darkness was itself an indication of God’s hidden presence within her. It was a sign of God praying within her, and thus of God’s presence.
And finally, the only response to her experience is a total surrender to God and an acceptance of the darkness. Perhaps she could come to see it as a sharing in the pain and desolation that Christ Himself felt? If she could see that, then the darkness has meaning and point to it. It could be how she shares most intimately with Christ’s redeeming work.
All of the above sound like good wisdom to me. It is hard to understand how a relationship can exist with no outward signs of its existence. It is not easy to understand why a God Who has assured you of God’s love should suddenly choose to absent God-self, leaving you with darkness, emptiness, absence and silence. It does not feel like a very loving way to behave.
But the tradition says that it is in fact a call to a deepening of the relationship, not a sign of its absence. It’s a call to a deeper trusting in a God Who is inevitably beyond our knowing. All we can do with such a mysterious God beyond our comprehension, is to let go of our own hold on power, let go of any sense that we can possibly know what this God is up to, and let God be and do with us as seems best: this is deep trust indeed. It can feel pretty scary, but rationally it is possible to see that it make sense.
While it is true that God comes to us in everything and is therefore in one sense eminently knowable. It is also true that if God is really God then we cannot begin to know a fraction of what God is; can’t begin to fathom the wisdom of God’s plan; can’t begin to grasp an understanding of God’s ways. It is blasphemous to think otherwise. And somehow we have to learn to hold these two contrary, paradoxical ideas together, because they both appear to be true.
So if we find ourselves led into the darkness and the absence we have to learn to accept that that is where God wants us to be for now. That being the case we have to learn to be there, not to try to run away, or to fill the emptiness. But to stay there and to look the darkness in the eye. To come to trust that in the midst of the emptiness we will find that God is: a God beyond our knowing but in Whom we can trust and rest, and find in that trusting and resting something better than knowing.
There is often a stripping and a cleansing that goes on here, as we discover that God is best known when we can stand naked and vulnerable before a God Who feels like an absence. A God Whom we can’t find by ourselves but Who comes in the seeming absence and finds us. We don’t need anything in this place: anything is a distraction from the real task of being here. All we need is God and our need of God. Anything else simply gets in the way.
This experience can lead to a deeper self understanding of ourselves not dependent on our possessions and our status. It can lead to a greater need for silent prayer.
Some people choose this way, or perhaps better, find that this way chooses them, or that they sense that this is the way that God is calling them to be. So monks and nuns go off into the desert. More and more people seem to be hearing a call to the solitary life even while remaining within the business of society.
Most of us sense a call to go this way sometimes. It may dominate at certain seasons of our lives. Even when it doesn’t, we will sometimes hear within us a summons to go for a quiet walk in the woods or by the sea, or to sit quietly somewhere and just ‘be’.
Some people have this way thrust upon them. God is sought after, but is never really known. I know a wonderful old lady who has been a pillar of her church for most of her life, but who says that she’s never had anything like an experience of God’s presence. She keeps going, very cheerfully, because she has decided to believe and she does, and that’s that. These people may seek security in form and order: the structures of church worship and life generally may be very important, and they may therefore be quite resistant to change.
There is, I guess, a danger of getting stuck in this dark, but after a time comfortable and familiar place: a danger that one might be reluctant to let it go. It’s not easy to embrace where God seems to have put you and yet remain open to the possibility that God might in time want to lead you elsewhere! It’s not easy to find form and structure that offers meaning and shape to the darkness, and yet remain open to the sudden discarding of that structure at the in-breaking of God in everything again. And yet if we are truly learning to let go of control and allow God to do it God’s way and in God’s time, then that is what we have to do.