Consider these words of a well-known woman religious: “It is not without reason that I have dwelt upon this period of my life at such length. I know well that nobody will derive any pleasure from reading about anyone so wicked, and I sincerely hope that those who read this will hold me in abhorrence, when they see that a soul which had received such great favours could be so obstinate and ungrateful. I wish I could be allowed to describe the many occasions on which I failed God during this period through not having leaned upon this strong pillar of prayer.
“I spent nearly 20 years on that stormy sea, often falling in this way and each time rising again, but to little purpose, as I would only fall once more. My life was so far from perfection that I took hardly any notice of venial sins; as to mortal sins, although afraid of them, I was not so much so as I ought to have been; for I did not keep free from the danger of falling into them. I can testify that this is one of the most grievous kinds of life which I think can be imagined, for I had neither any joy in God nor any pleasure in the world. When I was in the midst of worldly pleasures, I was distressed by the remembrance of what I owed to God; when I was with God, I grew restless because of worldly affections. This is so grievous a conflict that I do not know how I managed to endure it for a month, much less for so many years.”
These are not the thoughts of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, soon to be canonized for her life of dedication to the Eucharist and to the poor. In spite of Time Magazine’s recent exposé of Mother Teresa’s inner turmoil, these words do not express her grim spiritual experiences but rather the bleak decades in the spiritual life of the great St. Teresa of Avila. That’s right. For 20 years, the great Spanish mystic St. Teresa literally went through hell, even as she said her prayers, sang the Divine Office, attended Mass, meditated on the eternal mysteries and did her share of Carmelite community life. Having endured this trial, the great St. Teresa then employed her spiritual maturity in reforming the Carmelite convents of Spain and in no small way preserving Spain from the advance of Protestantism.
Some readers who have no inkling of the science of the saints are horrified to learn that Mother Teresa and the great St. Teresa and St. Theresa the Little Flower, along with any other saint worth the honor, endured extended periods of great testing. The “dark night of the senses” and the “dark night of the soul” are fundamental to the authentic Christian spiritual life. At times, and perhaps for some time, God deliberately withholds himself from the devout believer to ensure that the interior life is truly a pursuit of the God of consolation and not merely a quest for the consolations of God. This purgative way cleanses the soul of all earthly considerations. Deprived of all gladness, all satisfaction, all feeling, and certainly all sin, the soul is prepared for God’s fulfilling arrival.
Missionaries of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who has collected Mother Teresa’s letters in anticipation of her canonization thinks these grim letters may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. “The tendency in our spiritual life and also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms."
The first reading this Sunday from the prophet Habakkuk speaks of his harsh spiritual experiences: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”
Saints old and modern testify that the just ones still live by faith and not by feelings.