The Word Among Us

February 2020 Issue

Praying through the Darkness

Mother Teresa shows us the way.

Praying through the Darkness: Mother Teresa shows us the way.

One day Francis of Assisi, alluding to the chivalrous poems that were being written in his time, exclaimed, “All . . . valiant knights who were mighty in battle . . . gained a memorable victory for themselves [and] died fighting for the Faith of Christ. We see many today who would like to attribute honor and glory to themselves by being content with singing about the exploits of others.”

In one of his Admonitions, Francis explained what he meant: “We ought to be ashamed of ourselves; the saints endured [many things], but we who are servants of God try to win honor and glory by recounting and making known what they have done.” These words come back to my mind as a somber reminder as I offer this meditation on the holiness of Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa’s Years of Darkness. What happened after Mother Teresa said yes to the divine inspiration that was calling her to leave everything and to put herself at the service of the poorest of the poor? The world has clearly seen what happened around her—the arrival of her first companions, the ecclesiastical approval, the rapid pace of developing her charitable works—but right up until her death, no one knew what was happening inside of her.

That has been revealed by her personal diaries and the letters to her spiritual director that came to light about fifteen years ago. These intimate writings place her alongside the great mystics of Christianity. One of the most famous definitions of mysticism describes it as “experiencing divine things.” The original expression cannot quite be translated, but we can understand it to mean living a divine passion, in the dual sense of sorrow and love that the word “passion” encompasses. We see this definition fully realized in Mother Teresa’s experience.

A priest who was close to Mother Teresa wrote, “With the beginning of her new life in the service of the poor, darkness came on her with oppressive power.” A few brief excerpts are enough to give us an idea of the intensity of the darkness in which she found herself:

There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God—so deep that it is painful—a suffering continual—and yet not wanted by God—repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal. . . . Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place.

It is not difficult to recognize immediately in Mother Teresa’s experience a classic case of what the scholars of mysticism, following St. John of the Cross, generally call “the dark night of the soul.”

All that we know leads us to think that this darkness accompanied Mother Teresa until her death, with a brief interval in 1958. If from a certain point on she almost never speaks of it, it is not because her night was over but because she had adapted herself to living in it. Not only did she accept it, but she also recognized the extraordinary grace it held for her. “I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”

To “Complete What Is Lacking.” But why does this strange phenomenon that lasts practically one’s whole life happen? It is so that in their flesh they “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). Jesus in Gethsemane was the first to experience for everyone the dark night of the soul, and he died in that state, judging by his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Pope St. John Paul II once wrote, “Not infrequently the saints have undergone something akin to Jesus’ experience on the Cross in the paradoxical blending of bliss and pain” (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 27).

We know that Mother Teresa came to see her trial as a response to her desire to share the Sitio, “I thirst,” of Jesus on the cross:

If my pain and suffering—my darkness and separation gives You a drop of consolation—my own Jesus, do with me as You wish. . . . Imprint on my soul and life the sufferings of Your Heart. . . . I want to satiate Your Thirst with every single drop of blood that You can find in me. . . . Please do not take the trouble to return soon.—I am ready to wait for You for all eternity.

When Prayer Becomes Hard. But the mystics are not an exception or a category apart from other Christians. We learn one thing above all from their dark night and in particular that of Mother Teresa: how to conduct ourselves in times of dryness, when prayer becomes a struggle, an effort, like beating our heads against a wall.

When this happens, it is important not to give up and begin to omit prayer in order to focus on activities. When God is not there, it is important that at least his place is not taken over by an idol, especially the idol of “activism.”

To avoid having this happen, it is good for us to interrupt work every so often and lift our thoughts to God or simply sacrifice a bit of time for him. In times of dryness, we need to discover a kind of special prayer that Blessed Angela of Foligno called “forced prayer” that she says she herself practiced:

It is a good thing and very acceptable to God . . . if you pray, keep vigils, and perform other good works when the fervor of divine grace is with you, but it is altogether most pleasing and acceptable to God that, when divine grace is lacking or has been withdrawn from you, you do not pray less, keep vigils less often, and perform fewer good works. Act without grace just as you do with grace. . . . Do your share, . . . and God will do his part well. Forced prayers . . . are particularly pleasing to God.

This is a prayer that we do more with the body than with the mind. There is a secret alliance between the will and the body. Often when our wills cannot command our minds to have or not have certain thoughts, we can command our bodies and tell our knees to bend, our hands to be folded, and our mouths to open and say a few words, for example, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.”

Mother Teresa herself was familiar with this “forced prayer”:

The other day, I can’t tell you how badly I felt.—There was a moment when I nearly refused to accept [this state].
—Deliberately I took the rosary and very slowly without even meditating or thinking—I said it slowly and calmly.

“Do Not Leave Your Cell.” Simply remaining physically in church, or in a place chosen for prayer, simply being in prayer, is the only way left for us to continue to persevere in prayer. God knows we could go do a hundred more useful things that would be more gratifying for us, but we stay there and spend the time allotted in our schedule or in our initial resolve to the very end.

To a disciple who was continually lamenting not being able to pray because of distractions—“My thoughts trouble me,” he said—the ancient monk to whom he was speaking told him to let his thoughts go wherever they wanted, “only do not leave your cell!” This is good advice for us as well when we find ourselves having chronic distractions that are no longer in our power to control: let our thoughts wander where they will, but may our body remain at prayer!

All of this comes about by faith. It is enough for me to say, “Father, you have given me the Spirit of Jesus. Forming thereby ‘one single spirit’ with him, I recite this psalm, I celebrate this Mass, or I am simply silent here in your presence. I want to give you the very glory and joy Jesus would give you if he were the one still praying to you on earth.” With this certitude let us conclude our reflection with this prayer:

Holy Spirit, you who intercede in the hearts of believers with sighs too deep for words, come help us in our weakness; knock at the hearts of the many people who live without God and without hope in this world. Enlighten the minds of those who at this time are shaping the future of our planet. Help them understand that Christ is not a threat to anyone but a brother to all. For the poor, the lowly, the persecuted, and those excluded from the world of tomorrow, let not the assurance be taken away from them, in guilty silence, that until now has most defended them from the arbitrariness of the powerful and the harshness of life: the name of their brother, Jesus of Nazareth!