Whenever you want to talk about a stereotypical ‘good person,’ there are a mandatory few people who come to mind: Ghandi, The Pope, or Mother Teresa. Few people have made such a mark on the world using humility and grace as she, yet there is a gigantic element of her life which most people tend to overlook.
In the 16th century, a Spanish monk named John of the Cross penned a poem entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul,” which introduced and gave shape to this concept of the dark night. In essence, it is a time of feeling distant from God for purification of the believer’s soul. Few pieces of writing are so intense and deal so squarely with feelings of abandonment from God. John records his battle with Divine exile as he battles his demons and attempts to put to death all earthly desires of his flesh.
Since the inception of the idea, plenty of Christians have recorded their own dark nights of the souls, to varying degrees and lengths. In the 18th century, a man named Paul of the Cross reportedly had a Dark Night which lasted over 40 years. More recently however, Mother Teresa reported her own Dark Night of the Soul which lasted roughly 50 years.
For 50 years, Mother Teresa endured “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,” she wrote in a letter.
For 50 years, she lived in what she called “the darkness.”
For 50 years, Mother Teresa forced herself to smile toward God, writing that her smile was “a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.”
She went so far as to say that she often felt unwanted and unloved by God.
I want to remind you who we’re talking about here. We’re not just talking about a woman who showed up to church on Sunday and went through the motions. This is no lukewarm quasi-religious person who talks about God despite no relational depth with Him.
This was a woman who committed her life to “the poorest of the poor” in India. She lived with orphans. When a new shipment of shoes arrived, she made sure to get the first shot at it…so she could dig through them and take the worst shoes available. She didn’t want anyone to wear worse shoes than she did, and as a result, her feet were mangled and misshapen.
Her spiritual writings have influenced millions and led them into a closer walk with God through humility and sacrifice. Yet this woman, to whom the Catholic Church awarded sainthood in 2003, seemed to have an intense struggle with darkness for the majority of her life.
Too often, we as American Christians portray our faith as an ever-increasing journey in which we only improve and grow. Peppy megachurches spew positive messages about God’s favor, as if the Bible were chock-full of stories of flawless people living happy lives. Yet when a contemporary figure as notable as Mother Teresa releases letters in which she admits to struggling with darkness for most of her life, we tend to look away.
That won’t make anyone’s day or put a skip in your step.
Yet when we are honest and articulate our own walks with Jesus, how many of us can really attest to a nonstop happiness-fueled life, derived of pain and suffering? I know that’s not my experience, and I would wager it’s not yours either.
I imagine that when you think about your own walk with the Lord, there tends to be more silence than revelation. I can usually relate more to Psalm 22’s refrain, My God, My God, why have You forsaken me? than I can to the songs of rejoicing and celebration because the Lord has delivered me.
I think there is enormous value in honestly sharing our stories and our experience with the Lord, rather than shining it to a blinding polish that hides all our blemishes. From the outside of Christianity, I imagine this collection of people pretending to be perfect and pain-free would be more repulsive than attractive.
It is important to note, however, that Dark Nights of the Soul, including Mother Teresa’s, are not purposeless suffering. John of the Cross, when he first articulated the concept, spoke of the night as a time to purify the soul, robbing it of its desire for earthly pleasures.
For example, in my own life, I can pinpoint several points of feeling very distant from God and alone. Most of the time, I have fled from the feelings of abandonment and loneliness with the escape hatches of Netflix, Facebook, or pornography. But when I think about God using these times to purify me, I should see them as times to eradicate sinful desires from my life. I should come to terms with singleness to the degree that my desire for a wife is eclipsed by my desire for nearness to God. I should see it as a time to chop away at my pride in order to live a more humble life.
For some odd reason, it brings me comfort to know that one of the greatest contemporary saints, Mother Teresa, wrestled with the same feelings of darkness and abandonment I often find myself in. I feel like we modern people tend to be so distracted by technology and noise that we don’t feel this disparity to the degree that she did, but if we were to strip away all the distractions, we would likely be scared of what we would find.
We wear the masks of ‘pretty good people’ most days, and I think this is the heart of what is addressed by the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is a reminder that we are utterly in need of God and the redemption of Jesus Christ.
May we be people who, when feelings of darkness arise, see them as opportunities for purification rather than escape into the world of noise and distraction. May we be honest about our imperfections, struggles and pain. May we humble ourselves like so many saints before us, embracing our experience with the Lord as unique. And may we be faithful to Him to the end, despite the hardships, trials and darkness that come against us.