by Friar Jim Van Vurst, O.F.M.
I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1981 during the dedication of a peace
garden located at my seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. She was in the U.S. visiting primarily
to establish her community in New York City. It was a beautiful June Sunday afternoon,
and I found myself standing right next to this amazing little woman. I say “little” since
I’m 6'2" and Mother’s head seemed to barely reach my elbows.
Many of you saw on the Internet and television the reaction to the “revelations” of Mother’s
book (Come, Be My Light) of correspondence with her spiritual directors. She described
in deeply moving words her struggles with faith, her doubts and sense of abandonment by
God. On the surface, her words appear shocking, but in reality she was experiencing what
Catholic spirituality describes as the “dark night.” There is no question that
to suffer this for a 40-year period must have been a terrible trial. What it says is that
this saintly nun, so dedicated to others, also bore a gigantic cross that only increased
her holiness and union with God.
What was unfortunate, though understandable, was how people, who didn’t
know the theology or language of the spiritual life, reacted, referring to Mother Teresa
as a “fake and a pretender” and, worse, a “liar.”
One thing we know for sure is that Mother Teresa was never a fake or
a liar. Her whole life was as honest and true as it could be. Her entire being was to do
the will of God and, in fact, that it is exactly what she did so wonderfully. If you look
at her influence, her wonderful religious community and the tens of thousands of people
she and her sisters have helped, we see that her life was an amazing journey with God and
ministry to the poorest of the poor.
But what about the darkness, the doubts and the dryness of her life where
God seemed to be gone? We ordinarily equate the presence of God with deep feelings of certainty,
almost as if you can reach out and touch him. But all those feelings and experiences are
not God himself. They are our understanding and images of God. As a person seeks to draw
closer to God, God begins to remove all those things that we think are God but are
only representations. And one by one, the closeness of God may seem to fade or disappear.
In the language of the spiritual life, Mother Teresa was experiencing
the dark night of the senses and of the spirit, which has been written about in Catholic
spirituality. The dark night is certainly not punishment given by God. Quite the opposite.
It is a sign of spiritual growth and reflects the paradox of the gospel: To die is to live,
to live is to die, less is more and more is less. The great expositors of these spiritual
principles were St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. (For those of you who would
like to read about these spiritual principles, check this Web site: danschrock.org/Contemplation.aspx.)
Mother Teresa was not fake, nor did she lose her faith. In fact, her
faith grew all the time while she was walking with the Lord, growing deeper in her union
with him. However, her experience was of just the opposite. Real faith is believing in
what we cannot see or feel. Faith is the strongest when there are no feelings and reassurances.
All saints speak of similar experiences, whether they were religious or laity.
From St. Francis of Assisi to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, saints
and all those seeking union with God have experienced darkness and struggles, some more
than others. But perhaps the most important example is what Jesus experienced during his
own passion and death, hanging on the cross. In his human nature, he experienced an abandonment
of God: “Why have you forsaken me?” But would anyone doubt that his faith
at the moment of deepest sacrifice was the greatest ever?
One final point: Some people may feel upset that Mother Teresas
letters were published and not destroyed as she had wanted. If every saint who died got
their wish that their correspondence be destroyed, the Christian world would be without
some of the most instructive and inspiring writings we could have. (Saints don’t
always know what should be and should not be published.) Her experiences will enlighten
a lot of people. (I just ordered her book, Come, Be My Light.)
respond to Friar Jacks musings on Reflections
on the Stigmata (Part II).
Dear Friar Jack: Thank you for your reflections on the stigmata.
I have been drawn to both St. Francis and St. Padre Pio for a number of years and always
read whatever I can about them. Carol
Dear Friar Jack: How fitting that God should mark outwardly those
who carry him so devoutly inwardly! Even as a little kid, I was so impressed with the wounds
that marked Francis. It was as if the love he had in his heart forced expression outwardly.
It was so ardent. Pray for us, Francis. Be our companion on the way. May we love even a
little more each day! Don
Dear Friar Jack: I’m new to the faith, having just completed
RCIA and Baptism last Easter. Thank you for the service of your e-mails. I receive them
at work and they give me a reason to pause, if only for a few moments, and think of him
in an otherwise busy day. I do have one question: How many saints have displayed the stigmata? Bobby
Dear Bobby: In his book Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward
reports that one list identifies 325 full or partial stigmatics since the 13th century.
Only 62 of them have been canonized. St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) is widely considered
to be the Church’s first stigmatic. Let me take this opportunity to assure you, and
all readers of my E-spirations, that I appreciate your interest and I ask God to
touch your lives with peace and healing love. Friar Jack
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