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In Divine Desertion, A Human Presence:
Saintly Wisdom from Two Teresas

For Sunday May 10, 2009

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Acts 8:26–40
           Psalm 22:25–31
           1 John 4:7–21
           John 15:1–8

Mother Teresa book cover.
Mother Teresa book cover.

           When Mother Teresa's private correspondence was published in 2007 to coincide with the tenth anniversary of her death (1910–1997), people were shocked how letter after letter described in excruciating detail the deep darkness that plagued her for fifty years. Detractors accused her of hypocrisy; devotees couldn't believe it was true. But it was.

           Mother Teresa describes her darkness in many ways, but most of all as an absence of God's presence — as an emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. "There is so much contradiction in my soul, no faith, no love, no zeal. . . . I find no words to express the depths of the darkness. . . . My heart is so empty. . . . so full of darkness. . . . I don't pray any longer. The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal. . . . I have no faith, I don't believe." As for her famously angelic demeanor, "the smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains. . . . my cheerfulness is a cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery. . . . I deceive people with this weapon." She repeatedly admitted to her confessors that she felt like a "shameless hypocrite" for teaching one thing but experiencing something far different.

           Abandoned by God? It sounds impious, but it's a common experience. When Kathryn Greene-McCreight was in grad school, she experienced her first major episode of clinical depression. Five years later doctors diagnosed her as bipolar. After five hospitalizations, two courses of electroconvulsive therapy, and constantly changing drug regimens, she finally experienced genuine improvement and stabilization. In her book Darkness is My Only Companion (2006), she grapples with the "apparent incongruity of that agony with the Christian life."

The Scream by E. Munsch.
The Scream by E. Munsch.

           Greene-McCreight's book title comes from Psalm 88:18, "My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me, and darkness is my only companion" (KJV). Greene-McCreight wonders why God allows such suffering. Why does he seem to abandon someone who is in such pain, and not answer prayer? Is there a connection between sin and suffering, the physical and the spiritual, the medical and the religious? Similarly, Mother Teresa's letters explored possible explanations for her interior turmoil: maybe it was punishment for sin, a trial to purify her faith, a temptation of satan, or a consequence of her hasty personality and physical fatigue.

           Sometimes there aren't any answers. There weren't for my mother, at least that any of us could see. She attended church all her life, and was a church organist for two decades. The last thirty years of her life were a long, slow slide into the tentacles of clinical depression. Why?

            Psalm 22 is the classic text on the absence of God's presence, and it makes for painful reading. The poet praises God, and pours out his heart to him, but he also argues with God. His candor is so much more authentic than the pious cliches that we use to mask our pain. He complains that God is not only remote but silent. His prayers go unanswered. "Trouble is near" and "there is no one to help." (22:11). Friends ridicule his faith, leading to social isolation: "He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him!" They (wrongly) regarded his misfortunes as proof of divine displeasure. As if recounting a bizarre nightmare, he imagines raging bulls, roaring lions, and wild oxen attacking him. Threatened by "the power of the dogs" (22:20), he loses his composure: "My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me." He can no longer control his destiny, and compares himself to "those who cannot keep themselves alive."

           The Psalmist reminds us how much God prefers heartfelt authenticity to superficial religiosity. The psalms of despair encourage us not to suppress or candy coat our feelings of abandonment. They don't discourage our cries of dereliction, our sense of divine desertion, but in fact give them voice. Jesus himself screamed the prayer of Psalm 22 when he hung from the cross (Mark 15:34). The Psalmist believed that ultimately God "has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help."

           With the help of her confessors, Mother Teresa concluded that her darkness was not an obstacle to God's call to serve the poorest of the poor, but instead was part and parcel of that call. In her own deep darkness she identified with the dereliction of the poor and shared in the sufferings of Christ himself. She thus translated personal experience into human empathy.

Statue of St. Teresa of Avila in St. Peter's Basilica, by Filippo Della Valle, 1754.
Statue of St. Teresa of Avila in St. Peter's Basilica,
by Filippo Della Valle, 1754.

           When believers are at their best, the absence of God's presence is met with the presence of his people. No person has ever seen God, writes John, and as Mother Teresa, Greene-McCreight, the Psalmist, and many other saints have testified, often we don't even feel or sense his presence. "But if we love each other, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us" (1 John 4:12). Every human being should be able to say, "God might feel remote, but his people are near."

           Teresa of Avila (1515–1582), a Spanish mystic, nun, reformer, and writer who experienced divine visions, put this most memorably in her poem Christ Has No Body:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

The church is thus the visible manifestation of the invisible God, or in Paul's words, the physical body of Christ on earth. We alone, suggests Teresa of Avila, can mediate the divine light amidst the experience of human darkness.

For further reflection:

* When and why have you felt most abandoned by God? What did it feel like?
* 1 John 4:16: "We know and rely on the love God has for us."
* Another poem by Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing trouble you.
Let nothing scare you.
All is fleeting.
God alone is unchanging.
Everything obtains.
Who possesses God
Nothing wants.
God alone suffices.

* Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion; A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006).
* Brian Kolodiejchuk, editor, Mother Teresa; Come Be My Light; The Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta" (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

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