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Ministry through the dark night

What do you do when God seems far away, especially if you are a ‘professional Christian’ whose work and salary depends on having a vibrant faith?

Mother Teresa

It is only that blind faith that carries me through for in reality to me all is darkness. He is destroying everything in me. There is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. The silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
Mother Teresa

You can’t stop thinking about the beginning, the romance, the way God felt in your heart, in your body, when you first began ministry. There was no need to study, to prepare; all you had to do was open your mouth and let your heart spill over with love. Your soul was a greenhouse growing with faithful words, images, feelings and insights. But that was before.

Now, years into ministry and your heart is a dustbowl, your mouth chalk. And God? God is as silent as stone. You turn to scripture for help, but the words offer no comfort. The Bible reads like an artifact, the verses rinsed of colour. And where is your prayer, that secret communication with God? You call out to God but in return you hear only the empty echo of your own longing. It’s not that God has ceased to exist – it’s more personal than that. God has abandoned you.

It’s difficult to identify when this distance began. Like a marriage gone stale, you just woke up one morning and felt estranged, empty, alienated from the one you love. The spiritual intimacy you built your life around (your Christian identity, your calling to ministry) has vanished and now you’re a house hollowed by fire; the exterior façade stands, but inside only charred beams and ashes remain. God has left you without a note, without a forwarding address; but
divorce is not an option, so you stick to the routines, the old habits, the familiar words and practices, hoping your faith will return to what it was before.

What’s particularly damning is that this is your career. You’re a professional Christian. You can’t afford to let God go AWOL. God is your job. God is your identity. You need faith, a living faith, in order to have some kind of warmth to radiate to those you serve. But no matter what you try, you can’t work it up. You buy books, attend conferences, go on retreat and force yourself to engage in spiritual exercises, but the truth is it all seems like a charade. None of it works. God has abandoned you and you’re left only with the longing and the haunting memories of what was.

IT’S NOT THAT GOD HAS CEASED TO EXIST – IT’S MORE PERSONAL THAN THAT. GOD HAS ABANDONED YOU.

THE GIRL FROM MACEDONIA

There was a girl from Macedonia named Anjezë Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who at the age of five felt God’s presence in her innermost being. This presence she felt with her whole heart. This presence, she knew, was the presence of Jesus, and like a wellspring, overflowed with unending love. Anjezë treasured her little spring and drew sustenance each day with prayers, daily worship and secret acts of devotion.

At the age of 12 Anjezë could no longer contain her love for/from Jesus. She needed to find a greater expression of fidelity. Gonxha told her priest of her deep longing to join Jesus in service, in suffering, in saving those whom Jesus loved. At that tender age she made a commitment to God to become a missionary and spend her life in service to Jesus. Six years later she was accepted into the Sisters of Loreto, a community committed to poverty, chastity and obedience. With a full and eager heart she left her loving family, her culture, her friendships and all that was familiar in order to serve the one whose presence was warmer than the sun, more nourishing than food. She betrothed herself to Jesus and his suffering among the poor. When she made her vows, her name was changed to Teresa.

After years of formation, Teresa felt ‘complete happiness’ as ‘Jesus’ little spouse’, and was eager to serve God as a teacher in Calcutta. For nine years she endured long hours on her feet teaching, cooking, cleaning and attending communal prayers within her small mission community. She spent the few hours away from her teaching duties visiting and serving the poor. It was hard work, surrounded by people stuck in unbearable poverty, with few moments for rest; yet Mother Teresa endured all of it happily. The source of her happiness, she wrote to her family, was ‘the opportunity to imitate Jesus and live in union with Him’.

Then on 10th September 1946, at the age of 36, while travelling by train for her annual retreat with her community in Darjeeling, she had a mystical encounter with Jesus in which she heard him say to her, ‘I thirst.’ In later years she would expound on this experience as a profound vision of Jesus thirsting on the cross for love, for souls, for companions to share his work and suffering. It was out of this experience that Teresa sensed a deep calling to found the Missionaries of Charity, an order that would commit to ‘carry Christ into the homes and streets of the slums, among the sick, dying, the beggars, and the little street children’.

For a year following this encounter, Mother Teresa was graced by a series of deep mystical experiences with Jesus. In these intimate encounters, she felt herself being addressed as ‘My spouse’ and ‘my own little one’. In return she called Jesus ‘My Jesus’ or ‘my own Jesus’. In these conversations she sensed Jesus revealing his heart to her. She sensed his pain, his love, his compassion, his desire for those who suffer. She heard Jesus pleading continually, ‘Come, come, carry me into the holes of the poor. Come, be my light.’

In answer to Jesus’ pleading and despite her low status, criticism from other sisters, interior doubts, and resistance from her superiors, Mother Teresa succeeded in founding the Missionaries of Charity in 1948. She had finally realised her childhood dream to serve the poorest of the poor.

SO WHAT IS THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL? IT’S A TIME WHEN GOD FEELS HIDDEN AND INACCESSIBLE

Then unexpectedly, just one year after founding the Missionaries of Charity, her spirit was plunged into darkness, her prayer became empty, and her Jesus, ‘my own Jesus’, went suddenly silent (and would remain silent for the rest of her life). She had given her life to God in trust, in the hope that Jesus would be faithful, present, an attentive companion in the midst of the world’s suffering. But once her work began, Jesus became withdrawn, imperceptible, and invisible. For the next 11 years, Mother Teresa would undergo profound suffering and confusion at the loss of the intimacy of Jesus and the consolations of prayer. For some time her confessor (ignorant of Teresa’s situation) encouraged her to set aside her spiritual grief and continue to pour herself into her work. She followed his advice, but the inner anguish and loneliness continued. Finally, while on retreat, Mother Teresa spoke with a wise priest who instructed her to express her pain to Jesus. ‘Write to Him,’ he counselled. ‘Write to Jesus and tell Him of your betrayal, your broken heart, the emptiness that has taken hold of you.’ So she did (excerpted).

My own Jesus,
They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God – they would go through all that suffering if they had just a little hope of possessing God. In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies, I have been told to write everything). That darkness that surrounds me on all sides. I can’t lift my soul to God – no light or inspiration enters my soul. I speak of love for souls, of tender love for God, words pass through my lips, and I long with a deep longing to believe in them.

…In my heart there is no faith, no love, no trust. There is so much pain, the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul and yet there between us is a terrible separation. I don’t pray any longer. I utter words of community prayers and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray. My soul is not one with You, and yet when alone in the streets I talk to You for hours, of my longing for You. How intimate are those words and yet so empty, for they leave me far from You.

…I do my best. I spend myself but I am more than convinced that the work is not mine. I do not doubt that it was You who called me, with so much love and force. It was You, I know….but I have no faith, I don’t believe. Jesus, don’t let my soul be deceived, nor let me deceive anyone.

THE DARK NIGHT

Years after her death, biographers have revealed that Mother Teresa’s suffering was an experience of the dark night of the soul. The term ‘dark night of the soul’ is a phrase penned by Carmelite John of the Cross, in the 16th century. The dark night of the soul has become commonplace in the culture and in Christian circles, but the origins of the term and the experience it’s trying to name are not as well known.

It might be helpful to first name what the dark night does not refer to:

• The dark night does not refer to misfortune or illness.
• The dark night isn’t sinister nor does it refer to sin, evil or spiritual apathy.
• The dark night is not a rare privileged experience restricted to holy people. The dark night of the soul is actually a common experience in the Christian life and can occur throughout a person’s faith journey.
• The dark night doesn’t have to be unpleasant. It’s possible a person can welcome the dark night as a time of deepening trust and freedom.

DURING THE DARK NIGHT, GOD TRANSFORMS US IN SECRET, BENEATH OUR KNOWLEDGE, BENEATH OUR OWN PERCEPTION

WHEN GOD HIDES

So what is the dark night of the soul? It’s a time when God feels profoundly silent; a time when God feels hidden and inaccessible. Worship, prayer and other spiritual practices no longer deliver the same spiritual consolations that you used to receive. Faith practices begin to feel useless, at times empty, alienating, and even inauthentic. Scripture becomes flat and unappealing and the desire to pray or worship seems to have vanished. During the dark night you are no longer certain of what you know of God or even yourself. In the dark night you can feel helpless, unable to control or understand your spiritual life. While previously you could talk endlessly of your faith and love for God, now words fail. There seems to be no authentic expression for what you’re experiencing, for who or where God is.

As with Mother Teresa, the dark night is particularly excruciating when you are in ministry. There can be a deep sense of hypocrisy as you try to profess and encourage people to seek out an experience of God’s love and presence when
you only feel emptiness and absence. We see this alienation in the words of Mother Teresa as she writes: ‘I speak of love for souls, of tender love for God, words pass through my lips, and I long with a deep longing to believe in them.’

And yet, despite the loneliness, despite the silence, you notice that sin has no appeal. At times you may want to return to old distractions and escapes, but you find your soul resists these temptations. In the dark night, a person can discover that despite the lack of any spiritual comfort, there remains within the soul a blind trust in God. You feel your faith (your practices, images, words, understandings) dissipating, and yet at the same time you have to admit, somehow your faith persists. Even when you become despondent and try to rid yourself of faith, still, without encouragement, your heart waits for God. Again, we see this dynamic in Mother Teresa as she goes back and forth, claiming she can no longer pray, and yet she finds ‘when alone in the streets I talk to You for hours, of my longing for You’.

WHEN GOD FREES US FROM GOD

What is happening in the dark night of the soul? The first response is: we don’t know. And that seems to be the point. The term ‘dark night’ does not refer to evil or sin, but to a lack of perception. A better translation from the original
Spanish would be ‘the obscure’ night of the soul. It’s a period in our spiritual journey when God’s work in us is obscured, hidden. During the dark night, God transforms us in secret, beneath our knowledge, beneath our own perception, without our input or management of the process.

THE DARK NIGHT TEACHES US TO TRUST THE HIDDENESS OF GOD

Why is this necessary? Why does God’s work take place under the cover of darkness? The dark night is necessary because our images of God, our words for God, our theologies and practices are too small and limited. God is mysterious, transcendent, beyond our comprehension. As Augustine said, ‘If you think you’ve gotten God, it is not God you’ve gotten.’ Not only is God beyond our ability to grasp, God is simultaneously too unbearably immanent (closer than our own breathing, our own heartbeat) for us to perceive. As human beings we continually seek a container for God. We try to grasp the mystery of God through words, practices, songs, thoughts, feelings, memories and images. We substitute these symbols of God for the reality of the great ‘I Am’. Over time our theologies, our spiritual practices, our experiences of faith, our emotional reactions, even our belief statements can become idols that limit and reduce our awareness of God’s life and freedom.

Similarly, as creatures created in the image of God, we are also ignorant of our own potential. It’s difficult for us to perceive, much less live from, our innate capacity for love, generosity and compassion. We are created ‘a little lower than God’ (Psalm 8:5, NASB), and yet we struggle to embody our true nature as God’s beloved. We live within the confines of the prescribed images and stories handed to us by our families and culture.

As we grow in faith we become attached to certain fixed ideas about who we are, who God is, and how we relate to one another. We construct a faith life that constricts God and our true identity. Eventually, God has to liberate us from our own faith, our own ideas about God, our own (limited) understanding of who we are. As Meister Eckhart once wrote when he realised that the God he was serving was too small, ‘I pray God to rid me of God.’

We see these dynamics at work in the scriptures. The Pharisees and Sadducees were devoted to particular ideas, words and images of God. We can see these leaders were so deeply attached to their understanding of God that they were unable to perceive the Spirit of God at work in Jesus. Their spirituality (beliefs, practices, experiences) had become an idol, a hindrance to the presence of the reality of God in their midst.

The same process occurs with the disciples. The followers of Jesus want to find a label, a definition for Jesus that they can categorise and manage (is he a prophet, a revolutionary, a teacher?). They are uncomfortable with the unpredictability of Jesus. We watch as Jesus continually breaks through the limited definitions the disciples place on him (see Mark 8:27-33). The disciples, like the Pharisees, need to be liberated from ideas and practices they have built around what it means to know and follow Jesus. They undergo this liberation during a profound time of absence, helplessness, confusion and ‘darkness’, when the Jesus they knew and touched is killed and resurrected.

THE GIFT OF DARKNESS

The experience of the dark night, though painful, can be fruitful in deepening our companionship with Jesus. After 11 years in the dark, Mother Teresa trusted her inner suffering to a faithful priest who helped her see that her period of darkness was very similar to the darkness that Jesus experienced on the cross. Once she was able to see this stage of her faith as an invitation to deeper trust and companionship with Jesus’ suffering, her anguish was ended and she
began a new, more empowered season of life and work. In the dark night she sensed an even deeper solidarity and intimacy with the lonely, the destitute, all who are unseen, unloved and abandoned. She no longer turned to God to give her spiritual visions and consolations, but now accompanied God in the hard work of loving the unloved.

The dark night is a time of liberation when God weans us from our reliance on spiritual experience, empowering us to no longer live as servants but as friends (John 15:15). As we embrace the unknowing, as we allow ourselves to trust that God is in charge of our spiritual lives, we can learn to relax, take risks and let go of our anxiety about the future. The experience of the dark night teaches us to be more comfortable in questions, in unknowing, in entering into the lives and situations of people who are in despair, knowing that somehow God is making a way. Through the dark night we learn, as Mother Teresa learned, to trust others to carry our faith for us. Many times Mother Teresa offered to leave public service, but her sisters and her confessor assured her that although she could not sense her own faith, her life radiated with God’s love. Ultimately, the dark night teaches us to trust the hiddenness of God, knowing that our theologies, our practices, even our experiences of God can be limiting.

THE DARK NIGHT IS A TIME OF LIBERATION WHEN GOD WEANS US FROM OUR RELIANCE ON SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE

MINISTERING IN THE DARK

How do we proclaim the love of God when God feels hidden? This is a particular dilemma for youth workers. Adolescence is a time of spiritual romance, a time for forming (not dismantling) faith. Like many youth workers, I seek to help teenagers collect experiences, words, images and encounters with God. How strange it is to support this process when we know that someday God will need to remove this same faith that we’re helping teenagers construct. As we work to build faith (particularly in the midst of our own deconstruction), we must remember that all things happen according to God’s timing. We must help people respond to their yearning and questions by providing concrete teaching and encounters with God. However, we can help them prepare for seasons of darkness by allowing for a variety of words and images (just as the Bible does) that include wonder, mystery and incomprehension. As we serve as models and mentors to young people, we can help them by being truthful about our own times of doubt and struggle. We need to help them understand that there are different seasons to a life of faith, and that just as the disciples went through periods of disillusionment, we too will go through times when our understanding of God will be found wanting.

As we minister through our own dark nights, we need a spirit of gentleness and self-compassion towards ourselves. The dark night can be a time of loneliness and grief. We need to find others to talk with, particularly people who we can trust with our interior doubts and suffering. Through the dark night we need others who can sit with us in the silence and uncertainty, people who see God’s work in us even when we cannot. Most of all, the dark night invites us into deeper trust – trust in God, trust in the community of faith, trust in ourselves. It is this trust, despite signs, that will lead to greater empowerment and faith.

One of the first Christians to help articulate the dark night was Teresa of Avila, a companion and mentor to John of the Cross. After crossing through a period when God felt deeply hidden and silent, Teresa penned this poem to encourage those travelling in the dark:

Let nothing disturb you;
Let nothing make you afraid;
All things pass;
But God is unchanging.
Patience
is enough for everything.
You who have God
lack nothing.
God alone is sufficient.


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