The Dark Night of the Soul

As regular readers will know, I have been running Fr. Robert Barron's Catholicism Project in the Parish as part of our 'Year of Faith' evangelisation. This has been very well received and I think everyone involved has really enjoyed each of the sessions. Last night I was at a Catenian meeting, but got home to find that several lovely ladies were still there from the Rosary group which meets every couple of weeks. Several of these had been to the Catholicism Project the night before, the session was about the Saints as you can see from the overview I posted here. There's a clip here from the presentation to give you a flavour:

The Saints Fr. Robert looked at in detail were Katharine Drexel, Saint Therese of Lisieux, Saint Edith Stein and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Two of these saints, the two Teresa's if you like, suffered 'dark nights of the soul' a devastating sense of loss and separation from God, and Fr. Robert spoke about this in his presentation. Several of the ladies were really rather upset about this and felt that it was incomprehensible that someone like Mother Teresa, who had given so much of herself and her life to Jesus should be somehow 'punished' by abandonment for such a long time. They felt that living a saintly life should, surely, only increase one's relationship and proximity to God and Jesus in such a way that they should, surely, become increasingly convinced of the reality and importance of the faith and the reality of God.

I was a little taken aback that so many had focused on this facet of the presentation- it hadn't come up in my own group discussion afterwards to any great extent. I would like to offer them some comfort on this, and so wanted to post something to reflect on. To facilitate this I contacted the wonderful priest who tutored me through he majority of my degree at Maryvale; Professor Robert Letellier, who lectures at Cambridge, to see if he could you offer any wisdom. This is what he proffered for reflection:
About the Dark Night. I am afraid that I do understand the disquiet of the ladies, who think that the 'closer' one gets to Jesus the more consoling life will become. The lives of many saints suggest something different for some chosen for a special ministry. This is modelled on that of Jesus himself, and is a serious invitation to walk the Via Dolorosa with him (cf the Patriarchs Abraham and Joseph; Ps 22; the Suffering Servant of Isaiah and Wis 2; the prophets Elijah and Jeremiah; John the Baptist; the record of Paul in 2 Cor; 2 Pet 2:18-25; Jesus' teaching on discipleship of the Cross after the Transfiguration). Not all are asked to accept this ministry, but some are, and this can be frightening to contemplate. I cannot say more: it is a mystery of discipleship. It relates also to the stigmata of, say, St Francis of Assisi and Bl Katherina Emmerich who were almost at one with the Lord. See also Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross who tried to articulate some of this.
I also found this concise explanation from Fr. Robert Barron himself on his website. It certainly articulates the direction and sense of my own thoughts on the subject much more lucidly than I could manage:

A Saint of Darkness
By Rev. Robert Barron

I just finished reading Fr. Paul Murray’s astonishing little book on Mother Teresa’s interior life, called I Have Loved Jesus in the Night. Fr. Murray, a Dominican professor of spiritual theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, was a close confidant of the saint of Calcutta. In this brief and eminently readable text, he has woven together a number of personal reminiscences with an insightful reading of the famous “dark night” undergone for nearly sixty years by the woman who, during her own lifetime, was almost universally acknowledged as a saint. Fr. Murray states the paradox of Mother Teresa succinctly: he had never known anyone more radiantly joyful than this woman who, in hundreds of private letters and notes, admitted to an almost unremitting inner darkness, a practically unrelenting sense of the absence of God.

I’ve known Paul Murray for many years, and just a few months ago, when I was with my team filming in Rome, we all sat down for a lovely, long dinner with him at a cozy restaurant not far from the Pantheon. In time, the conversation turned to Mother Teresa and this puzzle of her dark night. In the course of this exchange, we all got a wonderful sneak preview of the book. A member of our group was a devout Methodist, a woman with a strong Biblical sensibility, and she expressed her bewilderment at this phenomenon of the saint who seemed at times even to doubt the existence of God. “Maybe Mother was just depressed because of her difficult work,” she suggested. Fr. Murray immediately clarified that Mother Teresa was not a depressive—as the rich accomplishment of her life and work bears witness—and that the dark night, in the strict sense, has little to do with emotional melancholy. Rather, he said, the dark night of the soul is like the shadow cast by the overwhelming light of the indwelling God. Especially when he deigns to come close, God floods the faculties of the mind and the heart so that they are incapable of processing and understanding in the ordinary sense. The eye can see objects illuminated by the sun, but it becomes dysfunctional, even to the point of blindness, when it turns to gaze at the sun itself. So it is with the soul that has been invaded by God. Perhaps this is why, Fr. Murray hinted, so many of the greatest saints report the experience of the dark night.

Next, someone asked about St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic who wrote most extensively about what he called la noche oscura. Fr. Paul reminded us that St. John saw the dark night as a cleansing and purifying process, initiated and directed by God himself. We find ourselves, John of the Cross taught, in the midst of a good and beautiful world, but we are meant finally for union with God. Therefore, the soul had to become free from its attachments to finite things so as to be free for communion with God. This purification involves, first, what John called “the night of the senses,” that is to say, the letting go of physical and sensual pleasures, and it continues with the “night of the soul,” which is a detachment from the thoughts, ideas, and mental images that one can use as a substitute for God. Like all purifications, this one is painful, especially if one’s attachment to these finite things is intense. It will often manifest itself, John of the Cross said, as dryness in prayer and a keen sense of the absence of God, even of God’s active abandonment. In this process, God is not toying with the soul; rather, he is performing a kind of surgery upon it, cutting certain things away that its life might intensify. This aspect of the dark night, Paul Murray said, was present in Mother Teresa as well.

Toward the end of the evening, after lots of give and take, our Dominican friend offered another interpretation of Mother Teresa’s experience. It was perhaps, he said, a vivid participation in the desolation that Christ Jesus felt on the cross when he said, “God my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can say, blithely enough, that the spiritual life consists in allowing Christ to live his life in us. But this means that he will live his passion in us, that he will permit us fully to feel what he felt at the bitter end of his earthly life. In Mother Teresa’s case, this participation was particularly intense, precisely because her ministry was to the lonely, the poor, the hopeless and the abandoned. She identified with their physical and psychological suffering, but her terrible sense of isolation from God allowed her to identify even with their spiritual suffering. And from that solidarity flowed her compassion.

I’m just giving you a sense of Paul Murray’s wisdom in regard to Mother Teresa. Do buy his book if you want to understand more fully the woman who said, “If I ever become a saint, I will be a saint of darkness.”

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