Jesus points out to me the only way which leads to Love’s furnace—that way is self-surrender—it is the confidence of the little child who sleeps without fear in its father’s arms.”St. Thérèse, Story of a Soul
Lisa wrote recently about Mother Teresa’s long dark night of the soul. In light of this past weekend’s celebration of her namesake and our patron, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower I think it’s worth noting that the Little Flower, too, experienced intense spiritual darkness.
It’s not uncommon in the spiritual life to experience periods of dryness, or moments when we’re walking in the dark without a streetlamp, with our flashlight batteries drained so low the beam doesn’t even reach our feet. It’s helpful to know that the saints, too, experienced moments like this. Some experienced them very intensely. Others experienced them for incredibly long periods of time.
And in the darkness, in the doubt, in the times when we’ve gone from basking in the love of God to perhaps not feeling that love at all, there is one certainty to which they held fast: He is with us. He has not abandoned us. He will never forsake us.
It is good to serve God in darkness and trial! We have only this life to live by faith.”St. Thérèse, Story of a Soul
God still loves us, even when we can’t feel it. Love, real love, authentic love, the love with which God loves us is so much more than how we feel at any given moment. Really, Christian love isn’t about our emotional feelings at all. It’s about wanting and working for the good of the other. It’s about sacrificing our own desires to help achieve that good.
Ah! How contrary are the teachings of Jesus to the feelings of nature! Without the help of His grace it would be impossible not only to put them into practice, but to even understand them.”St. Thérèse, Story of a Soul
Darkness, dryness, and doubt test the strength of that love. They teach us how to persevere in that love, to continue loving when we just plain don’t feel like it. They provide opportunities to enter more deeply into that love, to learn love from the very Heart of Our Beloved Lord. He, too, experienced darkness and desolation on the cross. And He experienced it more fully and deeply than we could ever imagine.
But after spending the month of September meditating on Our Lady of Sorrows, I wonder whether Mother Teresa’s darkness, the darkness nearly all the saints and every Christian has experienced at some point, was perhaps modeled after our own Blessed Mother’s long dark night after the Ascension. Mary must also have had tremendous joy, to be sure. Her Son, her perfect, sinless Son, who experienced the most horrific death imaginable, raised Himself from the dead.
She had the privilege both of witnessing His coming into the world to renew and restore it, and of witnessing the birth of the Church, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the sending out of the apostles, the conversions of so many.
She also saw martyrdoms, schisms, and refusals to believe.
So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”John 16:22
And she loved. With that same love with which she gave her “yes” to the archangel Gabriel’s announcement that she would conceive and bear the Incarnate Word. With the same love with which she saw angels singing to the shepherds to proclaim His birth. With the same love with which she stood by the foot of the cross, bearing each and every one of His wounds in her heart. With the same love with which she tenderly removed His crown of thorns and washed His bloody face.
Mary’s love was no easy love. Many of us who faced even a fraction of the suffering she had to endure would throw in the towel, claiming that following Christ is too hard, too demanding.
What I’ve found in these last few years of seeking to love Our Lord more and more deeply is that suffering fortifies love. Suffering deepens love. Suffering, choosing to love in the face of difficulty, is where we learn what true love means. And finding that love, knowing that love, deepens our faith and our trust in that love.
Mother Teresa’s love for those with festering wounds, those on the point of death, was a witness to the world of the depths to which love is willing to descend. Learning of her long suffering in darkness only strengthens that witness. She loved God through darkness. When it seemed to her that Our Lord was utterly silent, she saw His face in every person she encountered, and loved them with her whole heart. She became a model of faith for the world, faith persevering in love.
Let me be perfectly honest here: It is hard. It is demanding. The love with which God asks us to love will not be easy. It will be dry and dark and difficult at times. But unlike the dryness, darkness, and difficulty of the secular world, Christian love doesn’t end in the darkness. It doesn’t leave us to despair that the light will never come. It is the proclamation that Love has come, that Light has entered into the world to shatter the darkness. And we who stand in this Light, who love with His Love, have already obtained the victory He has won for us.
We fight through darkness and dryness and doubt, knowing that the battle is already won. Mary knew this. Mother Teresa knew this. St. Thérèse knew this. Despite the darkness they faced, despite the desolation that fought to overwhelm them, they knew that their Savior, our Savior, is victorious. And so they fought fearlessly to persevere in love, to cling to the hope of being united with Him and conformed to His will.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”1 John 4:18
I was reflecting recently in conversation that experiencing this darkness as a Christian is like dwelling in Psalm 88—the only psalm that ends without hope—while being aware of all the psalms of praise and thanksgiving that follow. In Night Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, every Friday the Church prays Psalm 88, concluding with the line “my one companion is darkness.” We enter the tomb with Our Lord, and we rest there with Him. Because we trust. We hope. We know what is coming, though we don’t know when.
When will it be time to sing with the psalmist the opening of Psalm 89, “I will sing of your mercies, O Lord, forever”? When will we have enough distance to reflect, to speak the words of Psalm 90, “Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil” (Psalm 90:15)?
Every single Sunday of the year, as we begin our week anew, as we prepare to rest for the night after celebrating once more the resurrection of Christ, the Church returns to Night Prayer with Psalm 91:
For he will deliver you from the snare of thePsalm 91:1-3
fowler and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.”
Our Lord is with us to protect us, to defend us, to fight for us. Even when we’re buffeted by the terrors of the night. Even when we can’t feel His shield over us. He is the Light that promises to break upon us. He is the Joy that will come at the end of this darkness. And even within the darkness of life, we can take refuge in Him.