Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Teresa and the long dark night of the Christian soul

It is far too easy a thing to believe in Christ.

When I say that, there are two meanings that I have in mind: both radically different yet not mutually exclusive from each other at all.

The first meaning is the one that I discovered a long time ago: that to believe in Christ is something that the least among us can do. Even the smallest child can have faith and know the fullness and abundantly joyful life that is to be found in Him. Indeed, scripture tell us that "...unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).

This has been at the heart of some of my greatest spiritual struggle, because I confess that I do not possess the heart of a little child. And there are times that I think that I would do anything to know what it is to have that childlike, innocent belief in God that we are called to have.

There are people around my own age who, more than they will ever realize, I have for many years envied terribly the strength and source of their faith. These are people in their early thirties, in their early twenties and even younger, that do have that childlike faith in Christ. They enjoy a belief in God that I don't know if I will ever get to experience the way that they do. And please don't think that I haven't tried, either. I don't begrudge them their faith at all, but I have always felt and little doubt that I will always feel like an outsider to them, looking in from the cold outside at the beautiful warm glow of their spiritual fire.

At the same time, I do understand that my own walk with the Lord has been shaped and molded by such situations and experiences, so that it is one that most other people will never know or comprehend, either. And I really don't know if I would like the thought of others having to go through the same things that I went through. My faith has strengthened considerably over the years... but I don't dare boast that my faith is "strong". It isn't. And whatever strength that may be there doesn't come from my own spirit or free will at all. It only comes because God led me through tribulation and fire. And it still isn't strong enough. Even now, my faith is being tested as it never has before, and I really don't know how I am going to be able to endure this new trial. If it is endured, it will only be by the grace of God that He will have seen us through.

So some of us know a thing about what it is to serve Christ that others do not, and those others know something also that may never be understood by some. Maybe none of us are capable, or are supposed to be capable, of comprehending the total mystery. At least not on this side of eternity. Which is probably a good thing: can you imagine the pride and arrogance that would come if any of us could claim that we knew everything about living the perfect life in Christ? Oh certainly the knowledge is there, but it will ever be tarnished by carnal nature so long as we inhabit this earthen realm. There can be such a thing as perfect knowledge and still be something evil and destructive... as Adam and Eve learned in the garden.

But none of this makes one's certain walk with the Lord better or lesser than that of another. In our own way we each strive to yield to the will of God, in whatever circumstance that He has put us. We do so knowing that it is the will of God that we serve, and that His will might not be known to us in our time on Earth or even for a hundred years. But we know that His will is a perfect one, and that we get to play a part in it - however great or mean - is a tremendous source of comfort and strength in our travails.

This struggle with faith also has bearing on what it is when I said that "It is far too easy a thing to believe in Christ" has another meaning: one that I have only recently begun to understand. That being, that we as Christians - and I am inclined to believe that this is much more prevalent the case among so-called "evangelical" Christians of the modern western sort - do have a terrible tendency of making the Christian life out to be an easy one.

The faith can be easy to find. The strength to persist and persevere in continuing that faith... not so much.

All of my life, I have watched people "lead others to the Lord". They lead them to the point of salvation and they need never fear Hell again. Unfortunately that's about as far as a lot of people get. That's as far as a lot of us who are already believers in Christ are willing to take them: to salvation and not one step beyond.

Oh sure, we can tell them about salvation... but we hardly ever bother to tell them about what it is that they are really getting into.

Becoming a Christian is something that the childlike can do. It's also something that only the most sober-minded and clear-thinking should do. And it should not be something that we do for any other sake other than His.

Why do we place so high a priority on the salvation experience and so little on the lifelong process that follows? There are two reasons, I think. The first is the one that I like least: that maybe we lead others to Christ and then we abandon them there, in our own contentment that we have bolstered the forces of God on Earth. Which in reality is just a satiating of our own selfish ego. Look at the churches, the preachers, the "Christian organizations" that boast of having hundreds or thousands of followers and members. I'm not saying that all of them are like this, but many of them do want the appearance of earthly affluence and go about achieving it by persuading themselves and others that they are doing "the work of the Lord". So it is that they become quite busy at recruiting individuals and hardly do anything at all in encouraging the individual to grow for sake of Christ alone.

This is why I've come to despise so much of what modern Christianity - and especially Christianity in America - has turned into. Even among ourselves, we don't look at the individual in Christ so much as we do at the individual in church. I do believe that we are supposed to have fellowship with other believers. But that fellowship is supposed to build up and edify us so that we can go out into the world as believers, and be missionaries with our actions and our attitudes. But I digress...

Put simply: I believe that God works through individuals, not through the masses. "Mass men" seek power for themselves. The Christian man seeks to serve others for no other reason than out of love for God.

The other reason why we often don't want to think about what comes after others reach the moment of salvation is less devious but none the more excusable: that we're too lazy to care. Probably because we don't bother to fully pursue Christ in our own lives as much as we should be doing.

Committing one's life to the Lord is not something that should be done lightly. Salvation, yes. I believe that is easy enough and is supposed to be easy enough. But the pursuit of Christ means a life that is going to be met with affliction, confrontation, persecution and at times, abject desperation.

If and when I have children, there's not going to be any of this "leading them to the Lord with a bedtime prayer" nonsense when they're 5 or 6 or whatever. I'm not saying that it's not possible for that to happen when they're at that age. But if my children want this... if they really want this... then they're going to have to understand what it is that they are embarking upon. They are going to have to want to follow Christ, even knowing how much it is going to invariably cost them and how much they are going to be arrayed against their own nature.

If they want to follow Christ, then I'm going to tell them that they shouldn't want that just to "stay out of Hell". Becoming a Christian is not supposed to be "fire insurance for the soul". We each should choose to follow Christ because we recognize the inadequacy of our own soul and that we are incomplete without yielding to the perfection of Christ.

To truly be a Christian often means to stand alone in the eyes of the world, with no support other than the faith in knowing that God is present and that His grace is sufficient to overcome.

To truly be a Christian does not mean, and was never supposed to mean, a one-time trip to the altar to be "saved". Yes, salvation is instantaneous and for all time, but the process of sanctification is one that continues on throughout earthly life. The most severe Christian life is one of never-ending crucifying of the old self and the putting to death of the former nature.

To truly follow Christ means not trusting what the world tells them to believe and accept. It even means not automatically trusting what others who come in the name of the Lord tell them to believe. Heck, it's going to mean that they can't even assume that we as their parents know and fully understand everything enough to be completely trusted. God, they can and should trust. But not fallen mankind.

(I'm telling you here and now, my children are going to grow up knowing fully well how a lot of Christians have been very very foolish for putting their trust in any political party.)

To truly follow Christ and to seek after Him in all things is not a life of comfort and control and power. And to cast off those fetters of worldly life does not necessarily mean a spirit that knows absolute the joy and serenity that comes with faith in Christ, that so many preachers and books teach we are to have.

Now what kind of a Christian parent would I be, if I didn't tell my children about all of this? Not a very good one at all.

These are all things that I have struggled with to varying degrees at one time or another in my life. And for whatever reason, they all came flooding back to me yesterday after I read a new article in Time Magazine, titled "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith".

In newly-surfaced correspondence that is just now being published in the book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, we are just now coming to realize that Mother Teresa - one of the most beloved and renowned servants of Christ of the past century - suffered tremendously from times in which she felt an absence of God and a lack of faith.

These weren't the usual bouts of spiritual distress that each of us as believers go through at times throughout our lives. Mother Teresa no doubt had to fight through those too. But in letters to numerous confidants across her long decades of Christian service, Mother Teresa wrote often from the depths of despair and longing to know that God was indeed with her. And in reading these letters, I really couldn't get over the impression that however it was that we saw her on the outside, Mother Teresa was in dire spiritual agony for most of her life. She really did have to live through "the long dark night of the soul", and quite possibly she did until the day she passed away ten years ago next month.

Here is one letter in which she particularly expresses her inner turmoil...

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

Honestly, I'm still feeling a bit of shock at the thought: that Mother Teresa struggled so much with her faith. And at the same time, it doesn't really come as a surprise at all.

Mother Teresa did have faith. That she felt overwhelmed with feelings of doubt and despair, and yet clung to her faith in spite of it, is evidence enough of that. I know that some are obviously going to claim that Mother Teresa was in "denial" because she "couldn't bring herself to believe that there really was no God" or some other nonsense. But what Mother Teresa expresses in these letters, is what I have gone through in my own spiritual life. I would even say that my Christian life has had times of far more doubt than it has of enjoying feeling secure in my faith.

That we, as believers in Christ, should know what it is to go through "the long dark night of the soul" should not be taken as a lack of faith or even as a sign of weakness. The real weakness would be to surrender without confronting those doubts headlong... and again, not for sake of ourselves or that others "expect" us to, but for His sake. His grace really is sufficient to see us through the night, in the face of our trials.

I don't know if Mother Teresa ever felt her doubts wiped away and her faith restored. In the end, it doesn't matter: our faith is not something that is dependent upon our feelings. That Mother Teresa persevered in spite of mere "feelings" should shine, even more brilliantly than a Nobel Prize, at how much strength that God had granted such a frail and tiny woman.

Mother Teresa found it easy to commit her life in Christ. She also found that it wasn't easy to endure to that commitment. But Mother Teresa endured all the same. I'm hard-pressed to think of how the life of the believer should be any more ideal than that.

5 comments:

Suz said...

Good words.

Mother Teresa's writings make me think of the Psalms, which are full of suffering, pain and doubt. Life is not easy. Faith is hard. Don't let any televangelist tell you otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Relationship is a key to faith in Christ. Christ had a relationship with the men. He then called them to faith in Him. Then He discipled them and taught them. Even after He left for heaven he was in relationship with them. He left us a model of Christian life. We need to be in relationship with godly men for accountability, encouragement, discipline, and help. We all go through struggles. We all suffer and question. That is why we are called to be a part of a church. So we can have support to help us keep our eyes on Christ in all times and circumstances.

Anonymous said...

religion is santa claus for adults.

Anonymous said...

I am new to your blog. This article (and your blog in general) made me think you might appreciate an article I just read. The article is about why many Evangelicals are converting to Orthodox Christianity. Here's an excerpt.

... Evangelicalism hasn't been able to completely divorce itself from modern culture--and, in the latter half of the twentieth century, it began to increasingly try to employ or co-opt aspects of the modern world in its efforts to lure "seekers" and others to the faith...

... This is an appealing idea, particularly to younger Orthodox converts who view evangelicalism as corrupted by the generation born right after World War II. "Baby boomers had an overweening confidence that our creativity and spontaneity was fascinating and rich," says Frederica Mathewes-Greene, a one-time charismatic Episcopalian who's now a prominent Orthodox speaker and author. "The following generation sees it as not all that rich. ... They're looking past their parents for something earlier."

They're also looking for something with more intellectual depth. The evangelical church has a long history of anti-intellectualism: As the early twentieth-century evangelist Billy Sunday proclaimed, "When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell." Some evangelicals who became Orthodox simply could no longer tolerate evangelicalism's anti-intellectualism.


(Full article at http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20070827&s=zengerle082707&c=2)

Beloved Spear said...

Dr. Zaleski:

Having just read your article on Good thoughts! After reading her book, I'd mused on her darkness a bit myself, and posted my thoughts here:

http://weblog.xanga.com/Beloved_Spear/618529756/
a-saints-albedo-another-take-on-mother-teresas-darkness.html

If you've got a moment or three to take a look at it, I'd certainly appreciate your comments or reflections. Again, thanks so much for your thoughts!