C.S. Lewis'sand Mother Teresa's'dark nights of the soul'
Jonal entry 1018 | September 12 2007
I had barely finished rereading C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed last month when reports began to circulate that Mother Teresa, the late world-famous Roman Catholic missionary nun who gave her life to easing the suffering of "the poorest of the poor" on the streets of Calcutta, India, had long suffered what others have called a "dark night of the soul" in which she felt abandoned by God. I was asked to comment on this development in the news, and though I have not resumed blogging on "just anything that strikes my fancy" as I earlier did (concentrating now only on things pertaining to the overflow of my research on C.S. Lewis and his life and influence), it was immediately apparent that there were parallels between the already beatified nun now up for canonization in her church and the Oxford don often mentioned as a good candidate for canonization in his own right (and "rite," the Anglican Church, I suppose).
Mother Teresa's struggle has been described in some detail by the Time magazine article about it by David Van Biema as a sustained experience of "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" beginning near the start of her mission in Calcutta and continuing through almost all the rest of her life. Time's essay on the subject early mentions the seeming inconsistency between Mother Teresa's public pronouncements on behalf of the hope and efficacy of faith while herself being "tortured" by existential angst (a highfalutin term for "persistent and depressing anxiousness") and doubt.
Critics of Mother Teresa (and yes, there are some, led by the renowned cheerleader for atheism, Christopher Hitchens) pounced on the news of her "dark night" as proof that faith is no more than a house of cards, and that even its most ardent proponents know in their deepest hearts that it's irrational. Her defenders, primarily Roman Catholic apologists and proponents of her continued cause toward canonization, say that her stand for the faith despite her own lack of existential reassurances from God speaks only more strongly for her courage to do what's right when doing so was at its most difficult. It is those supporters who have made her correspondence to fellow church leaders and confessors public for the sake of full disclosure before her elevation to sainthood and as evidence, they believe, of her worthiness of that crown.
C.S. Lewis was almost as famous in his own lifetime in Christian circles as Mother Teresa, but his fame was based mainly on his apologetic for orthodox belief as rational and even superior than any secular explanation of the meaning of life and the cosmos. Despite the near-universal acclaim for his apologetic books Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain, after the death of his beloved wife Joy to cancer, he also experienced deep angst and questioned whether there could be a God in the face of his own seeming abandonment. A Grief Observed is his short book working through those tortured feelings, published to help others going through similar misgivings. And despite the fact that the book clearly shows Lewis regaining the footing of his faith before its end, there are those who still maintain it is proof that faith is a leap in the dark, no more than a crutch.
Mother Teresa had, for some years before launching her own charitable order under the Pope's blessing, experienced vivid visitations and communications from Jesus telling her what her ministry should be, and it took years to get the Pope's blessing, but once won, she lost the visitations from her Lord. Perhaps Lewis's experience of the Lord, though deeply personal and real, he often affirmed, was more intellectual, more cerebral, and less "spiritual" than Mother Teresa's. And his crisis of faith was based on a specific loss, the death of his wife, but eventually this was replaced by a growing sense that she was spiritually part of his life and that Joy was also in the presence of God, proof once more of God's reality and work in Lewis's own life.
The Time account doesn't argue that Mother Teresa ever had intellectual doubts per se (I'm inclined to believe that that "reasonable faith" never left her), but rather that she lost the experiential, inward presence in her heart of the Joy (Jesus himself) that had set her on her life's course. Hers had been a relationship with God that many saints have known, but most believers, persuaded of the rational superiority of Christianity over secularism and other faiths and on which they make a faith commitment to God, never do. I suspect that in her mind she knew that, despite the torture of her latter years, she had been blessed more than others and had little grounds to complain and so reserved all such feelings to her confessors and superiors in the church's hierarchy.
Note, this Jonal entry is the first after a two-week vacation started just before Labor Day.
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