Darkness, a vulnerable faith, and the normal Christian life (even at Christmas)

Posted by PeteEnns on December 19, 2016 in Christian faith and life The Sin of Certainty 10 Comments

Come be my light[I posted this originally in February, but I am posting it again as we are in the Christmas season. I know people who are struggling mightily with depression and spiritual darkness because it is Christmas time. Sometimes it helps to know you are not alone.]

On and off over the last few months, I’ve been reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. The first half of the book recounts the lengthy process by which Mother Teresa finally received permission to move to Calcutta and begin the Missionaries of Charity.

In 1953, after her work had begun and after years of silent suffering, she wrote this letter to Archbishop Périer.

Your Grace,

. . . Please pray specifically for me that I may not
spoil His work and that Our Lord may show
Himself—for there is such terrible darkness
within me, as if everything was dead. It has
been like this more or less from the time I
started “the work.” Ask Our Lord to give me
courage.

        Please give us Your blessing,
        Your devoted child in J.C,
        M. Teresa, M.C.

A couple of things strike me here. The first is how Mother Teresa’s thoughts echo what we read in Psalm 88, which is the darkest of the Psalms. God’s presence has abandoned the psalmist, and the closing line reads: “my companions are in darkness.”

Actually—not to geekify this post more than necessary—but the NRSV has it wrong. For one thing, the psalmist is the one in darkness, not the psalmist’s companions.

Also, there is no “in” in the Hebrew. It simply reads, “my companions [are] darkness.” Darkness is the only companionship the psalmist has.

Second, and more important, Mother Teresa does not sit alone in the darkness but confides in another.

I think that is the hard part for many—letting someone else in, letting down our protective armor, casting aside the fear of being shamed or dismissed as having “weak” faith, of not “having it all together.

I imagine this would have been a particularly difficult admission for Mother Teresa, given how long and many letters it took her to convince her superiors to leave her order and venture to the slums of Calcutta. Her letters read like sales pitches; how ashamed she must have felt when she finally got her wish and was quickly overcome with a sense of darkness, of God’s abandonment.

Perhaps this is why it took her so long to let the archbishop know what was happening to her—the shame of admittingThe Sin of Certainty God’s absence when God’s presence had been so clear to her for so long, and about which she had been so forthright in her letters.

Still, she wrote the letter.

I wonder sometimes how difficult it might have been for the writer of Psalm 88 to put his thoughts in writing. In any event, I for one am glad he did.

Our worth is not measured by how well we are able to keep doubt at a distance, by how much we are able to project that we have their acts together. Doubt and darkness are not a sign of a “lack” of faith but a normal and expected part of the journey of faith.

[I explore some these themes in The Sin of Certainty]

  • Young and Rested

    Thanks for re-posting this, Pete. I am one of those who battle often with darkness and feelings of abandonment, particularly at this time of year. It does provide a measure of solace to be reminded of the deep struggles encountered by many heroes of faith.

  • charlesburchfield

    I am feeling emptiness on a daily basis. It’s more than a feeling of depression and worthlessness. I’ve experienced this heaviness all my life. I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar 2. Just recently it’s become a more or less chronic condition. I hate it. I prayed about it continually for years. Prayed that the heaviness would be lifted and to be set free to be joyous and happy. The answer to this came to me recently. Rather than be depressed, distressed, anxious and Afraid over that feeling of emptiness I understand that to wait in that place of emptiness in my mind and heart was a way to get ready to receive inspiration. I’ve been mistaken in feeling like I’m disappearing like a candle flame suddenly blown out, that this emptiness is a form of punishment or death. since I’ve been practicing keeping this thought foremost in my mind, when I get like that, I think “I’m still here.” And then I pray Lord help me!! It’s at that point I make the connection and have contact. It also helps me in times of Darkness to think of the things that I’m grateful for In This Moment. It really does something for me!! I’m still here but there’s something extra going on now. I feel the presence of a loving friend who’s encouraging me to be here and love my existence!!

    Philippians 2:5-8 “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

    • themediocrecommission

      Thanks for sharing. I too have been given the same diagnosis of bipolar and have lived with it for many years – unsuccessfully sometimes, but successfully most of the time. At this time of year, I meditate on the Angel of the Lord appearing to St. Joseph and saying, “Be not afraid”. Angels say that a lot.

  • Mark K

    Not a great year or holiday season for me, either. Thanks for this reminder, Pete, and the other posters for your honesty. Hearing honest sharing (by Mother Teresa or other readers) always helps me. Part of why I like 12 step meetings (far more than church). But now I’m getting off topic, so I’ll stop here.

  • John So

    This reminds me of an Evangelical commentary I read in regard to Mother Teresa. The author attributed Teresa’s breakdown to not being a “true believer,” but misled, allegedly, by works and the outcome of Catholic teachings. But moreover, as someone that has been part of an Evangelical community, people often conflate a hiccup with meaning no faith existed (ever). I found it a bit ironic, the Evangelical struck me as someone that was not just profoundly misled, but I suspect raised questions his or her culture told them to ask. It seems some Christians are not above the criticisms they hand others. How do people not see these narratives in the Bible?

  • Miriam

    I just wrote Pete privately but then saw your comments. I too am in darkness and the desert, plus I deal with physical challenges–depression (under control with meds), migraines, and very low energy. Christmas is a difficult time of year, as is all of winter. My heart goes out to all of you. We are all in the same boat. May you know beyond feeling that even in the darkness, despair, abandonment, and desert that God loves you and is holding you, and will not let go of you.

    • themediocrecommission

      Hi Miriam – I am re-reading all these posts here on Christmas night. Things aren’t going well for me. Too many parties where I have to wear a plastic smile, and my urgency is to grab a glass of wine and drink it to the bone. So what do you suggest? How do I live out my faith tonight, when god is wearing a plastic smile and baby Jesus has a plastic halo? How should I live on Christmas?

      • Veritas

        I do not speak here without experience, having been where even a plastic smile was a labor. I found what Mother Teresa found, and that was that loving others, doing for others reveals the love of Christ, however subtle it may be. However difficult, near impossible, it may be, to reach out to help others can change not only a “why me” to an “I am fortunate that I am not them” but also opens up, in the darkest of times, the love of friendship that is aglimpse of Christ. “What so ever you do for the least of these, you do for me”

  • Jeremy

    Such an encouraging post. Thanks for posting it. It is so good to remember that even in the darkness He is there. I remember a quote I once heard: “Don’t doubt in the darkness what you heard in the light.” Your post says that. Thank you!

  • Ken Cooper

    Thank you for this, Pete.