Homily: “Religion and the Dark Night of the Soul”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 24, Year C).

Luke’s introduction to this parable is unusually explicit. This is a parable, he writes, about the need to pray always and not to lose heart. I could stop my homily right here because this is straight teaching about religion, straight teaching about parish life, and straight teaching about how to make Mission happen: pray always and do not lose heart. If there is an open secret in the religious life, at the center of it all, it is that.

The majority of the time, teachings about religion in the Gospels requires a bit more work to find. If the Gospels are like a tall tree, full of the most wondrous and delicious fruit ripe on its branches, the teaching that we need to pray always and not lose heart would be a fairly low-hanging fruit, able to be reached by the wee-est of children. It may not be easy to follow — for to pray always is something of a challenge, and the instruction to not lose heart is good and holy until, well, we lose heart and are left wondering, Ok, what do I do now?

To lose heart at times throughout our life, whether a day here or a day there, or even for longer spells, should never be regarded as alien to our pilgrimage, but a natural part of it. In fact, when we grow into maturity in the Christian faith, the journey in some respects does not get easier, but harder: each morning when you wake up can be a profound test of faith.

There is no more dramatic recent example of this than Mother Teresa, made a Saint by the Church last month on the 4th of September, her annual feast day being September 5. In some ways, of course, Mother Teresa needs no introduction, for her missionary work with the poor in Calcutta, India is well known. Yet what was largely unknown to virtually all people during her life, and only became known after her death when her private letters to her confessors and spiritual directors came to light, was that she experienced for most of her adult life a profound crisis of faith.

In one letter she wrote: “There is so much contradiction in my soul. Such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual, and yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal,” . . .  “Souls hold no attraction. Heaven means nothing, to me it looks like an empty place. The thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God.”

In another letter she wrote, “Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … 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 and hurt my very soul.”

Learning this was a surprise to many sisters in the order she founded, the Missionaries of Charity. The term for this condition is a “dark night of the soul.” When Our Lord cried out from the cross upon which he was nailed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it can be said he was experiencing a dark night of the soul. Now, just as the word “day” in the first chapters of Genesis that recount the Seven Days of Creation means something other than a 24-hour period, the term “night” in the condition called a dark night of the soul means longer than the period after sundown and before sunrise the following day. A dark night of the soul can last a week, a month, the greater portion of a year, or, in the case of Mother Teresa, decades.

And yet, despite her doubts about God and the doctrines of the Faith, Mother Teresa kept praying. Her reading of Scripture was prayer. Her daily praise of God using set-prayers from the Church, akin to what we call Morning and Evening Offices, was prayer. Receiving Holy Communion daily was prayer. Her daily practice of contemplative silence was prayer, her letter writing was prayer. And because of all of that, her ministry to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta was prayer. All aspects of a religiously consistent person — not religiously expert but religiously consistent or proficient — are prayer. We can be assured that while we may not serve quite like the way Mother Teresa served, our love to others in our homes, our neighborhoods and our workplaces, sometimes called “social ministry,” is prayer, no matter its form.

Mother Teresa, despite her dark night of the soul, kept at it. Her ministry was a daily habit, and the root of it all was the grace of God, the gift of His love to her, made available to her through her habit of opening herself to God through Offices, Eucharist, contemplative silence and reading of Scripture. “In the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service.” She is the widow in our Gospel Reading. Whereas the widow displayed persistence in begging the judge for justice, Mother Teresa displayed persistence in begging for the grace to help the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society. She teaches us that if we beg of God, by prayer, that He would give us the spirit of obedience and profit, that He will, by His Spirit, write the divine word in our hearts, so that we can describe it in our life. (Holy Living, III.4).

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.

Cover image “Mother Teresa memorial plaque from the Golden Gospels” by Michal Maňas is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.