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Monday, January 21, 2013

"An Arid Landscape from Which God Has Disappeared"

I begin the day with prayer. Something odd happened two days ago.

I bring up, on the computer screen, a photo suitable for prayer, often a photo found on google of a chapel interior or the blessed sacrament. I pray the Lord's Prayer, I pray for people I know, I mention any special intentions, often in response to prayer requests posted on facebook, and then sit quietly.

Saturday morning was especially dark. I got up early and it was still black outside.

For the first time in a while I confronted God with all I face: health challenges, rock bottom poverty, total isolation, no reason to hope. Trying and trying and trying and trying and nothing working out. No resources. No allies. No leads. No one even to say, at the end of the day, "There there." No nothing. One disaster after another, from broken limbs to hurricane evacuations.

I normally don't say all this, not even in prayer, because I start crying and can't stop, and … what's the point? This day was different, though. I very consciously hit God with all he'd hit me with, and the inevitable consequences: I told God the simple truth: I can't handle this. I give up.

And then I was ready to end this session of prayer, and begin the workday.

I felt a presence at my right side. Mother Teresa.

What's odd about this is not that I felt a presence. I grew up with a psychic mother and psychic experiences were allowed in our household.

What's odd about this is that I pray to a few saints consistently. St. Anthony, St. Christopher, St. Joseph, Mary, Wiktoria Ulma.

I've never prayed to Mother Teresa. I have nothing against Mother Teresa. She just isn't a focus of my devotion or even curiosity. I haven't read anything by or about her.

Saturday morning, after my bleak and blasted prayer, I felt Mother Teresa at my right side.

Her face was vivid and alive, her famous wrinkles warm and palpable. In her photos she often looks dour. She was smiling.

I stiffened a bit, thinking, heck, Mother Teresa, I better be reverent. But she was smiling gently. Her presence was fluid, flexible. I thought, okay, what to pray? But no words came. Just a sense that I needed to sit with her for a moment. I did so, and then I started to wrap up my prayer and begin working, but I was stopped – again, gently – by a sense that I should google her. I immediately turned to the computer. I questioned this inner prodding. There must be a million webpages devoted to Mother Teresa. What am I looking for? And the inner prodding said, read the fifth web page you find after you google my name.

I googled "Mother Teresa." I counted down the first five pages.

This was number five:

"Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith."

From that text:

"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."

— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

"On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the 'Saint of the Gutters,' went to Oslo. She delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. 'It is not enough for us to say, 'I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,'' she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had 'made himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.' Jesus' hunger, she said, is what 'you and I must find' and alleviate. She suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world 'that radiating joy is real' because Christ is everywhere — 'Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.'

Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. 'Jesus has a very special love for you,' she assured Van der Peet. 'But as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves in prayer but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have a free hand.'

The two statements, eleven weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared."

I was a bit stunned.

I had just prayed a very bleak, uncompromising prayer to God, a prayer I normally do not even bother to pray. I felt the palpable presence of a saint to whom I had never prayed, and felt an articulate prodding to read of this saint's dark night of the soul.

I thought about this event for the next twenty-four hours before it occurred to me to ask, "Mother Teresa, if that was you, if you could come to me to share with me your crisis of faith, why couldn't you come to me to give me a lead on a fulltime job? Why couldn't you direct me to someone who would become my ally as I struggle with all this Sisyphean crap God keeps raining down on me? Would that be so much harder?

Mother Teresa, send me a winning lottery ticket."

Full text of the TIME magazine article about Mother Teresa's crisis of faith is here.


  1. This is a wonderful post. So intimate and insightful. St. Teresa of Lisieux also had such a crisis of faith. One of my favorite quotations is St. Augustine's. I'm sure you've heard it before: "Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is a part of faith." (Or something like that.) What is your next book about? I think you would do a great job writing about saints in your life.

    1. If Augustine did say that doubt is a part of faith, that is not how the Christian Greek Scriptures define it.

      Hebrews 11:1 tells us that: "Faith is the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld."

      The assured expectation. The evident demonstration of realities, even though we can't see them.

      A truly strengthening thing is the accuracy of Bible prophecy - it's history written in advance. Think of the accuracy of the Seventy Weeks prophecy in Daniel, for example.

      I would love to comment on the above blogpost by discussing what the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures say about prayer, but am not sure if I should.

  2. I think Mother Teresa has already given you a winning ticket. You can't expect much more than what she did for you. The dark night of the soul is a necessary part of being Christian, all the great saints and hermits experienced it, but not many were consoled by similar spiritual visitors, I expect. She has pretty much told you the most important thing about herself. As you know, I don't believe in God as such. But I am definitely not a materialist. I think you were very honest in your prayer, and something, some force within yourself or outside yourself, sent you an answer which is absolutely clear. The winning ticket is doing good even when you feel betrayed, empty and meaningless. Which is basically the Christian message.
    Through various roundabout ways, and in my case without the aid of prayer, I have also found out that nobody will ever send me a lottery ticket, but that I don't really need them to. :-)

  3. I was a Catholic Convent schoolgirl from the age of 4 to 18 - and by the time I left Uni, I would have defined myself as agnostic. I occasionally went to church. I prayed off and on. I always wondered about the Why of things.

    Why is there anything at all? Where did it all come from? If there is a God who is all-powerful and all-loving (as we would all wish with all our hearts), why is the world so full of cruelty and injustice? Why is even nature "red in tooth and claw with ravine"? It seemed to frightening to think there might be a Creator, if He had made it like this.

    Has anyone read Tennyson's "In Memoriam" by the way, only he wrestles with these dilemmas, in beautiful poetry. And, obviously, I am indebted to him for the "red in tooth and claw" quote.

    The relevance of this potted spiritual autobiography to the blogpost above is that during this time I did pray, and really it was like talking to myself.

    I was making one mistake - simple, yet profound in its implications.

    If the Save Send Delete blog would be interested in hearing more, I can post.

  4. Down the years I often prayed, and I thought and wondered about it all. But I never felt heard, not for a long time.

    The problem was so simple - yet it took me half a lifetime to get there. I was asking my Creator to listen to me, but was I listening to Him?

    God has left us two witnesses. One is the creation itself, in its splendour and its glory. Looking up into a starry night is breathtaking. When we look at a dragonfly we see a creature more beautiful than a Tiffany jewel, and with engineering more amazing and complex than whatever the latest fighter plane contains.

    But that was all blocked off from me for many years by two things.

    Firstly, the great smokescreen of Evolution, Evolution, Evolution that has been thrown up to hide the truth of Genesis from us, and to stop us hearing what the creation is saying.

    The second thing is the point i mentioned before, that nature is "red and tooth and claw with ravine". That is so frightening that I felt it might be better that there wasn't a Creator.

    However, one day, as I was on my way to have a cup of tea with my aged parents (this was many years ago), the beauty of the Autumn day, the perfection of it, the few gold leaves against the blue sky, the old stone wall in the light of the low Autumn sun, everything, told me as clearly as if it had spoken, that there is a Creator, and He made all this, so beautiful, just for us.

    I wrote a little poem about that moment and began a search, as I wanted to find and thank the Maker of it all.

    I walked up Botanical Road
    Gold leaves against the blue
    I said, out loud, to my surprise
    "Thank you God, thank you."

    I did suddenly find myself saying thank you, to the unknown (to the me of then) Maker, and looking round embarrassed to see if anyone else was on the road. They weren't.

    Anyway, I kept up my quest, and two years later began to study the Inspired Scriptures with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

    And so I began to understand the second witness to our Creator - his Inspired word which He has guarded and protected for us down the ages.

    And I found this:

    "The heavens are declaring the glory of God
    And of the work of his hands the expanse is telling."
    (Psalm 19:1)

    Yes. That beautiful Autumn sky told me of its Creator as clearly as if it had spoken.

    And of course, in learning what the Bible really says, for the first time I learnt how to pray.

    I think before that I was like a lost child, desperate to make contact with my parents and get safely back home. But i never used their phone number. I didn't realise that I had it. I rang all sorts of numbers, but never theirs. Then, one day, somebody knocked at my door and said look, this is your parents number, here in the address book on your shelf. Ring that number and they will help you.