Here is the sermon I gave this evening at evensong. I had quite a lot of trouble knowing what I'd say when I looked at the readings. For some reason, nothing much leapt out at me from these texts. Then I heard about this new book of Mother Theresa's letters, Come be my Light, which revealed some things about Mother Theresa's faith journey which have shocked many people. So this is what I said:
Ten years ago this week saw the death of a woman who set an amazing example to many by giving her life to devoted service. I’m not speaking of Diana who has received a lot of press but of a woman whose life of service was much longer. Mother Theresa of Calcutta died on 5th September 1997 and, following so soon after the wake of Diana’s tragic death, for someone so well-known, Mother Theresa passed away relatively unnoticed by the world much as those people she had served on the streets of Calcutta. Yet her life is still celebrated and recently a book of her letters has been published. However this woman whose life of faith was an amazing beacon to people is now shown to have had periods to deep and sincere doubts of her faith.
In her letters to various friends and spiritual guides, she wrote:
"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."
This to me sounds so much like something one of the psalmists would say. Indeed in today’s psalm we heard:
"My soul hath longed for thy salvation: and I have a good hope because of thy word.
Mine eyes long sore for thy word: saying, O when wilt thou comfort me?"
Yet her words are rooted not only in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament but in her Christian faith as she said in a letter to a friend:
"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and 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."The psalmist and Mother Theresa both show times of seeking for God but not finding what they seek. I’m sure all of us have times when we seek but do not find. Times when our faith is tested. Times when our doubts speak louder than our faith. This is why Desmond Tutu, among many, has not seen this revelation of her times of doubt as any kind of disaster. He says:
“Mother Teresa wonderfully was no plaster cast saint. She has helped to affirm many who are passing through this period of desolation and dryness when God seems so remote. St Theresa of Avila after one such bout cried out in frustration to God, ’No wonder your friends are so few given how you treat them!’ My regard for Mother Teresa has been enhanced. Doubt can be an integral part of faith, when the evidence is never so overwhelming, so incontrovertible. St Thomas is our patron Saint for doubters. We live by faith not by sight and frequently the evidence does not make the leap of faith redundant.”
So the woman who was able to write these words:
"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?"— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undatedIs also the woman who was able to live out her faith so tangibly in the service of others, as she herself described it:
"As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus."
St John of the Cross in his great work, “The Dark Night of the Soul” describes how people sometimes face times of doubting God either through the distractions of the world and our own sin, or in the case of some, because of the great depth of their faith have focused so much on the non physical and sensory experiences of the world that they no longer feel things as they used to do. Feelings are something of the world, even feelings which might normally draw us to God; love, mercy; gentleness.
In her dark times, Mother Theresa did find some comfort. She wrote to one spiritual adviser:
"I can't express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in ... years — I have come to love the darkness — for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus' darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it [as] a 'spiritual side of your work' as you wrote — Today really I felt a deep joy — that Jesus can't go anymore through the agony — but that He wants to go through it in me."— to Neuner, Circa 1961This reminds me of that passage in John 1.5:
"The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."
Sometimes we find God in our darkest times but that does not mean that we should be overwhelmed by the darkness. God is in the darkness – as the psalmist says
"For darkness and light are both alike to you" (Psalm 139)
St Paul when writing to the Christians at Philipi encouraged them to
Shine as points of light in this dark world (Philippians 2.15)
God does not expect us to find our faith journey easy at all times. God travels with us in dark and in light. God encompasses both.
For a journey of faith is just that; one which moves and grows. In a life of devoted Christian service as long as that of Mother Theresa, hearing that she had times of doubt is no startling revelation at all but a reaffirmation of the greatness of her faith.
Even through all that she persisted to seek after God. She did not find reassurance and self satisfaction but challenge and a longing for Christ. What more should we expect?
"if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58.10-11"
In her own darkness, Mother Theresa was able to shine her faith out to others
In 1968, British writer-turned-filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge visited Teresa. Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived with a film crew in Calcutta he was on a full spiritual search.
Mother impressed him with her work and her holiness and she wrote a letter to him in some two years later:
"Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you," she wrote. "He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite."
Muggeridge certainly did. He became an outspoken Christian apologist.
"Overcome the finite with the infinite."
These were Theresa’s words. Our own strength, faith and feelings are all finite. When we have our doubts, we may try to overcome them through our own faith but there is only one thing that can overcome them and that is a surrender to God’s will for us. Only God’s infinite power can have authority over her dark nights. Our darkness, our doubts our troubles are all finite. No matter how vast they may seem. Only God's infinite power can overcome our finite troubles and doubts. As John the Baptist:
“No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven”
He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.
It is not easy for human beings to accept it but we need to submit our wills to the will of God; to lay down our lives including our troubles and our darkness. We cannot overcome them on our own. Only when we submit to God's will can we - or rather God - overcome the finite with the infinite.