For decades now, Mother Teresa has been the epitome of saintliness in popular culture. Her name has even become shorthand for anyone who does something especially kind or selfless. For good reason! Everyone knows the basics of Mother Teresa’s life; that she gave up all her possessions, cared for the sick and destitute, and expected nothing in return. Many also assumed that these actions sprung from an especially serene soul and that her continuous outpouring of love must reveal a heart overflowing with an internal feeling of love.
So many were surprised when Mother Teresa’s letters were published, revealing a soul that had been plagued by doubt and had suffered under an almost constant darkness. Once her confessor asked her to write a letter to Jesus, explaining her struggles. The future saint wrote:
“They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God – they would go through all that suffering if they had just a little hope of possessing God. In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies, I have been told to write everything). That darkness that surrounds me on all sides. I can’t lift my soul to God – no light or inspiration enters my soul.”
How could someone who radiated love and seemed so sure of her vocation have also ached spiritually in such a way?
This “darkness” is difficult to understand for Christians who usually hear about the Joy of the Lord and the Peace that Passes All Understanding. We sometimes discuss trials and difficult circumstances but almost always with the caveat that, because of Christ, we should “rejoice always” as St. Paul tells us.
Certainly many of the saints expressed joy and thankfulness in the most difficult of circumstances. St. Paul sounds almost upbeat as he recites his litany of persecutions. Scores of martyrs are said to have exhibited great joy as they were killed in brutal and painful ways. Think of St. Lawrence’s quip, “Turn me over!” as he was being roasted alive. Surely this shows a kind of joy that supersedes any circumstances we might experience.
Yet, the Christian tradition also gives us plenty of room to wrestle not just with difficult circumstances but an interior darkness that often defies relief and even explanation. The Hebrew scriptures are filled with passages that reflect a deep darkness. Most notably, many psalms describe not mere sadness at physical or circumstantial suffering but despair because of feelings of abandonment by God. In Psalm 13, David sang,
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
The theme of abandonment and isolation continues in the age of the Church as many saints have wrestled with these feelings. This is an admittedly strange theme for a faith that emphasizes joy in all circumstances and the omnipresence of God. But the Church’s answer to suffering has never been an easy one. In the Catholic faith, we don’t find a quick fix for dealing with spiritual darkness. Instead we find that God has suffered with us. Christ’s sufferings don’t remove our own but allow us to become close to him. We see this perhaps most clearly in Our Lady of Sorrows.
Catholics have long turned to our Mother, the Blessed Virgin, as a source of help and a model during times of darkness. Mary didn’t suffer the torture and violent death of many of the martyrs. Yet she suffered more deeply than most could even imagine. We call these acts of suffering the Seven Sorrows; the prophecy of Simeon at the temple, the flight to Egypt, the boy Jesus lost, Mary meeting Jesus on the road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the body of Jesus taken from the cross, and the burial of Jesus.
From her early fears for her son’s safety to every parent’s worst nightmare, burying a child, Our Lady knew terrible sorrows. She surely experienced Christ’s suffering in a unique way, knowing his identity as Son of God but also as the child she loved from the moment of his Annunciation. This incredible love meant she watched and felt the suffering of her son in a powerful way. Because of this, the Blessed Virgin is in a unique position to intercede for us during times of spiritual darkness.
Interestingly, many of the prayers associated with Our Lady of Sorrows do not request relief from sorrow or suffering. Instead, in these prayers, we ask Mary to draw us closer to her Son. Close to Jesus, close to the Cross, we do not find quick consolation or pithy encouragement. We find Jesus suffering with us, suffering for us.