Papal Household Preacher's 2nd Meditation for Advent 2003 (Part 1)

On Mother Teresa's "Dark Nights"

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 15, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is Part 1 of the second Advent meditation that Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa delivered at the Vatican last Friday, in the presence of the Pope and members of the Roman Curia.



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Father Raniero Cantalamessa
Advent 2003 at the Papal Household
Second Homily

"Though I Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow ..."

One day, Francis of Assisi exclaimed: "Emperor Charles, Orlando and Oliver, all the paladins and brave warriors who were courageous in combats, pursuing the infidels to the death with much sweat and toil, gained a glorious and memorable victory over them, and in the end these holy martyrs fell in battle for the faith of Christ. But now there are many, who only by narrating their feats, want to receive honor and glory from men."[1]

In one of his Admonitions, the saint explained what he wished to say with those words: "It is a great shame for us, servants of the Lord, that the saints acted with deeds and we, recounting and preaching the things that they did, want to receive honor and glory."[2] These words come to my mind as an austere sign at the moment I set about to give the second meditation on the holiness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

1. In the darkness of the night

What happened after Mother Teresa said her "yes" to the divine inspiration that was calling her to leave everything to place herself at the service of the poorest of the poor? The world knew well all that happened around her -- the arrival of her first companions, the ecclesiastical approval, the vertiginous development of her charitable activities -- but until her death, no one knew what happened within her.

It has been revealed by her personal diaries and her letters to her Spiritual Director, made public on the occasion of the process of beatification: "With the start of her new life at the service of the poor, an oppressive darkness came upon her."[3] A few brief passages suffice to give an idea of the density of the darkness in which she found herself:

"There is so much contradiction in my soul, such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual -- yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal .... Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty Place"[4]

It was not difficult to recognize immediately in this experience of Mother Teresa a classic case of that which scholars of mysticism, following St. John of the Cross, usually call the dark night of the spirit. Tauler gives an impressive description of this stage of the spiritual life:

"Now we are abandoned in such a way that we no longer have any knowledge of God and we fall into such anguish so as not to know any more if we were ever on the right path, nor do we know if God does or does not exist, or if we are alive or dead. So that a very strange sorrow comes over us which makes us think that the whole world in its expanse oppresses us. We no longer have any experience or knowledge of God, and even all the rest seems repugnant to us, so that it seems that we are prisoners between two walls."[5]

Everything leads one to think that this darkness was with Mother Teresa until her death,[6] with a brief parenthesis in 1958, during which she was able to write jubilantly: "Today my soul is filled with love, with joy untold, with an unbroken union of love."[7] If from a certain moment she no longer speaks about it, it is not because the night was finished, but rather because she got used to living with it. Not only did she accept it, but she recognizes the extraordinary grace it held for her.

"I have begun to love my darkness for I believe now that it is a part, a very small part, of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth."[8]

The most perfumed flower of Mother Teresa's night is her silence about it. She was afraid, in speaking about it, of attracting attention to herself. Even the people who were closest to her did not suspect anything, until the end, of this interior torment of Mother. By her order, the spiritual director had to destroy all her letters and if some have been saved it is because he, with her permission, had made a copy for the Archbishop and future Cardinal T. Picachy, which were found after his death. Fortunately for us, the archbishop refused to acquiesce to the request made also to him by Mother to destroy them.

The most insidious danger for the soul in the dark night of the spirit is to realize that it is, precisely, the dark night, of that which great mystics have lived before her and therefore to be part of a circle of chosen souls. With the grace of God, Mother Teresa avoided this risk, hiding her torment from all under a constant smile.

"The whole time smiling -- Sisters and people pass such remarks -- they think my faith, trust and love are filling my very being. ... Could they but know -- and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery."[9]

A known desert Father says: "No matter how great your sufferings are, your victory over them is in silence."[10] Mother Teresa put this into practice in a heroic manner.

2. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Padre Pio of Pietrelcina

On the occasion of the canonization of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina some lay observers expressed the thought that the sanctity of the mystic Padre Pio seemed archaic, as opposed to Mother Teresa's, the saint of charity, which would be a modern holiness. Now we discover that Mother Teresa was also a mystic (that Padre Pio was also a saint of charity is sufficiently demonstrated by the work he realized for the "relief of suffering")!

The error is to contrast these two lines of Christian holiness which, on the contrary, we often see wonderfully united, that is, in highest contemplation and most intense action. St. Catherine of Genoa, considered one of the summits of mysticism, was proclaimed by Pius XII patroness of hospitals in Italy, because of her work and that of her disciples in favor of the sick and incurable, which reminds us very much of that of Mother Teresa in our days.

In a beautiful article, written on the occasion of the beatification, an Indian author described Mother Teresa as "a sister for Gandhi."[11] Undoubtedly many traits join the two great souls, the two Mahatmas of modern India, but it is even more correct, I believe, to see in Mother Teresa "a sister for Padre Pio." They are joined not only by the same veneration of the Church, but also a same cyclone of glory on the part of world public opinion. One distinguished herself in corporal works of mercy, the other in spiritual works of mercy. But it was proper to Mother Teresa to remind the world of today that the worst poverty is not the poverty of things but the poverty of God, of humanity and of love; in a word, the poverty of sin.

The trait that brings these two saints closest is perhaps precisely the long dark night in which they lived their whole life. I will always remember the impression I had when reading, in the choir of San Giovanni Rotondo, the account displayed in a frame, in which Padre Pio described the fact of the stigmata to his spiritual father. He ended by making his own the words of the Psalm which says: "Lord, punish me no more in your anger; in your wrath do not chastise me!" (Psalm 38:2). He was convinced, and this conviction accompanied him throughout his life, that stigmata were not a sign of predilection or acceptance on the part of God but, on the contrary, of his refusal and just divine punishment for his sins. It was what opened my eyes to the mystical stature of this my brother, in whom until then, I was not much interested.

To spread light, both these souls had to go through life in darkness, convinced, in addition, of "deceiving" people. St. Gregory the Great says that the mark of superior men is that "in the pain of their own tribulation, they do not neglect their usefulness to others; and while they endure with patience the adversities that strike them, they think of teaching others that which is necessary, similar in this to certain great doctors who, stricken themselves, forget their wounds to cure others."[12] This sign shines out in an eminent degree in the life of Mother Teresa and of Padre Pio.

3. Not only purification

But why this strange phenomenon of a night of the spirit that lasts practically the whole of life? Here there is something new in regard to that which teachers of the past have lived and explained, including St. John of the Cross. This dark night is not explained only with the traditional idea of passive purification, the so-called purgative way, which prepares for the illuminative and the unitive way. Mother Teresa was convinced that it was precisely this in her case; she thought that her "I" was especially hard to overcome, if God was so constrained to keep her such a long time in that state.

But this was not true. The interminable night of some modern saints is the means of protection invented by God for today's saints who live and work constantly under the spotlight of the media. It is the asbestos suit for the one who must walk amid the flames; it is the insulating material that impedes the escape of the electric current, causing short circuits ...

St. Paul said: "And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh" ([see] 2 Corinthians 12:7). The thorn in the flesh that was God's silence was revealed most effective for Mother Teresa: It preserved her from any intoxication, amid all the world's talk about her, even at the moment of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. "The interior pain that I feel," she said, "is so great that I don't feel anything from all the publicity and people's talking."

This also joins Mother Teresa to Padre Pio. One day Padre Pio, looking out from the window on the crowd gathered in the square, asked in wonder from the brother who was next to him: "But why have all these come here?" and to the reply: "For you, Father," he left in haste sighing: "If they only knew ..."

But there is an even more profound reason that explains why these nights are prolonged for a whole lifetime: the imitation of Christ, participation in the dark night of the spirit that Jesus had in Gethsemane and in which he died on Calvary, crying: My God, my God, why hast thou abandoned me?" In the apostolic letter "Novo Millennio Ineunte," precisely in regard to the "suffering face" of Christ, the Pope writes:

"Faced with this mystery, we are greatly helped not only by theological investigation but also by that great heritage which is the 'lived theology' of the saints. The saints offer us precious insights which enable us to understand more easily the intuition of faith, thanks to the special enlightenment which some of them have received from the Holy Spirit, or even through their personal experience of those terrible states of trial which the mystical tradition describes as the 'dark night.' Not infrequently the saints have undergone something akin to Jesus' experience on the Cross in the paradoxical blending of bliss and pain."[13]

The letter mentions the experience of St. Catherine of Siena and of Teresa of the Child Jesus; now we know that the example of Mother Teresa could also be mentioned. She was able to see her trial ever more clearly as an answer to her desire to share the "Sitio" of Jesus on the cross:

"If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation give you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus, do with me as you wish. ... Imprint on my soul and life the suffering of your heart .... I want to satiate your thirst with every single drop of blood that you can find in me. ... Please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait
for you for all eternity."[14]

It would be a serious error to think that the life of these persons was all gloom and suffering. "Novo Millennio Ineunte," we heard, speaks of a "paradoxical blending of bliss and pain." Deep down in their souls, these persons enjoy a peace and joy unknown by the rest of men, deriving from the certainty, stronger than doubt, of being in the will of God. St. Catherine of Genoa compares the suffering of souls in this state to that of purgatory and says that the latter "is so great, that it is only comparable to that of hell," but that there is in them a "very great contentment" that can only be compared to that of the saints in Paradise.[15]

The joy and serenity that emanated from Mother Teresa's face was not a mask, but the reflection of profound union with God in which her soul lived. It was she who deceived herself about her story, not the people.

[Tuesday: By the side of the atheists]

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[1] "Leggenda Perugina," 72 (Fonti Francescane, No. 1626)

[2] "Ammonizioni," VI (FF, No. 155).

[3] Father Joseph Neuner, S.J., "On Mother Teresa's Charism," Review for Religious, September-October 2001, vol. 60, No. 5 [following abbreviation: JN] (The documents quoted in this homily were graciously put at my disposition by the General Postulation of the Cause of Mother Teresa.)

[4] "There is so much contradiction in my soul, such deep longing for God, so deep that it is painful, a suffering continual -- yet not wanted by God, repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal. ... Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty Place" (JN)

[5] "Giovanni Taulero, Omelia" 40 (ed. G. Hofmann, Johannes Tauler, Predigten, Friburgo in Br. 1961, p. 305).

[6] Cf. Father A. Huart, S.J., "Mother Teresa: Joy in the Night," Review for Religious, September-October 2001, vol. 60, No. 5 [following abbreviation: AH].

[7] "Today my soul is filled with love, with joy untold, with an unbroken union of love" (JN).

[8] "I have begun to love my darkness for I believe now that it is a part, a very small part, of Jesus' darkness and pain on earth" (JN).

[9] "The whole time smiling -- Sisters and people pass such remarks -- they think my faith, trust, and love are filling my very being. ... Could they but know -- and how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery" (AH).

[10] "Apophtegmata Patrum," Poemen 37 (PG 65, 332).

[11] G. Varangalakudy, "A sister for Gandhi," The Tablet, 11 October 2003, p. 12.

[12] St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, I,3,40 (PL 75, 619).

[13] NMI, 27

[14] "If my pain and suffering, my darkness and separation give you a drop of consolation, my own Jesus, do with me as you wish. ... Imprint on my soul and life the suffering of your heart. ... I want to satiate your thirst with every single drop of blood that you can find in me. ... Please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait for you for all eternity" (JN).

[15] Cf. St. Catherine of Genoa, "Trattato del Purgatorio," 4 (ed. Cassiano Carpaneto da Langasco, "Sommersa nella fontana dell'amore. Santa Caterina Fieschi Adorno," vol. 2, "Le opere," p. 96; cf. also vol. 1. "La vita," pp. 49 s.

[Translation by ZENIT]