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

On Mother Teresa's "Dark Nights"

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 16, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Here is Part 2 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.



Part 1 appeared Monday.

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Father Raniero Cantalamessa
Advent 2003 at the Papal Household
Second Homily

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

4. By the Side of the Atheists

Rather than "archaic" saints, the mystics are the most modern among the saints. The world of today knows a new category of people: the atheists in good faith, those who live painfully the situation of the silence of God, who do not believe in God but do not boast about it; rather they experience the existential anguish and the lack of meaning of everything; they too, in their own way, live in the dark night of the spirit. Albert Camus called them "the saints without God." The mystics exist above all for them; they are their travel and table companions. Like Jesus, they "sat down at the table of sinners and ate with them" (see Luke 15:2).

This explains the passion in which certain atheists, once converted, pour over the writings of the mystics: Claudel, Bernanos, the two Maritains, L. Bloy, the writer J.K. Huysmans and so many others over the writings of Angela of Foligno; T.S. Eliot on those of Julian of Norwich. There they find again the same scenery that they had left, but this time illuminated by the sun. This year is the 50th anniversary of the first representation of "Waiting for Godot," the most representative drama of the theater of the absurd, but few know that its author, Samuel Beckett, in his free time read St. John of the Cross.

The word "atheist" can have an active and a passive meaning. It can indicate someone who rejects God, but also one who -- at least so it seems to him -- is rejected by God. In the first case, it is a blameworthy atheism (when it is not in good faith), in the second an atheism of sorrow, or of expiation. In the latter sense we can say that the mystics, in the night of the spirit, are the "a-tei," those without God. Mother Teresa has words that no one would have suspected of her:

"They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God. ... In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. Jesus please forgive the blasphemy."[16]

But one is aware of the different nature, of solidarity and of expiation, of this "atheism" of hers:

"I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them -- to take upon myself something of their suffering."[17]

The mystics arrived within a step of the world of those who live without God; they have experienced the dizziness of throwing themselves down. Again, Mother Teresa who writes to her spiritual father:

"I have been on the verge of saying -- No. ... I feel as if something will break in me one day. ... Pray for me that I may not refuse God in this hour -- I don't want to do it, but I am afraid I may do it."[18]

Because of this the mystics are the ideal evangelizers in the postmodern world, where one lives "etsi Deus non daretur," as if God did not exist. They remind the honest atheists that they are not "far from the kingdom of God"; that it would be enough for them to jump to find themselves on the side of the mystics, passing from nothingness to the All. Karl Rahner was right to say: "Christianity of the future, will either be mystical or it will not be at all." Padre Pio and Mother Teresa are the answer to this sign of the times. We should not "waste" the saints, reducing them to distributors of graces or of good examples.

4. Our Little Night

The mystics have, however, something to say also to us believers, not only to the atheists. They are not an exception, or a category apart from Christians. Rather they show in an amplified way, what the full expansion of the life of grace should be. One thing above all we learn from the dark night of the mystics and, in particular, of Mother Teresa: how to behave in the time of dryness, when prayer becomes a struggle, effort, a beating of the head against a "wailing wall."

There is no need to insist on Mother Teresa's prayer in all those years passed in darkness; the image of her in prayer is the one we all still have before our eyes. A series of very beautiful prayers are among the most precious legacy that she has left to her daughters and to the Church. Of Jesus, the evangelist Luke says that "And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly," "factus in agonia prolixius orabat" (Luke 22:44). It is what is also observed in the life of these souls.

Dryness in prayer, when it is not the result of dissipation and of compromises with the flesh, but permitted by God, is the attenuated and common form that the dark night takes in the majority of people who tend to holiness. In this situation, it is important not to give up and begin to omit prayer to give oneself to work, seeing that very little is achieved by being at prayer. When God is not there, it is important at least that his place remain empty and that it not be taken by some idol, especially the one called activism.

To avoid that happening, it is good to interrupt one's work every now and then to raise at least a thought to God, or to simply sacrifice a bit of time to him. In the time of dryness it is necessary to discover a special type of prayer that Blessed Angela of Foligno defined as forced prayer and that she said she herself practiced:

"It is a good thing and very pleasing to God that you pray with the fervor of divine grace, that you watch and make efforts to carry out every good action; but it is more pleasing and acceptable to the Lord if, receiving less grace, you do not reduce your prayer, your vigils, your good works. Act without grace, as you acted when you had grace. ... You doyour part, my son, and God will do his. Forced, violent prayer is very acceptable to God."[19]

This is a prayer that can be made with the body and with the mind. It is a secret alliance between the will and the body and it is necessary to use it to reduce the mind ... to reason. Even when our will cannot command the mind to have or not have certain thoughts, it can command the body: the knees to kneel, the hands to be joined together, the lips to open and pronounce some words; for example: "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit."

An Eastern mystic, Isaac the Syrian, said: "When the heart is dead and we no longer have the least prayer nor any supplication, may he come and find us prostrated with our faces to the ground perpetually." Mother Teresa also knew this "forced" prayer:

"The other day I can't tell you how bad I felt -- there was a moment when I nearly refused to accept -- deliberately I took the Rosary and very slowly without even meditating or thinking -- I said it slowly and calmly."[20]

The simple staying with the body in church, or in the chosen place of prayer, the simple being in prayer, is now the only way that remains to continue to be persevering in prayer. God knows that we can go to do a hundred more useful things which will gratify us more, but we stay there, we consume to the end the time given to him in our schedule, or by our resolution.

To a disciple who continually lamented not being able to pray because of distractions, an elderly monk, to whom he turned, replied: "Let your thinking go where it will, but let not your body leave the cell!"[21] It is advice that is valid also for us, when we find ourselves in situations of chronic distractions that are no longer within our power to be able to control: Let our thinking go where it wills, but let our body remain in prayer!

In time of dryness we must remember the very sweet word of the Apostle: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness" (Romans 8:26 ff.). He, without our being aware, fills our words and sighs with the desire of God, of humility, of love. Then the Paraclete becomes the strength of our "weak" prayer, the light of our extinguished prayer; in a word, the soul of our prayer. Truly, as the Sequence says, he "waters that which is arid," "rigat quod est aridum."

All this comes through faith. Suffice it for me to say: "Father, you have given me the Spirit of Jesus; forming, therefore, 'only one Spirit' with him, I recite this Psalm, I celebrate this holy Mass, or I am simply in silence, here in your presence. I wish to give you that glory that Jesus would give you, if he was to pray again from earth." With this certainty we conclude our reflection praying:

"Holy Spirit, you who intercede in the hearts of believers with inexpressible sighs, knock at the hearts of so many of our contemporaries who live without God and without hope in this world. Enlighten the minds of those who at this moment are delineating the future physiognomy of our continent; make them understand that Christ is not a threat for any one, but a brother of all. That to the poor, the little, the persecuted and the excluded of the Europe of tomorrow not be removed, with culpable silence, the guarantee that until now has most defended them from the arbitrariness of the great and from the harshness of life: the name of the first of them, Jesus of Nazareth!"

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[16] "They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God. ... In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing. Jesus, please forgive the blasphemy," cf. Father Joseph Neuner, S.J., "On Mother Teresa's Charism," Review for Religious, September-October 2001, vol. 60, No. 5 [following abbreviation: JN].

[17] "I wish to live in this world which is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them -- to take upon myself something of their suffering" (JN).

[18] "I have been on the verge of saying -- No ... I feel as if something will break in me one day." "Pray for me that I may not refuse God in this hour -- I don't want to do it, but I am afraid I may do it," 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].

[19] "Il libro della Beata Angela da Foligno," ed. Quaracchi, Grottaferrata, 1985, p. 576 s.

[20] "The other day I can't tell you how bad I felt -- there was a moment when I nearly refused to accept -- deliberately I took the Rosary and very slowly without even meditating or thinking -- I said it slowly and calmly" (AH).

[21] "Apophtegmi dei Padri," from the Coislin manuscript 126, No. 205 (ed. F. Nau, in Revue de l'Orient Chrétien, 13, 1908, p. 279).

[Translation by ZENIT]