Sunday, September 16, 2012

Mother Theresa and the Psalms

David Van Biema has a lovely reflection on Blessed Mother Theresa.


[T]he tireless, smiling nun spent the last 39 years of her life in internal agony. Jesus, she wrote, no longer seemed present to her, in prayer or even in the Eucharist. In letter after tormented letter she described an unrelenting spiritual “dryness,” a “torturing pain.” Her smile was “a big cloak” of deception. She admitted at one point to doubting God’s existence. Eventually she apparently became more reconciled to her condition; but as far as we know, she died with it...

But lately I’ve encountered the same starkly binary voice — in a set of 3,000-year-old poems. Written in around 1000 B.C., the 150 prayers in the Book of Psalms helped shape both Judaism and Christianity, are still memorized by some congregations, and live on in liturgy, hymnody and private prayer. Some are pure jubilation — the word “hallelujah” originated in psalms. But just as many — the “psalms of complaint” — sound like ... well, like the private Mother Teresa.
Here are Teresa’s words, edited down from three letters:
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of Your love — and now become as the most hated one.
I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer. Darkness surrounds me on all sides. If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no soul then Jesus — You also are not true — Heaven, what emptiness. I am afraid to write all those terrible things — they must hurt You.
Yet, deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness. Love in me for God grows more real — I find myself telling Jesus unconsciously the most strange tokens of love. Let Him do to me whatever He wants. If my darkness is light to some soul, I am perfectly happy.
And here are key lines from Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest.
I am a worm, and not human. A company of evildoers encircles me. All who see me mock at me;’Commit your cause to the Lord; let him rescue the one in whom he delights!
Yet since my mother bore me you have been my God.
And I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him;
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.

Many deeply spiritual Christians experience a long period of spiritual dryness and agony. Many Christian mystics have written of it. St. John of the Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul. It is a period of emptying from the soul all that interferes with union with God. It is a cleansing, a preparation to receive Him.

Of course Mother Theresa knew this, but it is small recompense for the agony of losing the sense of presence of God. She is in His presence now, as St. John wrote in his astonishingly beautiful poem:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

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