A Note on the Dark Night

For a time last fall,
the press, and therefore to some extent the public, was briefly yet intensely occupied with the publication of some letters of Mother Teresa. Readers of this column will know of these letters, of course. The small Albanian nun had never supposed that they would be made public, since they had been written to her confessors over a period of some decades. I think that she had asked that they be destroyed. But she has been betrayed.

Or at least so it would have seemed, at least momentarily, on the surface of things. I know nothing of the details of their publication. Perhaps there was no betrayal at all. And, as happens anyway in the annals of grace, the letters appear themselves to be proving a fountainhead of help to some people.

The point is, this diminutive woman had suddenly become a sort of world icon — very oddly and ironically, as it happens — in the latter 20th century. As far as one can tell, it was at least partly the work of the British journalist and television personality Malcolm Muggeridge — himself at the time still very skeptical about Christian, and especially Roman Catholic, claims — who went to Calcutta and made a film about Mother Teresa which he titled Something Beautiful for God. The thing caught hold, and the world decided that it had a saint on its hands.

I say “ironically,” since sainthood was, and is, scarcely an item in the agenda of contemporaneity. But perhaps it is not altogether ironic. Vanity Fair, and perhaps even Babylon itself, has always kept in small reserve the capacity to breathe out a short “Oh! A saint!” when it comes upon such an oddity. If the figure becomes awkward, and eventually inconvenient, these cities have ways of coping. There were, to be sure, grimaces, and some baleful mutterings, when Mother Teresa spoke in Harvard Yard. But since she issued no call to arms on the spot, Harvard remained its (then) civil self.

But these letters. In them we find an aspect of the interior life of the Catholic that will not surprise Catholics who have been “walking with God” for many years with any sort of attempt at fidelity. The files of the Church are stuffed with the records of the souls — virtually every soul who has ever put down in writing any record of his interior life — who have striven to know God.

I say “striven.” There is an 18th-century German hymn for All Souls’ Day that says, speaking of the souls who appear before God’s throne to receive their reward at the Last Day, “These are they whose hearts were riven,/Sore with woe and anguish tried,/Who in prayer full oft have striven/With the God they glorified.” If you have been in the school of prayer for very long, and especially of intercessory prayer, you will know what that hymn, and what all spiritual autobiographies and letters, are talking about.

Actually, I suppose there may be a further irony even here. For Mother Teresa, it is almost as though the “striving” itself went dry. Her letters record years — decades — when God seemed to have withdrawn altogether. She had no word from heaven. Where was He? Where was her beloved Jesus? Even the Eucharistic Jesus seemed to have vanished.

But she soldiered on, with her prayers, and with her work.

There, to me, is the great point. And there, to me, arises a somewhat piquant topic for reflection upon one’s own state of soul.

One hears a very great deal now from those who “identify” with these letters. There is almost, it would seem, a sort of espousing of doubt abroad, as though it were the very cockade of authenticity.

But I find myself mulling. Here we had Mother Teresa — the courage, solitude, austerity, fidelity, perseverance, hardihood, struggle, valor, purity of motive, ardor, agony, and heroism that may claim to have entered “the Dark Night of the Soul,” and if you are St. John of the Cross you may speak of it. But the distracted, intermittent, flitting, hummingbird-like dabbing at existence and the thunderous mysteries of the Faith, and which darts away at supposed difficulties and presently is seen no more, and then tells us of its experience of that Dark Night — one finds oneself embarrassed in the presence of the latter claim.


Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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