Longing for an Experience of God

I believe; help my unbelief. Mark 9:24

In 2007, Doubleday published a volume of letters to her superiors and confessors in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. Mother Teresa had been serving as a teacher in Calcutta for 17 years when in 1946 she began having visions and ecstatic mystical experiences of Christ’s presence. She believed that she directly heard the voice of Christ saying, “Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor.… Come be My light.” Soon after she began her ministry in the slums of Calcutta, however, the visions stopped and Teresa began to agonize about her spiritual dryness, lack of faith and inner darkness. Her experience was all the more terrible because she longed for deep communion with her Lord. “I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before.” She described her experience as torture.

Her “dark night of the soul” continued for most of the rest of her life. “I utter words of Community prayers — and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give,” she said, “But my prayer of union is not there any longer.” She cried out, “Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal.”

Despite her inner dryness and turmoil, Teresa did not abandon her faith. She remained resolute in her determination. “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.” She wrote to her confessor, “Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

One of her spiritual advisers, Joseph Neuner, gave her direction that helped her integrate her experience into her faith. He told her that feelings are not reliable guides to the either the existence of God or the state of our relationship with Christ, that longing for Christ’s presence is itself a sign that he’s already there, and that her perseverance despite the spiritual pain was an offering to the Lord.

While no one could accuse Teresa of being a charlatan – she received nothing for her efforts except a life of poverty – Christopher Hitchens does accuse her of being a spiritual coward, unwilling to accept the atheistic implications of experience. Psychologist Richard Gottlieb wonders if she had a self-punishing personality type, and sees clues in her personal history. I can imagine that some blame her experience on what they believe to be mistakes in belief or practice, while others see her inner pain as a pattern shared by saints and mystics throughout the ages.

These are all good discussions for another day. Examining the role of human personality in religion and exploring the theology of religious experience both deserve more attention than I can give them here. Teresa’s own story, however, provides us with some important data points.

It strikes me how closely Teresa’s experience comports with Jesus’ words in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,for they will see God.

Like the saints of Hebrews 11, Teresa died still longing for the “better country.” Through the gift of the spirit she received a foretaste of the city of God, but she still dwelt in the tents of this world’s despair.

In 2003, Carol Selecki wrote in First Things about the dark night of Mother Teresa. Two excerpts:

We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. How else could this unremarkable woman, no different from the rest of us, bear to throw her lot in with the poorest of the poor, sharing their meager diet and rough clothing, wiping leprous sores and enduring the agonies of the dying, for so many years without respite, unless she were somehow lifted above it all, shielded by spiritual endorphins? Yet we have her own testimony that what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God’s presence. . . .

This was exactly the way Mother Teresa learned to deal with her trial of faith: by converting her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God. It would be her Gethsemane, she came to believe, and her participation in the thirst Jesus suffered on the Cross. And it gave her access to the deepest poverty of the modern world: the poverty of meaninglessness and loneliness. To endure this trial of faith would be to bear witness to the fidelity for which the world is starving. “Keep smiling,” Mother Teresa used to tell her community and guests, and somehow, coming from her, it doesn’t seem trite. For when she kept smiling during her night of faith, it was not a cover-up but a manifestation of her loving resolve to be “an apostle of joy.”

How many of God’s people accuse themselves and abandon their faith because their feelings, thoughts and experiences do not live up to the hopes implanted by the Gospel? Too many Christians mis-characterize the gospel and suggest that faith inevitably leads only to experiences of contentment. We Methodists especially, with our talk of sanctification and perfection in love, can give the impression that the Christian life is an ever rising tide of spiritual joy in the spirit. We set people up for spiritual failure when we fill them with false expectations.

It is important to emphasize the objective nature of our salvation in Christ. As one old evangelism tract put it, the proper sequence is: fact – faith – feeling. If the fact of God’s salvation in Christ is the engine of the train, feelings are the caboose. Trains operate just fine without a caboose, but they aren’t going anywhere without an engine.

Let me jump abruptly from trains to planes. Sometimes when I fly I start to doubt the aircraft. How can a machine possibly hold me in the air? I understand the principle of lift, but I can’t see “lift.” All I see is empty space. Fortunately, my doubts have absolutely no effect on the ability of the aircraft to remain airborne. The Bernoulli principle is true even if don’t understand it. When flying, faith means boarding the aircraft; it doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of butterflies.

Jesus himself experienced the pain of feeling separated from the Father as he cried out in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Psalm 22, however, is not a cry of unbelief. The Psalmist affirms his faith in God even as his circumstances suggest that faith is unfounded.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says “the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse.” Speaking of sanctification, Bonhoeffer writes, “Only God knows the real state of … our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God.”

Nevertheless, Christians long for deeper experiences of faith. Like the man who approached Jesus about his ill child, we cry out, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

One of the lines of the hymn For All the Saints reads, “We feebly struggle; they in glory shine.” I know that there are many Christians who would disagree with the idea that Christians feebly struggle. Compared with life apart from God, the Christian life is one of wonder and victory. Compared to what we want for ourselves and our world after we encounter Christ, however, I’m certainly one who counts himself in the “feebly struggle” category.

One of the answers to my struggles is you. Christian community is given to us for mutual encouragement and consolation. We know about Teresa’s struggles because she wrote about them privately to her confessors and supervisors. There is spiritual strength and power in our conference with each other. Like the four who carried the paralyzed man to Christ (Mark 2:5), we can believe for each other and lift each other to the Lord.

Let us pray today for all those who are struggling to find faith, and those who are struggling to remain faithful, and for those who are burdened by their longing for more. In the age to come, may we all find complete fulfillment in the glorious presence of Christ, and in this age, may we all receive a taste of the glory that is to come.