My Worst Nightmare
Today's upi column
So There I was...
Lying in a motel bed, contemplating my demise. Staring at the ceiling at midnight, sleep would not come. At eight in the morning I was scheduled to enter a hole in the ground and travel several miles underground guided only by kerosene lamp. I didn’t want to do it, but pride kept me from saying so. It hadn’t been my idea. I wasn’t at all sure that I would come out alive. I was praying for a way out.
I held my Raggedy Ann doll tight – possibly our last night together. I wasn’t planning to take her in – at least she would survive. I was eight years old.
Like many childhood nightmares, this one happened on a family vacation. We were bivouacked near Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. My dad was a great amateur scientist with an interest in geology and he was excited about the trip. My mother had worked all year at a part-time job to pay for the vacation, and this was the highlight, I knew I couldn’t let her down. My brothers seemed to be sleeping peacefully. I hadn’t told anyone that I was claustrophobic. Not even when dad signed us up for the multiple mile, lantern-only walk. But I was terrified. I had figured we would look into a big cavern; I would keep my eye on the door, and leave as soon as possible. But no, we were going in deep, and walking through narrow corridors connecting cave after cave, and coming out miles away from the entrance. It was pretty much the worst thing I could think of.
The saving grace was that I knew I could hold my dad’s hand the whole way. I was pretty sure that he would get me out alive if he could. He was invincible, resilient, courageous and ingenious. My plan was to stick to him like glue and if a brother or two fell into a hole, then that was just collateral damage we would have to take.
I survived. Though it didn’t help that the guide enjoyed playing up the danger and drama. Telling of historical accidents. People who got lost and never came out, and occasionally dropping stones into holes so deep that you never heard them hit bottom. Then, about three quarters of the way in, we encountered the mummified remains of an ancient native gypsum miner - perfectly preserved by the cool temp and minerals. A boulder had fallen and crushed him and he had laid there, hand sticking out from under the rock for millennia. The guide told the story with great relish, emphasizing that the boulders all around us could move at any time, “Perhaps we had better move along folks…”
I have been to some interesting places since then, including active war zones, but I do not ever remember being as afraid. If not for my father’s hand I do not believe that an army could have taken me into that cave, or gotten me out. But I think I could go there now.
Even without my father.
A cave is no longer my greatest fear.
Not by a stretch.
We are told this week that the Vatican is releasing the confessional papers of Mother, soon to be Saint, Theresa of Calcutta. I guess the confidentiality rights of the confessional stop at death, at least if you are on the path to canonization.
We are told of the stunning testimony of these papers. How she had deep, vital, visceral experiences of God early in her life and begged of Him a vocation to the poor. How certain she felt of this vocation. And then, after starting her work with the sickest, of the poorest, of the most oppressed, she never again experienced the perception of the presence of God. And though this tormented her, she continued the work; doubts and fears carried along by memory and determination. She believed she was doing the right thing. She believed she was following a true call. She believed. But she did not experience the intimacy of her Lord through a decades-long walk through darkness and pain and suffering.
She didn’t know why. Her confessors did not blame her faith, or her practice. Was it because she had agreed to descend into the hell of Calcutta? Had she signed up to suffer with them, and the worst suffering was this silence? She did not know. They did not know. She never found a satisfactory answer. We can only presume that the answer came with the sweet embrace of death.
Before she died she asked them to destroy the letters and they would not, because they see them not as evidence of a lack of faith; but as proof of a fidelity, determination, obedience, and submission of nearly supernatural order.
I agree that the physical, emotional and spiritual perception of a real and intimate God is near to heaven on earth. But I agree that these feelings, these perceptions, are not the substance of faith. I know many faithful people who do not seem to be wired for these perceptions, yet who believe, who act as disciples, who act as the hands and feet of God. They are blessed.
But I get the perceptions. Often. I feel God. I sense God. I hear God. I occasionally see God. I have learned to wait for the sense, to listen for the sense. I don’t think it makes me a better disciple. But it makes it easier to be a disciple.
And now, my worst nightmare. It could stop. It could stop even if I am a faithful servant.
It might stop because I am a faithful servant.
It might stop.
Would I continue to believe, to act, to pray, to serve, if it stopped? Could I continue that way for decades without despair? Honestly I don’t think I would last a week. I have not the courage for the long dark walk without the hand of my strength, my hope.
All I can do is hope that He understands, and indulges my weakness.
It was Mother Theresa who said “I know God will not give me anything I cannot handle.
I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”
Peggy - I am so glad to read this; so glad someone has put words to some of the feelings that rip through me as I read of her years long dessert. My only other response is a wish that she could have been as honest with the world as she was with her confessors about her struggle. - Anj
Like most believers I too have had my periods of doubt. Those times when God feels absent are the times when I question my faith and wonder if I am just believing in a fairy tale.
But then, often out of the blue, I will suddenly experience God's presense and my faith will be reaffirmed.
But I can't imagine going almost 50 yrs without feeling God's presence like Mother Teresa did. I know that I would have probably just given up. But yet she remained faithful even though she felt nothing and wondered if God even existed! I both pity her and admire her. I would not have had her strength. I admire the fact that she remained faithful but pity her in that she kept her feelings a secret except for only a few close friends. I sometimes think it would have been best had she expressed her doubts openly. I think that she would have inspired many people with her willingness to continue to believe despite the doubt. But perhaps she had to maintain her facade to keep those weak in the faith from faltering. Who knows?
Good exercise. Into the dark with your father, as a child; into the imagined dark with MT, holding up our hands for God, even when pretty sure we're not feeling a touch back. How delusional are we? How delusional can we be? Very. Say it with me children, "Doesn't prove a thing..." We live and die and are resurrected by faith.
I take such comfort in believing he will not give me more than I can take - and that even if I fail, he will not.
Thanks, Peggy. I have been moved by the story of Mother Teresa. She succeeded in living in God's presence even though she didn't feel it, which to me is an incredible testimony as the Church leaders have understood. You are right about the need to have faith even when that is not being rewarded through feeling God's presence.
Her experience is far from unprecedented. The dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross lasted decades, for example.
First, I'd like to admit that since I didn't ever know Mother Teresea personally what I say about her is highly speculative. But with that qualification here goes anyway.
My wife and I went to see Mother Teresea speak about twenty three years ago. Honestly I was expecting to see a saint and what I saw was very disappointing. It seemed to me at the time that she was a poor little woman being manipulated by her handlers. The Catholic Church was treating her as a valuable propaganda tool and was writing her speeches for her and scripting every word. I think I'm pretty good at telling whether or not a person is speaking from some place deep inside themself where God gives them the words or whether it is coming from some other place. She really sounded to me like these words were scripted.
So when I heard about the recent relevations it didn't come to me as much as a shock as it did to other people but still it gave me pause.
My current guess (and a guess made on the basis of some pretty sketchy evidence to be sure) is that way back in the beginning Teresea did have a call from God and was obedient to it. In being obedient to it she shook up the world. But at some point the Catholic Church began to see her as a tool. They took control of her and she let them. She stopped listening to the voice of God and listened to the priests instead.
Dark night of the soul experiences are indeed common among genuine seekers. But when people note, as is true, that such a long dark night is indeed unprecendented it should raise some red flags. This was not a normal dark night of the soul. It seems to me to be better explained by her falling under the control of human beings and confusing their voice with God's voice. I think that the problem was that God continued to talk to her but since what he was saying was so different from what her handlers were telling her that she just couldn't hear it.
If you think my interpretation is a little too cynical then consider this: if you were Teresea's spiritual advisor and you knew she was suffering this spiritual torment would you have just advised her to keep on doing what she was doing? Wouldn't you have suggested instead that she leave Calcutta and go spend a few years away in some nice quiet convent in Ireland or Kentucky? Or perhaps wouldn't you have suggested that she work in a nursery with heathly young babies or teaching elementary school? I think I would. Leadings aren't necessarily for a lifetime. Perhaps she was lead to do what she did but then God wanted her to do something new or to do what she was doing in some radically new way. If such a change would have endangered her rock star status I suspect that the priests would have tried to talk her out of it.
Thanks for this post, Peggy.
Among religions, Quakers have an unusual attitude toward truth. If we don't believe, we are expected to be honest to the truth we experience. We are not supposed to pretend or (worse) pretend to ourselves.
This was not my experience growing up Catholic. Truth was what the Church said was truth. Truth was a noun, not a verb; a product, not a path. Conformity was the objective. If you didn't conform, you were wrong and must keep silent.
Yet I have also met many protestant born-agains who feel they have to feign a born-again experience, because otherwise, everyone will know they aren't saved.
Too much of Christianity seems to demand a fake and frantic effort to conform to noun-truths, instead of being true to truth-as-verb: living honestly, submitting oneself entirely to the truth as it reveals itself.
It's called lying. And it's hard to promote the spiritual life to the nonspiritual when lying is so much at the heart of religious life.
Friend Teresa lived under a heavy burden. She must have felt that she would have failed too many people by letting anyone know that she did not believe. How tragic.
I imagine that the Catholic Church will make a lot of money from the sale of the book of Mother Teresa's letters.Post a Comment
Richard's comments seem very plausible. The thing that stood out for me was that all of her advisors seemed to only have contact with her by written letters. It may come to light later that there was personal contact somewhere, but so far it doesn't seem so. It would have been a lot easier to see someones' anguish in person.
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