WILL THAT LIGHT
When a bottle, well hidden, proves worst fears
When a child’s diagnosis hangs like rope
When a love-bond severs in twilight years
When a two-soldier knock shatters hope
When life as we know it is swept downstream
When time’s endless promise sudden times out
When the stitch of our dreams splits at the seams
Certain’s the stumble– the fall into doubt
Inside doubt’s tunnel, so long, black as night
We wrestle with demons– wrestle with Him
Until at end of the tunnel, a light
Just a pin, then flicker– distant and dim
Behind: dark doubt beckons– and deeper, despair
Ahead: will that Light keep flickering there?
Starting this week and for the rest of this month, I will journey with you into the dark night of the soul: our moments of doubt, disconnection, disillusionment and despair. How can we continue to lead in the midst of darkness? How might our darkness be transformed, so as to strengthen our capacity to lead? We will take up these questions by pondering the struggles and triumphs of four capable, ethical leaders.
We begin with doubt.
If you have ever struggled with doubt, you are in good company. For twenty years, Mother Teresa taught at a convent school in Calcutta– until on September 10, 1946, traveling to an annual retreat by train, she saw a crucifix-- Jesus on the Cross. She sensed Jesus saying to her: “I thirst”. As she looked upon this icon of poverty and pain, something beckoned her towards a new vision for her life. Shortly thereafter she asked and received permission to depart the convent, so that she could go out into the world to serve the poorest of the poor.
With no possessions to her name, she went into the Calcutta slums and began to minister to the sick– the abandoned ones, those waiting on the streets to die. It began when she bent down to care for just one. She helped that one-- and then found another, and another. Soon her gaze widened– she took in the people living in poverty all around her. She began to internalize the hardships they faced. Writing in her diary, she said:
“Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today, I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought: how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health.”
At first, hers was a solitary street ministry. But her first small acts of kindness attracted others seeking to serve. Donations trickled in. In 1950 she founded the Missionaries of Charity. By the time of her death in 1997, 4,500 Mission of Charity nuns were working with the poorest of the poor in 133 countries around the world. In 1979, she received the Nobel Peace Prize; in 2016, Mother Teresa was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Mother Teresa was a servant leader of great consequence. For fifty years she carried the message of God’s love, the truth of humanity’s connectedness and passionate advocacy for the poor to listeners everywhere, all round the globe:
“The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace… Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other– that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?... The poor must know we love them, that they are wanted. They themselves have nothing to give but love.”
Given all she did for God, it is easy to imagine that Mother Teresa lived her life on some spiritual plateau unattainable by mere mortals, steeped in a continuous, intimate, shimmering love relationship with the divine. But the opposite was true. For 50 years she struggled in the desert, searching in vain for a sign that God remained by her side. She was besieged by doubt, writing privately:
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love– and now become as the most hated one– the one You have thrown away as unwanted– unloved. I call, I cling, I want– and there is no One to answer– no One on Whom I can cling– no, No One– Alone… Where is my Faith– even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness– my God– how painful is this unknown pain– I have no Faith– I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd my heart– & make me suffer untold agony.”
It seemed that the more success Mother Teresa experienced in her work, the more empty her soul felt– the more she doubted God. She told her confessor:
“When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great, nothing touches my soul.”
This shocks us. How could it be that the modern world’s most recognized face of holiness could have been besieged, for 50 years, by unrelenting doubt? If such was her fate, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Doubt is a necessary and inevitable part of an authentic journey of faith. St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, named it the “dark night of the soul”. In the darkness of our doubt, we confront our greatest fear: that God has turned away from us– or worse, that he was never there at all.
For some, doubt comes in the wake of shattered hopes. For the young couple who has just learned their baby will be cognitively compromised for life; or for the woman who has just been fired from the only job she ever wanted; or for the recently-retired, sixty-five year old grandfather who has just learned he has terminal cancer– God can seem distant. In the midst of this doubt we are forced into a painful reassessment of who God is– and who He isn’t. Sometimes God rescues us from trial; sometimes he accompanies us in love as we go through trial. And so we struggle with the nature of God. We cast off old notions. We grieve. The questions linger…
Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why, when we turn towards God, do we feel nothing? There are no easy answers to these questions. In the end, all we can do is to live with them– abide in them– wait at the foot of the Cross for clarity. It may come. It may not come. In the end, doubt presents us with a stark choice: to believe despite our unbelief, or to abandon our search for God entirely. Mother Teresa chose the first path. For 50 years doubt and trust quarreled in her soul. Though she never fully resolved this quarrel, she chose nonetheless to love and serve God and the poor until her dying breath– and because of that choice, she transformed the world. In the end we all must decide: can God’s silence be trusted?
If doubt is a crisis of trust, disillusionment is a crisis of belief. This is the topic of next week’s letter.
“Jesus asked the boy’s father, ‘How long has he been like this?’ ‘From childhood,’ he answered. ‘It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.’ ‘If you can?’ said Jesus. ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’-- Mark 9:21-24
In trust and belief,
Previous Weeks' Letters: