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A Little “Light” Reading: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

A Little “Light” Reading: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

I have taken a different approach to Lent this year. Normally, I give up one or two things, and by “give up” I mean to say that I will give them up and ultimately fail, then do my best to ignore the rest of Lent with as little guilt as possible. It’s been rough. But, as Lent approached this year I felt called to do something else. I decided I would not give any “thing” up. Instead, I would read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross and be open to recognizing the intangible attachments that require purgation. The result? This is the best Lent of my life. It is telling, and hard, and necessary.

As we near the close of the Lenten season, I am still in the thick of the text, with about 80 pages left to go. But…I’m starting to finally get it…the purpose of this liturgical season, the reason for it occurring every year, its calendar position right before Easter. These were all things I always understood on a superficial level, but now it makes so much sense. Now, I see that it is a gift. Now, I see how special it is that the Church offers this season each year. It is an invitation. God is tenderly asking us to seek union with Him (contemplation) by becoming purified, so we may participate in Christ’s Resurrection (eternal life).

I could write pages upon pages of my reaction to St. John’s writing, but this is not the place for it. All I will say is that I would encourage everyone to read or re-read it when the time seems right, during Lent or not. To conclude, I will offer some highlights of my reading so far and why the timing is awesome. 

Four Reasons This is the Perfect Book to Read During Lent

  1. St. John outlines the imperfections which are common for beginners based on the capital sins. He addresses the sins in the spiritual context as the soul struggles in the beginning of its pursuit of God. This has been a helpful guide to point out which of my sins I ought to focus on first and to ask that my soul truly be open to becoming purged of them.
  2. He clarifies contemplation, a concept that has intimidated and confused me up until now. He defines it multiple times in similar terms. My favorite is, “Contemplation is nothing else but a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion of God, which, if admitted, will set the soul on fire with the spirit of love.” He frequently reminds the reader of the beautiful potential of a soul being purified for union with God. During Lent, we must not forget that eternal fruit is born through sacrifices and contrition. Eyes on the Prize.
  3. He speaks of the reason for pain during the purification of the soul. He does not simply acknowledge that the soul must suffer as it becomes more perfect, but he lovingly explains why it must be so. Here’s a tidbit: “…there is nothing in contemplation and the divine inflowing, to cause pain, but rather much sweetness and joy, as the soul will find later. The cause is the imperfection and weakness of the soul, and dispositions not fit for the reception of this sweetness. And so, when the divine light beats upon the soul, it makes it suffer in the way described.” Lent is not a bummer—my imperfect soul is!
  4. Several times he illuminates passages in Scripture that l have often skimmed over throughout the years. I particularly love his attention to Job and David. St. John uses the words of these tested men of faith to illustrate the state of their own souls during their respective dark nights. Their words clarify his meaning, and his explanations bring life to their words. Letting Scripture sink in on a more personal level for the rest of Lent and beyond motivates me, during private prayer and at Mass. 

I pray that this approach to Lent and reading Dark Night of the Soul helps me and others to truly rejoice in Christ’s Resurrection. I may reread it in some capacity each Lent. Perhaps it would make an excellent text for a Lenten Book Club! 


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Mother Teresa: A Lamp in the Darkness

st teresa of calcutta

“Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
  to observe thy righteous ordinances. I am sorely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to thy word!-Psalm 119: 106-107

She founded a religious congregation. She served the poor with radical acts of Christian charity. She fought for the rights of the sick, the downtrodden and the unborn. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. And this week, she was canonized. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a busy little ray of God’s light shining onto a jaded 20th century world.

But Mother Teresa’s achievements, however brilliant, are not what draw me to seek her intercession.  Instead, I find comfort and solace in what the holy nun did not achieve during her life on earth–a lasting spiritual peace or emotional experience of God.

During the same decades that Mother Teresa was changing the world with her presence, Christ was changing her with his seeming absence. With few instances of reprieve, her adult life, even until death, was marked by an extended period of agonizing spiritual dryness, the dark night of the soul. In 1957, she wrote:

“In the darkness . . . 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 . . . Where 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.  Love — the word — it brings nothing.  I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.” (Source)

Mother Teresa wasn’t the only one who had difficulty understanding the meaning of this painful struggle. Once her critics got wind of it, they used it repeatedly in their attempts to discredit her. The famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, who had gone so far as to testify against the nun’s case for canonization, wrote in Newsweek in 2007: “I say it as calmly as I can—the Church should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.”

So why exactly should we rejoice in a life that was so full of inner pain? Why take comfort in the struggle of another? Why canonize someone who could not feel the light of God in her own life, who was dogged by doubts and darkness?

I’m no Mother Teresa, but as a Catholic with depression, I can relate to the hurt and confusion apparent in her writings. I can sympathize with her short periods of solace and sunshine, followed by long times of inner darkness. I can appreciate what it feels like to keep going day after day, stumbling and striving to do your best for a God whom you cannot feel. And I take great hope in the Church’s brave declaration that Christ does not abandon those who cannot sense him emotionally.

St. Teresa of Calcutta is indisputably in heaven, and her example is a lamp to the feet of all of us who travel in mental and spiritual darkness. If we continue to fight, continue to keep going, continue to believe and confess and pray and work and love, we too can ultimately triumph by the light of Christ.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!