Today on the memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as the pious among us finish their novenas and keep their eyes peeled for roses falling from heaven, I thought it might be appropriate to reflect on the woman whom Pope Pius XI called “the greatest saint of modern times.” In particular, I would like to consider a part of Thérèse’s life which perhaps does not get as much attention as it should: her experience of the dark night. She describes it thus:
[Jesus] permitted my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and that the thought of heaven, up until then so sweet to me, be no longer anything but the cause of struggle and torment. This trial was to last not a few days or a few weeks, it was not to be extinguished until the hour set by God Himself and this hour has not yet come. I would like to be able to express what I feel, but alas! I believe this is impossible. One would have to travel through this dark tunnel to understand this darkness.
Then suddenly the fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelops it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland; everything has disappeared! When I want to rest my heart fatigued by the darkness that surrounds it by the memory of the luminous country after which I aspire, my torment redoubles; it seems to me that the darkness, borrowing the voice of sinners, says mockingly to me: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog that surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”
Nietzsche or Schopenhauer could have penned those final lines. Consider again the words of Pope Pius XI: Thérèse is the greatest saint of modern times. A distinguishing mark of modernity is (or was, if you prefer to think that we live in post-modern times) its burgeoning secularism. As Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, whereas in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, today, even for believers, faith is just one option among many. In other words, not believing in God is a realistic option. One would have been hard-pressed to come up with a dozen atheists or agnostics in a European city five hundred years ago. Now one can find many more than that on one block.
It is not my interest to consider the long and complicated story of how this change occurred. (If you are interested in that question, I recommend Taylor’s aforementioned book or Cornelio Fabro’s classic God in Exile: Modern Atheism: A Study of the Internal Dynamic of Modern Atheism, from its Roots in the Cartesian Cogito to the Present Day.) Instead, I want to consider the changed conditions of discipleship which result from modernity’s denial of God’s existence.
Karl Rahner has a fascinating passage in Theological Investigations where he comments on the Sacred Heart visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Themes of suffering, victimhood, and God’s abandonment dominate these visions. Why? According to Rahner, the message of these visions is intended for the situation of modern times in general, of which a defining mark is what he calls the “secularization” or “Godlessness” of the world. In such an environment, Rahner explains, the Christian lives in a situation of an outer and inner experience of the absence of God, a situation characteristic of Jesus in Gethsemane and Golgotha, where “life lies in death, where abandonment means the deepest proximity to God, where powerlessness is the manifestation of the power of God.”
Rahner’s point is well-taken. To extrapolate it, I would like to suggest that a particular form of sanctity—a particular mission—has been given to certain saints in the “Godlessness” of modern times. It is a mission to be a sent to those far, dark psychological and existential recesses where modern man acutely experiences God’s absence. The mission of the saint is to make the act of faith amidst such darkness and thus, in a sense, bring the Gospel to these regions. The Church speaks frequently of the need for inculturation for successful evangelization. Can there be a form of inculturation to realms of existential “Godlessness”? Perhaps the modern atheist who does not readily “feel” God’s presence will be more likely to consider belief if he or she sees that saints, too, have experienced God’s absence and still believed. In that, such saints have an indispensable message for our times.
Of course, the experience of the dark night is not unique to Christians in modernity. It seems to me, however, that the experience of the dark night has not only become more common among contemporary saints, but also that recent dark nights have a qualitative difference from pre-modern ones. Read, say, Thérèse, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or St. Gemma Galgani and compare them with the few earlier dark night saints you can find. Something different is going on.
We might come closer to pinning down what that difference is (I admit, it’s slippery) by returning to Thérèse. She possesses a keen sense of her solidarity with those who live in the darkness of God’s absence. She stands in union with all of those in the modern age who no longer can detect the presence of God. As Thérèse describes herself in the third person:
She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You. Can she not say in her name and in the name of her brothers, “Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!” Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus! if it is needful that the table soiled by them be purified by a soul who loves You, then I desire to eat this bread of trial at this table until it pleases You to bring me into Your bright Kingdom.
Thus even amidst the darkness, it is love—love for sinners and love for God—that allows Thérèse to radiate God’s light. Such love is pure grace, rooted in the archetypal experience of abandonment: that of Cross, where the Son is totally abandoned by the Father and yet remains perfectly bound to the Father by the love of the Holy Spirit. Against the backdrop of the chiaroscuro of this Trinitarian mystery, we can begin to understand what Thérèse means when she says, “suffering has become my heaven here below” and “my consolation is to have none on earth.”
In one of her final poems, Thérèse writes,
Et si u me délaisses,
O mon Divin Trésor,
Privée de tes caresses,
Je veaux sourire encor.
(And if you abandon me,
O my Divine Treasure,
Deprived of your caresses,
I still want to smile.)
Amidst a modern age that has long felt deprived of God’s caresses, how greatly we need Thérèse’s smile.
© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.