Saturday, September 08, 2007

Doubt and Darkness

This week was the tenth anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa, or, as we now refer to her in Catholic Church, Blessed Teresa of Kolkata. Within the next ten years, perhaps quite soon, so every commentator seems to think, she is likely to move from the being simply 'Blessed' to being referred to as 'Saint'.

Mother Teresa is perhaps the best known Christian of the 20th Century. Her small stature was contrasted with a forceful personality and determination, an extraordinary self-sacrificial life and a deep and practical compassion for the poor, the destitute and the dying. She made an extraordinary impression upon all who met her – and upon the very very many who did not. Her life was, it seems, a shining beacon of what Christianity is, and how it can be lived, and how the Christian faith can be lived in a life of great holiness and generosity.

It has cause something of a stir then, that this week has also been published a collection of her writings, mainly letters and journal entries, which reveal that for most of her life was afflicted by what she described as a great 'darkness', a deep sense of doubt, a profound sense not of Christ's presence with her, but rather of his absence. This women, who gave her who life for Christ, seems to have doubted in the heart of her being his love, his compassion, his existence. This doubt afflicted her for almost all her life. Could she still be called a saint?

Mother Teresa's 'darkness' reminds me of another Teresa, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a most popular saint from the beginning of the 20th Century, whose statue, the 'Little Flower' is familiar in almost every Catholic Church. She too kept a diary, a spiritual journal, and it was published, heavily edited, after her death. Much later it was revealed that she too had profound doubts, moments of darkness, when she pondered whether God truly existed. There are other saints and Christians writers too, who have spoken of this great sense of loss, or darkness, or absence. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, writes about this in his book "Introduction to Christianty", and he makes a very interesting point. The 'darkness' is not a questioning over items of the Christian faith, over this or that part of the Bible, or this or that teaching of the Church. This doubting is not about whether the virgin birth is true, or whether the bread and wine truly becomes the body and blood of Christ. It is much more profound: is God there? Is his love real? Why can't I feel his presence with me all the time?

Mother Teresa, and Saint Thérèse, and many other saints and holy people knew this darkness because they had also experienced the light. They were aware of the absence of God, because they had a very deep sense of God's presence. They could feel the shadows of unbelief, because they had been blinded by the light and warmth of truth.

And they knew that to believe is not to fuss over details, or to quibble over the items in a list, to pick and choose from a menu and perhaps even reject the unpalatable items.

To believe is to be committed and to accept, through thick and thin, through light and darkness. It is conviction, before it is ever understanding, because God's truth is not ideas: God is love.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Use words if necessary

"Preach the Gospel – use words if necessary!" these are words St Francis of Assisi once said to his followers.

This week the schools started a new term.

Who would be a teacher?

I used to be. For six years I taught. When September came, I knew it in the pit of my stomach. The long summer break was over. New classes beckoned, lessons had to be prepared. Suddenly the weather started getting better as I knew that I would have to get up earlier and work late into the evening. Agh!

But then who would be a pupil?

Well, I used to be: for 13 years from infants to sixth form. When September came, I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. The summer holidays were over. Now there would be homework night after night, the constant reminders that exams would soon be upon me, and my Mum knocking on my bedroom door each morning telling me to hurry or I'd miss the bus. Agh!

I'm not a pupil or a teacher any more. It is thirty years since I left school, and six years since I left teaching to become a parish priest. Now September is just another month, Monday just another day.

But just a minute – was it all so bad? Actually, I has a great time at school. Wonderful friendships, many laughs, few of the worries and responsibilities of adult life. And my years at a teacher were at an outstanding school, with great kids and tremendous colleagues. Hard work and responsibility, yes there was that, but also the joy of exam successes, and the rewards of seeing learners learn and I feel that I had a small part of it.

And of course, it is not true that I used to be a pupil, or that I used to be a teacher. I still am. I don't have to turn up at 8.30am every weekday any more, that's true, but I have never stopped learning, and I have never stopped teaching. There is always more to discover, and always more to share.

One of the most amazing things about us human beings is that God made us so dependent on one another. None of us lives for himself or herself only. When we enter this world we are just as dependent as we were in the womb. We need others and others need us. We take many years to learn to speak clearly and fluently, more years to read and write, even more years to learn how to bring up children ourselves. And all this time we influence others, share our knowledge with others, guide and care for others.

We grow. We never stop growing. And we help others to grow. We learn to love and we teach what love is – by example as much as by our words. We preach the Gospel of God's love: even if we don't realise it.