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Sep 4, 2020

St. Mother Teresa and Spiritual Desolation

Merridith Frediani

When I read Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta I had to stop right around chapter 8. I knew St. Mother Teresa had experienced a time of spiritual desolation but reading her own words about it was hard. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to consider what that was like for her. I’d only just recently learned about spiritual consolation and desolation and was enjoying my time in consolation. Mine was a fragile soul, still is, and not hale and hearty enough to enter into that sort of contemplation. So, I put the book down.

Spiritual desolation in the Ignatian sense is a period of unrest and disquiet. It is a time of unsettlement when God feels far away. The soul in desolation struggles to pray and wonders why it even should pray. In desolation we may feel as if we are in a dark corridor of uncertainty. We question. We feel alone, maybe abandoned and rejected. We don’t know what to do or where to go. 

Feelings of Abandonment

Mother Teresa experienced her darkness for a decade. It was a shock to the Catholic world when, after her death, it was revealed that she struggled so. From the exterior she appeared peaceful and saintly while interiorly she described “untold darkness” and a “continual longing for God” to her spiritual director Fr. Joseph Neuner. “The place of God in my soul is blank. There is no God in me” she wrote to him.

This is an alarming thing to consider. Here was a woman who became a saint who I remember. I remember learning about her, seeing her in the mainstream media, knowing that she was truly a special person with a special relationship with God. If she could experience such a separation from God, if even she could feel abandoned, what hope did I have? The possibility of spiritual desolation loomed. I won’t say I worried about it but I very much hoped the Lord would spare me that suffering. 

Mother Teresa wrote about her feelings of tenderness for Jesus being lost. She wondered what exactly she was leading others to because she couldn’t see it any longer. She had no words. She could only say “My God” in her prayer. Lesser souls would have given up. She did not. She continued in her desire to love God and she shared these thoughts with Fr. Neuner. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been to admit. 

Continuing to Serve

Fr. Neuner had a pragmatic response: desolation happens and there is no way for a human to fix it. He posited that the one suffering has to remember that God is in fact still present. He just feels as if he isn’t. He wrote, “The sure sign of God’s hidden presence in this darkness is the thirst for God…no one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart.” The only way to respond is to surrender oneself to God and “accept the darkness in union with Jesus.”

With Fr. Neuner’s guidance, Mother Teresa began to see the darkness as the spiritual side of her work and a way for her to share in Jesus’ redemptive suffering. She saw it as a way to experience a share of the pain in the people she served who felt unwanted, rejected, or without faith. Because of her great faith, Mother Teresa was able to continue doing the work God asked her to do, the work she promised him she would do. She continued to serve India’s poor and sick and she continued to work with the younger sisters in the Missionaries of Charity. 

Desolation in These Times

I’m not versed in hagiology (the study of the lives of the saints) so I can’t say with any authority how many saints have experienced such a state as Mother Teresa, but I do know that we all experience times of desolation and sorrow. We all experience dryness in prayer when God feels far away, and we struggle. In talking with friends, I hear that this COVID-19/quarantine/big pause situation has caused feelings of desolation and sorrow for many. Our routines were disrupted, we were thrust into a wide world of constant uncertainty, we were isolated from each other which is super unhealthy for the humans, and we were unable to receive our Lord in the sacrament of Communion.

Many of us are tired: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Many of us have become turned in on ourselves. We are sliding down a tornado slide of negativity. We are cut off from our community. We feel a lack of control and I’ll bet we are beginning to stop caring. We wonder where God is in all of this. We are told that he is here. He is present, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the world is whirling out of control. I’ve even wondered if it’s the beginning of the end.

Wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas

This is desolation and sorrow. Mother Teresa, pray for us. I was lamenting to a dear friend and she shared some wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas. He suggests five remedies for sorrow. I have tried them. This is good advice. Take it if you’re struggling. I’m serious.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ remedies for 2020:

  1. Grant yourself something good in moderation. We’ve all heard the jokes about the “COVID-19” we’ve gained since coming home and living a life of sloth. This remedy does not give us license to overindulge but it does give us permission to treat ourselves kindly if we are sad. 

  2. Weep. According to Msgr. Charles Pope, “tears are the soul’s way to exhale sorrow.”  When we cry, we release the sadness. It is draining and ugly, but we feel better after a good sob. 

  3. Share with a friend. It was in doing just this that I learned about these remedies. Msgr. Pope reminds us that we need the perspective of others. It is dangerous to turn in on yourself. 

  4.  Contemplate the truth. Again from Msgr. Pope, in contemplating the truth “we are reminded of our final glory and happiness if we persevere. Hence, we are given perspective.” A little perspective goes a long way.

  5. If all else fails, take a bath or a nap. Amen and alleluia! These are words that affirm that it’s OK to escape a little. From the good monsignor: “We are not simply soul, we are also body. Sometimes if the soul is vexed, caring for the body will bring soothing help, even to the soul.” Our small brains can only take so much input and if a warm soak, a lovely book, or an afternoon nap helps, do it. 

This further illustrates the brilliance and beauty of not only our Catholic faith but our Father. God knows. He knows we will encounter all kinds of trouble in this broken world and he gave us saints like Mother Teresa and Thomas Aquinas to guide us. They walked before us and left us with pearls of great wisdom. If you are in desolation or experiencing sorrow, offer God your suffering and ask to be united to Jesus. Remember that God is still there even if you can’t hear him. Believe that he is and go take a nap. While you drift off to sleep, think about why we are all here: to get to heaven where we will live in eternal joy and happiness with God.

You May Also Like:

How Mother Teresa Set the World on Fire [CFR video]

St. Teresa’s Flying Novena May Have Saved This Parish Fair

When God Feels Far Away in Prayer [All Things Catholic Podcast]

Broken & Blessed: An Invitation to My Generation [Book]

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Merridith Frediani’s perfect day includes prayer, writing, unrushed morning coffee, reading, tending to dahlias, and playing Sheepshead with her husband and three teenagers. She loves leading small faith groups for moms and looking for God in the silly and ordinary. She blogs and writes for her local Catholic Herald in Milwaukee.

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