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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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  • Hi, Merridith,
    Thank you so much for your post. I suspect that there are many Christians who experience desolation and may be baffled as to what is happening to them. It’s so important to share these spiritual difficulties.
    You sound like a spiritually well developed person who St. Ignatius would probably classify in his “second week” of spiritual development, although I have not read his book in quite a while. I have recently stumbled on another book that might be of some interest to you. It is by Fr. Robert Spitzer. He is a blind priest who it seems is quite well known in some circles. He has written a number of books, and can also be found on you tube. I especially enjoyed the interview he did regarding “near death experiences.”
    I’ve decided to forward to you a letter I wrote to him. Again, I hope it might be useful to you.

    May the Holy Spirit console and counsel you on your journey.

    Gary J. Mayer

    ——————————————————————————————————

    Dear Fr. Spitzer, I have recently read your book, Christ versus Satan In Our Daily Lives. I appreciated many things about it but would especially like to comment on your analysis of spiritual and affective desolation on page 253. I was gratified to see that you included clinical depression as one of its causes. I am a retired physician and over the years have had occasion to make this diagnosis many times. I found that people of faith often had trouble with the notion that this could be treated medically. They thought of it as a spiritual problem that should be addressed by getting right with God.

    I could identify with this. I had my first episode of a “desolation” when I was sixteen. It came on abruptly for no obvious reason. It had all the hallmarks you list as signs of desolation; cosmic emptiness, loneliness, alienation, darkness, and loss of a sense of home. For me there was also a profound sense of foreboding. I had no idea what was happening to me, but it felt like a spiritual attack. My parents, family doctor, and pastor had no idea of how to help me. I held on by my fingernails and over the next year it subsided.

    I believe in the reality of spiritual harassment and possession. I’ve read several books about it in addition to yours. I suspect that there is probably overlap and even coexistence of mental illness and spiritual harassments. However, in my case I am now prone to believe it was primarily a brain problem. I have had a number of reoccurrences over the years that have responded to antidepressants.

    I have thought a lot about all of this over the years. I think about it whenever I hear that an apparently well adjusted teen surprises everyone by committing suicide. And what about poor Mother Theresa of Calcutta? Her dark night went on for fifty years. In her own words;

    “Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. … If there be God – please forgive me. 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.”[1

    It is hard for me to imagine this was not a clinical depression, and if it was, then it included both affective and spiritual desolation as it obviously had a deleterious effect on her faith. Would the Holy Spirit have really denied her consolation for fifty years? How did she persevere? My heart goes out to her. Perhaps heaven has been for her a far more intense consolation than it is for most. I hope so. She should be nominated for patron saint of the depressed.

    My depression (desolation), has been in one way useful. Along with God’s word, (Hebrews 4:12), it has for me had the ability to separate spirit from soul. I am a dualist. I believe that the brain/mind, (the soul), is separate from the spirit/mind, (consciousness). The soul is a thing of this world. It is motivated by feelings and appetites conjured by the brain. The spirit/mind is transcendent, with its vitality coming from elsewhere. When I have been depressed, with most appetites and pleasures reduced to non-existence, I continue to have three qualities that seem unaffected; my intellect, my will, and my longing for union with God and His goodness. It seems I just want to return to Him and be dissolved into Him, like a comet falling back into the sun. My experience would seem to roughly coincide with your own four higher powers.

    If you are still with me, I thank you as well as whoever it is that must be reading this to you. It is not often I find anyone with whom to share these thoughts. I hope they might be useful in some way. I am not expecting that you should respond. May God continue to bless you in your ministry.

    Gary J. Mayer

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