On Darkness
2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

No more shall people call you “Forsaken, “ or your land “Desolate, “ but you shall be called “My Delight, “ and your land “Espoused.”

For the past little while I’ve been reading the letters of Father Jean Pierre DeCaussade, who was born in the 17th century and died in the middle of the 18th century. His works are simply his letters of spiritual direction to the Sisters of the Visitation, in France. The entire compilation of his letters is called Abandonment to Divine Providence; his entire spirituality is about learning to abandon ourselves more completely to the divine providence, especially during periods of great darkness. What struck me about these letters was the insight they give us into the interior sufferings that these 18th century sisters underwent. Their sufferings were in many ways identical to the sufferings that Mother Theresa underwent throughout her life as the Superior of the Missionary Sisters of Charity. You can read all about that in a work that was published after her death: Come Be My Light: The Private Letters of Mother Theresa.

In many ways I find the content of Mother Theresa’s letters rather frightening. When she was a Loretto Sister, Mother Theresa lived a very normal spiritual life, normal for a sister, that is. She experienced a very close and intimate relationship with the Lord; she experienced moments of profound consolation, and moments of suffering, as is typical for those who live a spiritual life.

Before her death, we were told that on September 10th, 1946, while on a train to Darjeeling for an annual retreat, she experienced a call to leave the Loretto Sisters and tend to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta. But in fact, she experienced a series of interior locutions—a locution is an actual voice spoken and heard within one’s interior. The locutions continued for a year.

Shortly thereafter, she began to discuss the content of those locutions with her spiritual director, and then eventually he gave her permission to petition the Archbishop. It took a great deal of time and patience for her to get his permission to petition the Vatican for permission to leave the Loretto Sisters, but eventually she was given permission to begin her own congregation, to serve the poorest of the poor in Calcutta.

But it was right at the point, the moment she hit the streets that the “lights went out”, so to speak. She was suddenly engulfed in a painful and terrifying darkness. No longer did she experience that intimacy with God. It felt as if she was abandoned by God. It was a very distressing experience for her at the beginning; she really didn’t understand it at all. It was a permanent state that she describes as ice cold and dark; she felt as though she had no faith in and no love of God, and she felt no love from God. The key word here is “feeling”; of course she had faith and charity, for these are acts of the will, acts that occur in the highest part of the intellect. But no feelings accompanied that pure faith and charity. She was given a reprieve only once, during a weekend retreat. She experienced a tremendous warmth, and overwhelming experience of the love of God. But after the retreat was over, the darkness and the cold quickly returned. But it’s the distress that is easily detected in Mother Theresa’s letters that is very disconcerting. It was only after about 10 years that a new spiritual director was able to help her make sense out of it all.

In the midst of this icy cold darkness, she experienced a tremendous longing for God, a profound thirst for God. She always knew that her suffering, her darkness, her experience of alienation, was from God, caused by God and could be alleviated by God in an instant—this is what her short reprieve on retreat confirmed for her.

Now what Mother Theresa experienced was not unique to her; many of the Visitations Sisters of the 18th century also suffered that cold interior darkness, completely absent of any consoling insights that could help alleviate the feeling of alienation.

That’s what the gospel reading today brought to my mind. Jesus works his first miracle: he changes water into wine. But not just any water. This is the water used for purification; in this case there is the washing before the meal and the washing after the meal. The first washing is called “first waters”, the second is called “last waters”. Now children hate to clean themselves; they despise bathing. A mother has to force the child to bathe or shower; they are used to feeling unclean. By the time they are young adults, hopefully they have acquired the habit of cleanliness, so that they cannot go a day without bathing. But before acquiring that habit, bathing is uncomfortable. The water is at a different temperature, and the conflict one experiences in one’s body is very uncomfortable.

This “first waters” and “last waters” point to the experience of suffering that comes to all of us at the beginning of the spiritual life, and at the end.

A conversion experience is very much like falling in love. It’s exhilarating at first, it’s new and exciting, but after a time, the experience “gets old”. Like anything, the excitement wears off. And that’s very normal. Falling in love is not genuine love anyways. It’s actually a very self-centered experience. When I love something because it makes me feel good, or because I find it exciting and exhilarating, what I really love is myself: I love it for what it does for me. There’s nothing wrong with loving certain foods for the pleasure they bring, but when we love another human person for what that person does for me, it’s myself that I love first and foremost.

But when that good feeling and excitement begin to wear off, this is where we see what’s left of our love, what it’s really made of. Can I love this person when doing so is no longer exciting and pleasant? If I cannot, I never really loved that person in the first place. But if I can and do love that person regardless of how he or she makes me feel, that alone is genuine love. Every married couple gets tested, and those tests get repeated all throughout one’s married life.

But the spiritual life also gets tested. God puts us to the test. There comes a point when prayer, devotions, going to Mass, etc, suddenly lose their appeal, they are no longer exciting and exhilarating and full of the consolation, warmth, and sweetness that were there at the beginning. What’s left? What’s God doing at this point? He’s inquiring of us: Do you love me for what I do for you? Or do you love me for my sake, because I am worthy of all love and devotion?

At this point, many people fall away from the faith, just as many couples split up, or seek a new and exciting relationship. They think that married life is supposed to be about non-stop enjoyment and exhilaration.

That first test is “first waters”. But then there is “second waters” (washing after the meal), and this is what Mother Theresa was experiencing—hers went on for quite some time, however. But what this means for us is that for those of us who have passed through that first “dark night”, who have passed that first test and the smaller tests that are part of the spiritual life, there’s probably going to be another final darkness that is the prelude to our final transformation into a new creature, into a glorified citizen of heaven. “God created wine to cheer the hearts of men”, says the psalms. Christ changed water used for purification into the finest wine, and this wine symbolizes the complete joy of the heavenly banquet. It is a joy comparable to being drunk on the best wine. But before that can happen, we will all need to be purified. Because we eventually discover that we are not as selfless as we once thought we were. There’s a tremendous amount of self-love within us; a great deal of delusion we have about ourselves. It’s difficult for us to taste our own nothingness, to experience ourselves as stone cold jars filthy from the impurities of the world. But it is so necessary to learn to delight in nothing other than the Lord. We cannot do that on our own, we need the Lord to bring us to that point, and so our last waters, so to speak, our final purification, will probably be darker than anything we will have experienced previously in our lives.

And there’s nothing for us to do but to abandon ourselves to it; to learn to love the experience of our own nothingness. Mary knew her own nothingness very early on in her life. In her Magnificat, she says: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for He has looked upon the nothingness of his handmaiden.” She had no delight in herself, which is precisely why her soul magnified the Lord. When we begin to experience the final waters, that final darkness, we need only rejoice in what’s coming in order not to despair—but that too might not be possible; the Lord might cause us to forget even that, as part of our darkness. But this darkness is not a sign that something is profoundly wrong; rather, it is a sign that something is profoundly right, that we are very close to achieving the consummation of the spiritual life, which will be unimaginably greater than the consummation of a couple’s marriage.

Finally, let us take note of the structure or pattern of this gospel. We know that Mary intercedes for us, as she did for that young couple; she is very aware of our sufferings (because she loves us more than she loves herself, as a good mother does), and she points them out to her son. And then she gives us a very simple directive: “Do whatever he tells you”. They couldn’t make any sense out of his request to fill the stone jars with water: these were jars for ceremonial washing, what do they have to do with wine? You can’t put wine in them, nothing could be more repugnant than the thought of wine going into those cold and dirty jars. But they followed his orders blindly, and the result was a party and a joy beyond anything they could have expected.

Whenever we experience that darkness, we just need to obey, do whatever Christ tells us, taste the darkness and filth of our own soul and turn our gaze towards him, and if we cannot see him because he is behind the clouds, we just need to trust that he is there; the sun never disappears from the sky, it just hides behind the clouds, and those clouds never last forever.