In 1946, while traveling by train into the foothills of the Himalayas for her annual retreat, the 36-year old woman who would become known as Mother Teresa received her call—in the form of a voice, appointing her to the task of working with “the poorest of the poor.” It was a miraculous occasion, one that filled her with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. But then that sense was almost as suddenly withdrawn. Apparently for the remainder of her life.
To the great surprise of the world, after her death, letters she had written to her confessor began to surface, revealing a spiritual despondency that is difficult to imagine, let alone endure. “I find no words,” she lamented, “to express the depths of the darkness.”
She wrote of a silence and emptiness so great, of “terrible darkness within” that echoed Christ’s words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In time, Mother Teresa came to identify with the very abandonment that Jesus Himself experienced—the same sense of abandonment she also came to identify with the poor and sick that she and her sisters served every day.
The word desert derives from this very essence—literally meaning an abandoned place, forsaken, deserted: dēsertum being the Latin root of the word. Yet ironically, as Henri Nouwen observed, it was where God’s absence was most loudly expressed—on Calvary—that God’s presence was actually most profoundly revealed.
The Desert Fathers knew this. In fact, they viewed the desert—a wasteland that could offer man nothing—as having supreme value in the eyes of God, a place of solitude and withdrawal from the world to be alone—utterly alone—in their pursuit of Christ.
While these early Christian ascetics chose the desolation of the desert, most of us would likely consider the desert a place to be avoided. At all costs. We’re given more to green pastures.
But sometimes the desert comes to us. What then? There are times, as Mother Teresa experienced, when God withdraws the sense of His presence.
Why would He do that? Why, when we’re promised a life of joy and fullness, does the dark night descend like a curtain, leaving us without the consolation we so desperately desire, if not dreadfully need? Oddly, it is a state experienced frequently by Thomas à Kempis—and countless of the saints who went before and after him.
“If Thou withdraw Thy presence,” he pleaded, “Thy servant will not be able to run in the way of Thy commandments; but he will rather bend his knees, and smite his breast, because it is not as it was yesterday and the day before, when Thy candle shined upon his head, and when he was sheltered beneath the covering of Thy wings from the assaults of temptation . . . How can I bear this wretched life, unless Thy grace and Thy mercy sustain me? Hide not Thy face from me; delay not to visit me; withdraw not Thy consolation, lest my soul become as parched land before Thee.”
The withdrawal of Spirit is not, however, a sign of God’s absence. “The presence of God,” Nouwen explains, “is so much beyond the human experience of being near to another that it is quite easily misperceived as absence.” It is not God who disappears, but only our ability to perceive His presence. Even in the depths of our tribulations, it is the Lord who goes before us. We shall never be abandoned by God. He promises to be with us; He will not leave or forsake us. “Do not fear or be dismayed,” the Scripture assures.
God likewise answers in à Kempis’ colloquy: “Do not think that you are entirely forsaken, although for a time I may have sent some trouble upon you, or may have withdrawn some consolation, for so it happens to those who are traveling towards the Kingdom of Heaven. And without doubt it is more expedient for you and the rest of My servants, to be tried in various ways, than to have everything your own way. I know your secret thoughts, and that it is very conducive to your salvation, that you should sometimes suffer dryness of spirit, lest perhaps you should be puffed up by prosperity, and flatter yourself that you are what you are not.”
Bishop Richard Challoner, our 18th Century translator of the Imitation of Christ text, reflected upon these writings, and penned a prayer:
O my God, as often as Thou wilt vouchsafe to exercise me by humiliations and trials, I will endeavor, with the assistance of thy grace, to adore thy divine justice, to acknowledge that all the blows I receive proceed from the hand of the best of all fathers, and bear no proportion to the punishments which my sins have deserved; to submit with humility to thy correction, and to esteem it as the effect of thy bounty, and as a salutary lesson that Thou givest me. Amen.