Monday, March 8, 2010

The Dark Night and The Wheel of Faith

Mother Teresa was a humanitarian and a role model for servitude. But despite her great works and inspiring life, she lacked one thing she desperately wanted. 

What could this holy woman have longed for? Many of her admirers will be surprised, even shocked by the answer.  For most of the last 50 years of her life. she was haunted by the absence of God.

Mother Teresa describes this absence in a letter she wrote to Fr. Van der Peet:
Jesus has a very special love for you, [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.
This melancholy side of Mother Teresa was poignantly revealed in the book Come Be My Light consisting  mainly of her personal correspondence. As described in a Time Magazine article:
Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.
 We can best understand Dark Night experiences through their relationship with the faith framework of John Fowler, author of Stages of Faith (1981). John Fowler described seven Stages of Faith starting with Infancy/Undifferentiated Faith, where our faith journey begins,  and culminating in Universal Faith.  Here are my brief summaries of his faith milestones:
  • Infancy-Undifferentiated Faith: This is the infant's pre-faith phase. The infant is experiencing trust/faith through parental relationships. There is no distinct concept of God..
  • Intuitive-Projective Faith: Faith is "fantasy-filled" experience in which adult faith rituals, mores, and myths are observed, absorbed, and imitated. God is Superman.
  • Mythic-Literal Faith: Faith is a literal interpretation of the myths , beliefs, and observances that symbolize belonging to the community. God is The Old Man in the Sky who grants wishes and makes judgments.
  • Synthetic-Conventional Faith: Faith is a touchstone in a highly complex world. Faith defines the seeker's values, but the seeker does not try to put these in a coherent intellectual framework. God is a close companion and source of strength, wisdom, and direction.
  • Individuative-Reflective Faith: Faith involves a "critical reflection" on a system of faith  The seeker sees symbols metaphorically and looks more internally for value-decisions. Ego is central. God is diffuse, more like Tillich's "Ground of Being."
  • Conjunctive Faith: Faith sees all things as connected. Ego is subordinated to the reality and beauty of the present moment. God is a mystical presence. 
  • Universalizing Faith: Faith involves, as Fowler says,  "a disciplined, activist incarnation - a making real and tangible - of the imperatives of absolute love and justice of which [Conjunctive Faith] has only partial apprehensions." As Luke writes (17:21)  "The Kingdom of God is within you."
Each of these stages is appropriate for a person at some time in his or her life. As a person grows in personal awareness, a person also grows in spiritual awareness. When this happens, a stage of faith that was once deeply meaningful can become hollow and dry. When that happens, faith ends and the Dark Night begins.

In illustrating the relationship between the Fowler's Stages of Faith and St. John's Dark Night, I make four changes to Fowler's stages.

First, I show them as a cycle rather than as a stack. Fowler says that you ascend from lower stages to higher stages. I don't see the stages as higher or lower, just different. For this reason, too, I call these phases rather than stages.

Second, I have added an eighth phase which I have merely called "?", which I can only describe as  the fully realized divine presence that characterized Jesus, Buddha, and other great spiritual figures.

Third, I have left open the possibility that the path is not a single journey, but a repeating journey.

And finally, I have merged the Stages of Faith with the Dark Night. I call the resulting diagram the Wheel of Faith. Notice I have used Fowler's labels for the different phases.

When one outgrows a faith phase, there are three possibilities:
  • One can get lost in the Dark Night.
  • One can find one's way to the next phase in the wheel.
  • One can drop out of the wheel altogether.
The Wheel of Faith is a potential roadmap for Spiritual Direction. I see a Spiritual Director as a guide through the Wheel of Faith. Let's consider how Sally, a Spiritual Director, might help David, one of her directees is his journey through the wheel.

Sally is always in partnership with David and The Divine Presence, but her exact role depends on where he is on the wheel and his individual journey. When David is in a comfortable place, she may nurture him and encourages deeper explorations of his current phase. When David has outgrown his current phase, Sally may provide support through his Dark Night. As David gropes his way through the Dark Night, Sally may help guide him to the next phase.  And as David enters the new terra incognita, Sally may introduce some touchstones to help him regain his grounding. Through it all, Sally is a safety net to protect David from falling out of the wheel altogether.

As Fowler points out, personal growth often triggers spiritual growth. In Mother Teresa's case, her Dark Night started when she left a relatively comfortable life style and was thrust into the chaos of Calcutta. Suddenly she was confronted with poverty, illness, and death that was unprecedented in her life.

Mother Teresa's experience was similar to that of the Buddha.  He was 29 when he left his privileged Disneyland life and confronted illness, old age, and death for the first time. This precipitated a multi-year journey through the Dark Night ending with his enlightenment. Perhaps even Jesus' 40 days in the desert had some Dark Nights. The Dark Night is not limited to any particular faith tradition.

The Dark Night is an important part of our Journey of Faith. It may be triggered by our own major life changes. Whenever they occur, they mark our spiritual transitions. Whether we are seeking enlightenment, the Kingdom of God, or Nirvana, our path will probably take us through some Dark Nights. When we encounter them, it will help to have a friend.

Pax Christi,
Roger Sessions

Photo Credit: Mat Sheridan (Shared under Creative Commons License)

This article is copyright (2010) by Roger Sessions. Please do not reprint without permission. Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. I simply know that God IS when I feel, see, experience love.

    Sometimes my faith is that simple.