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"Behold a pale horse": Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the "experience of nothingness".

THE PROBLEM ADDRESSED in this article is "the experience of nothingness," the feeling of meaninglessness, both as it appears in the experience of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and as her experience speaks to that phenomenon in the world today.

Mother Teresa, as is now well known, suffered the dark night of the soul for almost fifty years. After the profound consolations by which the Lord drew her into the ministry to "the poorest of the poor," Mother Teresa suffered a total darkness of the soul until her death, a gift of "the good God," a perfect identification with Jesus in his abandonment upon the Cross for sinners and for the poor. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, believes that this darkness went well beyond the purificatory dark night that most mystics suffer. He believes it was a reparatory darkness, a darkness that helped to complete Jesus's sufferings on the Cross for us sinners, a painful darkness by which he, in his abandonment by the Father, walked among the poor of Calcutta and of the world. (2) "In God's design," writes Father Kolodiejchuk, "[Mother Teresa] was allowed to experience some of the dreadful reality of a life without God, which she likened to hell, the consequence of the ultimate rejection of His love and mercy. This experience fueled her unquenchable thirst to save souls by helping each person to know God and His love, and to love Him in return." (3)

The nature of Mother Teresa's darkness can be gathered from the following quotation in a letter of hers to her confessor on September 3, 1959.
  They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of
  God--they would go through all that suffering if they had just a
  little hope of possessing God.--In my soul I feel just that terrible
  pain of loss--of God not wanting me--of God not being God--of
  God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies--I
  have been told to write everything). That darkness that surrounds
  me on all sides--I can't lift my soul to God--no light or inspiration
  enters my soul.--I speak of love for souls--of tender love for
  God--words pass through my lips--and I long with a deep longing
  to believe in them.--What do I labour for? If there be no
  God--there can be no soul.--If there is no soul then Jesus--You
  also are not true.--Heaven, what emptiness--not a single thought
  of Heaven enters my mind--for there is no hope.--I am afraid to
  write all these terrible things that pass in my soul.--They must
  hurt You [Jesus]. (4)

Mother Teresa here compares her spiritual state to the state of the reprobate in hell: the state of the loss of God and of the accompanying pain. She goes further and states that she feels the pain of not believing in God, and that she questions the meaning of her great work in the slums. In fact, she is describing the spiritual condition not only of the Catholic, Hindu, and Muslim poor of Calcutta, but also the spiritual desolation of modern Western man.

Later in her vocation, Mother Teresa was to recognize that she had a mission as much to the poverty of the soul of Western man as she did to the poor of the Indian slums. (5) She was already moving toward this point of view in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo on December 11, 1979.
  I ... [visited] a home where they had all these old parents. ...
  I saw in that home that they had everything ... but everybody
  was looking towards the door. ... And I turned to the sister and
  I asked:... "How is it that these people who have everything
  here, why are they all looking towards the door, why are they
  not smiling?" I am so used to the smiles on our people, even the
  dying ones smile. And she said: "This is nearly every day. ...
  They are hoping that a son or daughter will come to visit them.
  They are hurt because they are forgotten."... I was surprised in
  the West to see so many young boys and girls given into drugs,
  and I tried to find out why. ... "Because there is no one in the
  family to receive them." Father and mother are so busy they have no
  time. ... These are things that break peace. ... But I feel the
  greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a
  direct war, a direct killing, a direct murder by the mother
  herself. ... Many people are very, very concerned with children
  in India, with children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe
  of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying
  deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the
  greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill
  her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me?"
  There is nothing between. (6)

She had made the move to this new point of view completely by the following October in her speech at the Bishops' Synod in Rome.
  Do we know who our own poor are? Do we know our neighbor,
  the poor of our own area? It is so easy for us to talk and talk
  about the poor of other places. Very often we have the suffering,
  we have the lonely, we have the people--old, unwanted,
  feeling miserable--and they are near us and we don't even know
  them. We have no time even to smile at them. Tuberculosis and cancer
  [are] not the great diseases. I think a much greater disease is to
  be unwanted, unloved. The pain that these people suffer is very
  difficult to understand, to penetrate. I think this is what our
  people all over the world are going through, in every family, in
  every home. This suffering is being repeated in every man, woman
  and child. I think Christ is undergoing his Passion again. And it
  is for you and for me to help them--to be Veronica, to be Simon
  [of Cyrene] to them. (7)

"Thus, Christ undergoes his Passion in this age even more in the unwanted and unloved than in the victims of tuberculosis and cancer. Throughout the world, these psychospiritual diseases of post-modernity afflict man, woman, and child. Grown children forget their aged parents. Parents in their prime are too busy for their teenaged children. The unborn are murdered. All three break man's peace, that is, the point where "human suffering meets the mystery of faith and love." The worst of these is abortion, which breaks the deepest bond of love and faith in human nature, and thus makes any killing possible. (8)

And so, the "pale criminal," prophesied by Friedrich Nietzsche, now stalks among us. Nietzsche's pale criminal "thirsted after the bliss of the knife." He murdered, simply to murder, and then recoiled from the knowledge of his motive by stealing from his victim. Thus, he gave his bourgeois judges a hook upon which to hang a motive they could understand, though the pale criminal had acted because he was sick with the diseases of modernity, sick with the rationality and order and efficiency of bourgeois society. Sick and "overcome by that which is evil today," he wanted "to hurt with that which hurt him," with a shallow, efficient reason emptied both of sentiment and truth. Thus, the criminal was left only with his contempt for his judges. Yet in this contempt, Nietzsche believed, he achieved his "greatest experience," a freedom from happiness, reason, virtue, justice, pity. He had become the "overman"; he was "lightning" and "frenzy." Thus, the pale criminal simply mistook the bliss of the knife for the condition of the burning, frenzied overman. That is Nietzsche's message here, the message of a godless humanity liberating itself from modernity as Nietzsche knew it, from Protestantism as institutionalized in the society of post-Napoleonic, capitalistic Northern Europe. And so, Nietzsche pushed beyond Dostoevsky, whose own nihilist assassin, Rodion Raskolnikov, found his apotheosis in Christ, once his godlike pretensions were stripped away. Yet Nietzsche's analysis remains. We hurt with what hurts us, with the same shallow, efficient reason emptied both of sentiment and truth that misled both Raskolnikov and the pale criminal.

Nietzsche's existentialism was one of three great theoretical sytems that ushered in postmodernity. (9) The other two were Auguste Comte's sociology and Karl Marx's communism. All three are closely examined in Father Henri de Lubac's The Drama of Atheist Humanism. (10) Each of these philosophies was godless, and each was alienating for humanity. The experience of life "beyond good and evil" left man feeling cast or thrown into a meaningless world. Social engineering warehoused the faceless poor in ugly housing blocks, and organized the middle class for highly efficient productivity and consumption. Central economic planning and the dictatorship of the proletariat deprived many peoples of the world not only of political freedom, but also of any initiative in their personal lives.

Thus, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the epoch of postmodernity, the time in humanity's history when man thought that he had obtained the divine freedom to create heaven on earth, but found instead that he had only created the conditions in which the bliss of the knife could flourish. The murderer of Crime and Punishment and the terrorists of The Demons were discovered to be one. Or, as the great Scottish thriller-writer Helen MacInnes observed in 1978, "[Terrorists] came in all dimensions: groups of political fanatics with blind obedience and perverted social conscience; the trained assassins tracking down their victim in an Austrian village; a boy in a quiet Washington street killing on vicious impulse. All of them, however different they seemed, bent on destruction. All of them, however motivated, with total contempt for human life." (11) Human beings, being merely rational animals, though with an immortal soul, cannot become overmen, ubermenschen. If human beings forsake God, thus losing sight of their nature and forgetting about good and evil, they surely do conceive a contempt, but it is not the great contempt romantically envisioned by Nietzsche. Rather, it is the total contempt for human life that Miss MacInnes describes. This contempt, it seems to me, arises precisely out of postmodernity's sense of meaninglessness and alienation from God, nature, men, and human institutions. And so, Christ undergoes his Passion once again, though in a particular way now in the unwanted and unloved. The psychospiritual diseases of postmodernity afflict man, woman, and child. In the midst of our hallucinations, we postmoderns looked, "and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth." (12) The culture of death had been unloosed upon the earth. The old bourgeois codes had been replaced, not with a renewed Christian morality, or even with the philosophical ethics of the ancient pagans, but with the amorality of material consumption and an indifference to human life when it has no purchasing power.

In the midst of the "waste howling wilderness" (13) of postmodernity, some thinkers tried to confect an ethic from their experience of nothingness, Albert Camus, the Algerian-French existentialist philosopher, perhaps most famously. In his terrifying 1942 novel The Stranger (or perhaps The Alien), the young atheist Meursault purposelessly kills an Arab youth on a beach in the glare of a flat, oppressive sun, the image of a dead god. Awaiting execution, he is visited by a priest, to whose questions and exhortations he responds violently. He sees one fact only, his own death, "blowing toward [him], all [his] life long, from the years that were to come." This was a "certainty" against which the priest's teachings and hopes were nugatory, as were "the deaths of others, or a mother's love, or his God: or the way a man decides to live." Life was simply and perfectly meaningless. (14)

That evening, alone in his cell, Meursault reached what Camus probably thought of as an ubermenschlich freedom and peace. These are the last words of the book.
  It was as if the great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied
  me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its
  signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart
  open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so
  like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been
  happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for
  me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the
  day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators
  and that they should greet me with howls of execration. (15)

It may seem odd that such desolation should be the starting point of ethical thinking. However, if happiness is the end of the moral life, then Meursault had found an ethic in "the blind indifference of the universe," and in his complete isolation from humanity and its institutions.

In a book entitled The Experience of Nothingness published in 1970, with a revised and expanded version issued in 1998, Michael Novak explored the sociophilosophical literature on nothingness, and attempted to derive the postulates of an ethical system from his explorations. (The postulates were honesty, freedom, courage, and community. (16)) Although a Catholic, Novak was writing from the standpoint of the atheistic academy of the 1960s, in an attempt to provide a positive basis for "the new consciousness." (17) Camus was a principal influence on his thinking in this book. The experience of nothingness Novak viewed as the intellectual and emotional alienation we feel when we recognize and acknowledge the finitude and consequent meaninglessness of our beliefs, what Novak calls our "myths." (18) "Somehow the European hungers to possess his own being, to be the cause of his own existence, to be God. When he discovers that his own being is partial and invaded by nonbeing, he feels an icy threat. But the experience of nothingness in America is more often a peculiar and quiet vulnerability, a dead stillness at the center of activity, a lack of drive, an ignorance of Being and Life and Faith, a bafflement that a future that should have been so lovely turns out so bleak. The American experience of nothingness is a certain sadness." (19) Notice Novak's emphasis here on being. For the European, the experience of nothingness, of darkness, of meaninglessness, results from the acknowledgement of our possession of finite being. We do not possess being its elf, but possess being "invaded by nonbeing." For the American, this experience results from baffled dreams, from the insubstantial nature of our activity. In either case, the cause is really the same: the painful feeling of our finitude, with no countervailing belief in transcendent being.

Both Camus and Novak fail, in my view, to establish a firm ground for ethical action. One whose life has been disintegrated by the experience of nothingness and who thinks that all beliefs and institutions are inauthentic and restrictive, can logically seek either to overthrow society violently or to escape into a commune. (Both happened during the 1960s here and abroad.) If that contingent condition that Novak describes as being "invaded by nonbeing" is all that is, then all moral action must be contingent. The only ethical system available will be "situational ethics," which, one recalls, was another fad of the 1960s. What enervates existentialist ethics, therefore, is the lack of the very reality that existentialism rejects. The existentialist sees the contingent natural realm, he experiences the manifold (the plural), he has opinions, he acts by habit; but he does not know transcendent being, unity, truth, and goodness, although he must long for them at some level of his person. (20) Nor can he therefore recognize their negations, namely, void, chaos, falsehood, and evil. That is to say, he recognizes neither God nor Satan, neither good nor evil. His ethics are the mirror of the "benign indifference of the universe."

Although Novak's experiment fails, in my judgment, nevertheless I do agree with him that the experience of nothingness is general in the world today, and I sympathize with his desire to lead men to the ground of moral action. In fact, I also believe, with him, that philosophy has a role to play. It is certain to me that Plato's image of the cave is apropos today. You recall that Plato describes humankind as chained at the bottom of a cave in darkness. Almost the only light is provided by a fire burning on a platform behind and above the men, and all they can see are shadows on the back wall of the cave, shadows cast by puppets being borne back and forth in front of the fire behind them. That is all they know of reality: shadows cast by puppets in the gloom of a cave. However, one of these half-blind people is dragged out of the cave by philosophical force, and introduced to the sunlight and to the realities above, first as reflections in pools, then the things themselves growing on the earth, and finally, the heavenly realities beyond the earth. The process is painful, but finally rewarding, since men are made for the real, and not for shadows, for light, not for darkness. (21)

It seems to me that philosophy can still play this role in our dark and unreal world, not a positivist or pragmatic philosophy, of course, but a genuine metaphysics. Critical for such a philosophical paideia or culture, which will lead men out of the dark cave of contingency, plurality, opinion, and habit, will be the rehabilitation of reason. For us postmoderns, the range of reason seems limited to theoretical and practical science, to mathematics and to technique. Reason thus seems to be almost inhuman, while passion is prized as evidence of genuine humanity. But reason is what distinguishes us from the other animals, and it is the rational soul that embraces God, who is Truth, with holy affections. A rediscovery, a recollection, of reason's capacities is tantamount, in my view, to a rediscovery of what it is to be human, what it is to be a rational animal with an immortal soul. (22)

Another paideia exists, too, and more of us are introduced to the transcendent by this than by philosophy. It is a moral paideia. People experience the disintegration and torment caused by postmodern freedom, and discover the full extent of their conscience. They are compelled finally to admit that they are genuinely unhappy. (Not everyone can be a Meursault!) As Blessed John Paul II stated in his great encyclical Evangelium vitae, "All the conditioning and efforts to enforce silence fail to stifle the voice of the Lord echoing in the conscience of every individual: it is always from the intimate sanctuary of the conscience that a new journey of love, openness and service to human life can begin." (23) You see, John Paul gave a name to certain aspects of postmodernity: it is "the culture of death"; and the only way out, the only way to enter into "the culture of life," (24) is to learn again the lofty vocation of the rational soul, to rediscover the voice of God in the conscience, and to reach out for eternal happiness with what St. Bernard called the "two arms of the soul," the intellect and the will. (25)

However, as postmodern persons, Christians still resonate to the pitches that are being played by history today, even if in a different octave. In the world's octave, the experience of darkness and nothingness leaves people feeling unwanted and alone, and leads logically to the bliss of the knife. Christians too have the experience of darkness and nothingness; but in God's octave, this experience becomes redemptive. Not many Christians will be chosen to bear Christ's abandonment on the Cross in lifelong reparative darkness, as Mother Teresa was. Nevertheless, in the Church there is a long tradition of holy tears, of compunction, of what the Greek Fathers called penthos. (26) Over against the "sorrow of the world [that] worketh death" of which St. Paul speaks, and which exists in unbelieving persons "who through fear of death [are] all their lifetime subject to bondage," (27) there exists a "godly sorrow." (28) Abba Isaiah once counseled: "Brother, mount a vigilant guard against the spirit which brings sadness to a man. This sets off numerous diabolical mechanisms, which will not stop until your strength is sapped. Sadness according to God, on the other hand, is a joy, the joy of seeing yourself in God's will. ... Sadness according to God does not weigh on the soul, but says to it, 'Do not be afraid! Up! Return!' God knows that man is weak, and strengthens him." (29)

It seems to me that godly sorrow, which can arise from various events or conditions, may be experienced in a form peculiar to our age. In 2003, when Mother Teresa's spiritual darkness was just becoming known, Professor Carol Zaleski argued that her darkness, while standing in the long Christian apophatic tradition, had taken a peculiarly modern--I would say postmodern--form. "In the history of Christian theology and spirituality," wrote Zaleski, "there have been many accounts of divine darkness, with a host of different implications. ... Yet only in the modern period has the dark night of the soul taken the form of radical doubt, doubting not only one's own state of grace, but God's promises and even God's existence." (30) Thus, just as a spiritual heroine such as Mother Teresa may experience the dark night of the soul in a way peculiar to our age, so perhaps may less heroic Christians experience godly sorrow--and offer it up--as a sanctification of the psychospiritual diseases of postmodernity. Therefore, just as in Gregorian chant the sadness of the ancient modes is raised up into God's service by joyful melodic lines, so the sadness of our era may be raised up into the joy of knowing ourselves in God's will by penthos, by compunction, by godly sorrow, to our benefit, and the benefit of our whole tormented world.


(1.) A version of this paper was delivered to the Fine Arts Society at Franciscan University of Steubenville January 29, 2010.

(2.) Col 1:24, quoted in Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta," ed. with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC (New York, 2007), 220. Fr. Kolodiejchuk cites (380, n. 59) Fr. R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Prelude of Eternal Life (St. Louis, 1948), vol. 2, 502-04, regarding the "reparatory night of the spirit."

(3.) Mother Teresa, op. cit. 250.

(4.) Ibid., 192-93.

(5.) Ibid., 290-91.

(6.) Ibid., 291-92.

(7.) Ibid., 296.

(8.) Ibid., 309, from Blessed John Paul II's speech at the Missionaries of Charity Home for the Dying in Calcutta on February 3, 1986.

(9.) follow the Halifax School in seeing Modernity as having its sources in the Late Middle Ages and as achieving its first complete expression in Descartes. Postmodernity I see as coming into being already in the Young Hegelians. For a short, straightforward account of this position see James Doull, "An Introduction to James Doull--Freedom and History: From Antiquity to Post-modernity," in Philosophy and Freedom, The Legacy of James Doull, ed. David G. Peddle and Neil G. Robertson (Toronto, 2003), esp. 12-16. This account of Modernity and Post-modernity differs substantially from the account given in literature and the arts. See, e.g., Norman F. Cantor, Twentieth-Century Culture: Modernism to Deconstruction (New York, 1988) passim.

(10.) Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, tr. Edith M. Riley, Anne Englund Nash, and Mark Sebanc (San Francisco, 1995; orig. pub. in French, 1944).

(11.) Helen MacInnes (Mrs. Gilbert Highet), Prelude to Terror (New York, 1978), 348.

(12.) Rv 6:8.

(13.) Dt 32:10.

(14.) Albert Camus, The Stranger, tr. Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1946; orig. pub. in French 1942), 151-52.

(15.) Ibid., 154.

(16.) Michael Novak, The Experience of Nothingness, revised & expanded version (New Brunswick, NJ: 1998[1970]), 57-58.

(17.) Ibid., 116-20.

(18.) Ibid., 19-24.

(19.) Ibid., 8.

(20.) Cf. Augustine, De Trinitate, 13.4.7.

(21.) Plato, Republic 7 (514a-16b).

(22.) Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 1P6 & 4P4. See also Wayne J. Hankey, "Philosophical and Theological Foundations for Augustinian Theology in the Future," in Augustinian Spirituality and the Charism of the Augustinians, ed. John E. Rotelle, OSA (Villanova, PA: 1995), 32-45.

(23.) John Paul, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) (New York, 1995), Vatican translation, 1.24.

(24.) Ibid., 1.28.

(25.) Bernard of Clairvaux, Ep. 18.3: "duobus animae brachiis," in J. Leclercq and H. Rochais, ed., Sancti Bernardi Opera, Vol.VII, Epistolae I, Corpus Epistolarum 1-180 (Rome, 1974), 68.

(26.) See Irenee Hausherr, Penthos The Doctrine of Compunction in the Christian East, tr. Anselm Hufstader (Kalamazoo, MI: 1982). Penthos is not the experience of darkness. However, it is, according to the Greek Fathers, the necessary original step, as well as the necessary accompaniment, of the ascent to God. See Hausherr's ch. 9, passim.

(27.) Heb 2:15.

(28.) 2 Cor 7:10.

(29.) Hausherr, op. cit. 141. Perhaps godly sorrow was the source of the joy that all found in Mother Teresa, even while she suffered her darkness.

(30.) Carol Zaleski, "The Dark Night of Mother Teresa," First Things, May 2003, retrieved November 9, 2009, from
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Author:Smith, Richard Upsher, Jr.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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