Good Friday: The Dark Night of the Soul
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “E′lo-i, E′lo-i, la′ma sabach-tha′ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33-34)
Today - Good Friday - marks the crucifixion of Christ. His brutal death included crying out to God and asking “why have you forsaken me?” After suffering the pain of crucifixion, the Gospel of John confirms Jesus’ last words, “It is finished” (19:30).
In Christian tradition, the three days between Maundy Thursday and Easter morning are known as the Triduum. Three days committed to prayer - a reminder to all that for a time darkness triumphed. The three days of Paschal Triduum are committed to prayer, a willingness to spiritually enter into the darkness, and reflection about the saving acts of grace extended to humanity through Christ’s death on the cross.
For many spiritual saints - this darkness - the finality of death and separation from God - can seem a regular part of religious life. St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul about his own spiritual crisis and his experience of separation from God. The Christian world was rocked in 2003 when word began to circulate a few years after Mother Teresa’s death that she too had a dark night that lasted almost 50 years over the course of her ministry in Calcutta and around the world.
What might we have to learn from this darkness? Mother Teresa prayed that God would allow her to “drink from the chalice” of his pain in order to better understand his suffering. And yet her writings and letters found in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light tell of how she cried out to God, “Father, I want to tell you how - how my soul longs for God - for him alone, how painful it is to be without Him.”
Some students and scholars of Mother Teresa assert that her great love and the power of her ministry were compelled by the struggles of her inner darkness. She entered into the most painful of earthly places and sought to bring refuge, comfort, and love. Many may not be familiar with Mother Teresa’s work in the Middle East in that regard.
In the middle of the Lebanese Civil War, in 1982, the Mother of the Calcutta slums went to Lebanon and rescued 100 orphans who were disabled and ill. Through prayer and determination, even in the midst of her own internal spiritual darkness, she was able to obtain a ceasefire and evacuate the children. In a conversation with a local priest in midst of the violence of the Lebanese Civil War, he exhorted her about how a rescue was not possible and this was her response:
"But Father, it is not an idea. I believe it is our duty. We must go and take the children one by one. Risking our lives is in the order of things. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. You see, I've always seen things in this light. A long time ago, when I picked up the first person (from a street in Calcutta), if I had not done it that first time, I would not have picked up 42,000 after that. One at a time, I think ... "
Through prayer, faith, and negotiations led by Philip Habib, US Special Envoy to the Middle East sent by President Ronald Reagan, a ceasefire was brokered and 100 of Lebanon’s most vulnerable children were saved.
What might we learn from the darkness of Mother Teresa? Even in the midst of spiritual dryness, she continued to be faithful to the mission and God’s calling on her life. Her steadfast faithfulness and obedience in responding to the needs of the least of these never wavered in the darkness. This is my prayer for all of us at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). Many times it feels like war rages all around us - from Ukraine to Syria. Humanitarian needs and economic devastation prevail from the streets of Lebanon to the shores of Gaza, to the famine in Yemen. We read about military campaigns and violence daily in the news coming out of the Middle East. In many ways, the world around us - including in the Middle East - is in the midst of a Dark Friday moment. Seemingly death has prevailed.
May we follow the lead of saints who have gone before us like Mother Teresa and maintain our steadfast commitment to doing good. Seeking out the presence of God even in the darkness where He cannot be found. May God go before us.
A prayer of Mother Teresa in the midst of the darkness:
I did not know that love could make one suffer so much...
of pain human but caused by the divine.
The more I want him, the less I am wanted.
I want to love him as he has not been loved,
and yet there is that separation, that terrible
emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.
They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because
of the loss of God...
In my soul I feel just this terrible pain of loss,
of God not wanting me, of God not being God,
of God not really existing.
That terrible longing keeps growing, and I feel as if
something will break in me one day.
Heaven from every side is closed.
I feel like refusing God.
Pray for me
that I may not turn a Judas to Jesus
in this painful darkness.
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). You can read more of her writings about Mother Teresa in her book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action.