Virtually everyone admires Saint Teresa (it will take me a little while to get used to dropping the “Mother”!), and rightly so. But that, too, is remarkable. As Pope Francis said at the canonization ceremony, she forced world leaders to confront the “crimes of poverty they themselves created.” And yet she was universally loved!
But the thing that strikes me most strongly was her prolonged “dark night of the soul.” Many Christian writers have talked about the suffering that great saints often experience when God seems to withdraw from them—that is the “dark night.” In Saint Teresa’s case, the dark night apparently lasted decades. Year after year she did God’s work without feeling a strong sense of God’s presence. In my view, her long dark night makes her equally long, dedicated service all the more impressive.
There is a lesson in that for all of us. Part of the lesson, of course, is that we should all do our best to help the weakest, the most vulnerable, the people who suffer. That is the Christian life she modeled. But the second part of the lesson, which Saint Teresa only really taught after her death, when the publication of her journals revealed her long dark night, is that Christianity is not defined by how we feel.
Feeling God’s presence, experiencing a spiritual high, is a wonderful gift. But our relationship with God is not based on a continuous spiritual high just like our relationship with a spouse is not based on a continuous adolescent crush. Genuine love usually offers enormous emotional rewards. But genuine love is more defined by a continuous act of the will, a continuous decision to remain in relationship, a continuous commitment to the hard work of living out a relationship. The true test of love is whether it can endure the ebbing of the emotional rewards. If so, the emotional rewards usually flow back. But, as Saint Teresa teaches us, true love can endure even if the emotional rewards do not flood back. For that lesson, coming from a person of such obvious sanctity, we should all be grateful.