I readily acknowledge that the limits of my own perception and my presuppositions color my experience. I'm no authority on what can and cannot happen in the universe. Even so, I am much more inclined to experience God in small things: beauty; unlikely spiritual transformation; a pennant race. But I just don't encounter the supernatural or I don't interpret it as such if I do. This I call my experience of "God's silence" and am convinced that many, many Christians experience this silence more often than not. . . . even if they don't talk about it. This topic is one of the major motivating factors behind my new book: Near Christianity.
Today on NPR I learned that Pope Francis will declare Mother Teresa a saint. This short podcast is worth a listen: "How The Catholic Church Documented Mother Teresa's 2 Miracles." This, of course, means that the Church must verify at least two miraculous encounters associated with Teresa. I am not the sort of person that rejects the experience of others out-of-hand as fraud, fiction, or foolishness just because I do not understand it. And so I find this story intellectually fascinating rather than intellectually repulsive. This story is even more fascinating to me because Teresa's journals reveal that she (for almost 50 years) experienced God's silence.
[James] Martin, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, notes that in a posthumously published collection of her private journals and letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the nun so widely revered for her spiritual purity acknowledged that she did not personally feel God's presence. "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss," . . . . Martin says Mother Teresa dealt with such pain by telling God, "Even though I don't feel you, I believe in you."The NPR story then goes on to describe Teresa's sense of numbness as "doubt." But I think that we ought to differentiate a lack of feeling of God's presence (what I am calling "silence") from doubt. The two can be related. I imagine that doubt can lead to a lack of experience and vice versa. But God's silence and doubt of God are not the same in my experience.
I talk more about this in the book, but allow me to make three points. (1) I used to think that my experience of God's silence was a deficit in me, as if I required fixing. I now see this as a valuable difference among people of faith—one that contributes to a necessary diversity. (2) We do Teresa a disservice in collapsing doubt and God's silence into a single "problem." I see St. Teresa as an exemplar of faith. She is someone who could experience (even if uncomfortably) God's silence for 50 years and remain faithful to her mission. (3) What a tragedy that Teresa had to keep her experience of God a secret for all of those years. Surely there is a place for God's silence in the Psalms. Even Jesus experienced God's silence. Why are Christians so reluctant to discuss this openly? What a loss to others who might have benefited from Teresa's witness.
I admire the Jules Winnfields of the world—folks who encounter the Divine differently than I do. Who am I to begrudge such a transformational and powerful experience? But I also admire saints who remain faithful because there is something bigger at stake than one's own experience.
Anthony Le Donne, PhD is the author of
Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.