February 21, 2021
The desert is a dry, barren, desolate place without life. This homily reflects on the lives of great saints who encountered an interior desert of the soul, but also experienced a purification and transformation through the graces of the Holy Spirit.
- 40 days of Lent is an invitation or call from God to experience the desert and to lead us to a closer union with Him.
- Mother Teresa’s letters reveal an experience of interior life that was empty of God in her soul and was tempted by many doubts.
- Therese, the Little Flower, experienced some dark temptations towards the end of her life.
- John of the Cross spoke on the dark night of the soul for purification.
- Satan takes advantage of our vulnerable desert periods to attack us and tell us that God doesn’t love us, that He rejects us or He doesn’t exist.
- The Holy Spirit leads us into the desert to bring us closer in union with God and to the Promise Land – Heaven.
The desert is important in scripture. The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert and remained there for 40 days, tempted by Satan. The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert. A surprising example of being in the desert is Mother Teresa. She had a series of mystical experiences of the Lord, in which He revealed to her that He wanted her to start a new congregation, the congregation of the Missionaries of Charity. She believed in these manifestations and she responded to the Lord, but the mystical experiences stopped. Mother Theresa was seen as so cheerful, with such a deep faith, but she was often experiencing an interior life which was very dry, very barren, without consolation, and being tempted by many doubts. It was a very difficult time, but she began to sense that she could take the sufferings as a sense of consolation because of the sacrifice she was offering. And so, she also went through a sense of abandonment.
So, with the example of Mother Teresa, we can see that the desert is a place of transformation, of change, of opportunity. It’s a death, but a death which leads to union with God. As we begin Lent, it is our invitation to enter into the desert. Lent this year is a very trying, hard time, but can also be a purification, a place of transformation on the way to union with God.
I want to give this homily and not just for you all who are present, but also for those who are unable to be here today and will be listening to this. I began preparing a summary two weeks ago, which was before all the stuff happened, so I wasn’t focused on that. But what I do focus on maybe has a relationship with that. The spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by satan. This is a mysterious moment because it is talking about something in which the devil is attacking Jesus, and yet, it’s the Holy Spirit who’s led Him into that situation. And it’s happening in the desert, The desert is important, really important in Scripture. Jesus, the 40 days He’s spending in a desert remind us of the 40 years the Israelites spent at the central event in the Old Testament of the Exodus. And so scripture sees a lot of significance in the desert. And the Lord, when He’s speaking about His people, as an unfaithful spouse, He says, I will lead her to the desert, and I will speak to her heart. So I wanted to reflect with you a little bit as we begin this Lent, because the fact that we also spend these 40 days of lent, it’s also, like, our invitation, our call to the desert. The Lord is leading us to the desert. What is the desert? The desert is a barren, desolate place without life. But it’s also a place of trials, of temptations where satan is attacking. And yet, it’s also a time of the Holy Spirit, a place of purification, a place of transformation, on the way to union with God. And so the topic of the desert is a hard topic, it’s a hard reality. But many people today are experiencing times of doubt, and darkness, and desolation, like experiencing the desert, and maybe we ourselves, whether in our own life or in people we know. So I think it’s very helpful, even though it’s a hard topic to reflect on, because understanding it a little bit helps us in that desert experience. And so I want to look at a surprising example, that desert, which is Mother Teresa. And as I was preparing this, Brother Michael had prepared some quotes. And also I found some articles on the internet, which are helpful for understanding this. And so Mother Teresa is very well known, and very admired for her service of the poor, for her poverty of her life, for her cheerfulness, for her, such an inspiration for contemplative life and love for Jesus. After her death, there was something surprising that came out because there was a series of letters that she had been writing for many years to different spiritual directors, and what she had intended to remain private. But those letters were eventually published. And they reveal something that almost nobody had any idea about, that she who was seen as so cheerful, and with such a deep faith, but she was often experiencing an interior life, which was very dry, which was very barren, which was without consolation. She also was very tempted by many doubts. The letter she’s writing, of course, she’s not intending this to be known to anybody except to spiritual directors. So she’s very candid in what she says. And I think that’s helpful, because it gives us a, like a light, a perspective on things that we very rarely have. Because almost everything that a lot of times a person writing about, they write what they think they should write about. It’s their understanding of a saint in what they think they need to say. And so it’s very filtered. When St. Therese wrote her story, her sisters edited out things that they thought might be scandalous for people, so they didn’t put that in there. And even the saint themselves, often you know, they don’t put everything like Mother Teresa probably wouldn’t have written about this because she might have thought It would be scandalous. So I think it’s very interesting, the perspective it gives us. And so when the news came out, there were a lot of surprised reactions. Some of her detractors who took pleasure in this, said it’s a sign that she lost faith, that she was just a hypocrite, that she was a fraud that she was actually an atheist. And in many of even of her supporters were very disturbed, because it was very hard to understand. This was so different from what they would have thought. How could God permit such suffering? Had she lost faith? But actually, I think it’s a sign, not of her losing faith, and it’s not a sign of a lack of holiness. But it’s actually a great confirmation of her holiness because she remained faithful in these very, very difficult trials. And her fruitfulness, the fruitfulness of her ministry wasn’t because she was swimming in consolation, there was on the contrary, at the price of great sacrifices, that she was comforting others. And I think that just learning about this can help people who are themselves experiencing the desert, the desert, the darkness, the doubt. And so let’s look a little bit at her story. She grew up in Albania, and then she joined the missionary sisters of Our Lady of Loreto. She went to India. And when she was 32 years old, she, with the permission of her spiritual director, made a special vow, a private vow to do whatever God asked for. That’s a very dangerous thing. It’s kind of a blank check to give to God, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do. So, four years later, in 1946, she had a series actually began when she was on a train, she had a series of mystical experiences of the Lord, in which He revealed to her that He wanted her to start a new congregation, the congregation the Missionaries of Charity. And that was a very difficult thing for her. But she believed in these manifestations and she responded to the Lord, she did it. But the striking thing was that, because she had been having the series of apparitions and visions and messages from the Lord, but right as she was beginning, this new congregation that the Lord had asked her to do, right at that point, all those mystical experiences that she was having stopped. And this was very troubling for her because she thought she was doing God’s will but now she couldn’t sense God’s presence. She wasn’t having all these gifts. And so she thought did I do something wrong, did the Lord reject me, did I sin? What, what? So this caused a lot of turmoil, and a lot of suffering, as her consolations disappeared, and she began to experience a lot of temptations and doubts. And so I’ll just read you a few passages in which is describing for a spiritual director, her experiences. So again, she’s just talking about what she is feeling, so it’s pretty strong. She says, darkness is such that I really do not see, neither with my mind, nor with my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. There is no God in me. And so again, when she’s saying that she’s not it’s not a state statement of reality, but it’s a statement of what she’s feeling. She doesn’t feel God’s presence anymore. When the pain of longing is so great, I just long and long for God. And then it is that I feel that he does not want me, he is not there. Heaven, souls, these seem just words, which mean nothing to me. My life seems so contradictory. I helped souls but to go where? Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me. I longed for God, and yet there is but pain. And so again, this is not her faith, but this is what she’s feeling. She says, it’s like a dark tunnel or a dark hole. She feels abandoned by God, alone, empty. Even for instance she who had had from her childhood such as devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and she says, How cold how empty, how painful is my heart. Holy Communion, Holy Mass, all the holy things of spiritual life, of the life of Christ in me, are all now so empty, so cold, so unwanted. So the grace is in consolations yet had been experiencing, for instance, in the Blessed Sacrament, she’s no longer experiencing. And so I think that that’s also helpful too, because we may be going through a little bit of this. She says, I have been on the verge of saying no. So again, she had vowed to never say no to God. And now she feels like she might, she’s on the verge. I feel as if something will break in me one day. She feels like she’s going to be broken. Pray for me that I may not refuse God and this hour. I don’t want to do it, but I’m afraid I might do it. But she feels she’s been pushed to her very limit. Then she was also tempted to feel that all her suffering was of no value. And so all this while the world is admiring her joy. Mother Teresa was known as a very joyful person. But she said, behind her smile was often torment. She writes, the whole time smiling, sisters, and people think my faith, trust and love, are filling my very being. Could they yet know how my cheerfulness is the cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery? And so this terrible desert that she is going through, is something that there’s other examples, and many examples in Scripture like Jeremiah, or the certain pslams, or like Job, or just a couple weeks ago, we reflected on Job. And especially Jesus Himself, we know He experienced the agony in Gethsemane and also all this, all the suffering. And then even on the cross, He says, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? And many saints in different ways, have had some experiences like this, like Saint Therese, the little flower. Towards the end of her life, she began to experience also some very dark temptations. She said, do not believe I am swimming in consolation. Oh no, my consolation is to have none on earth. It is it was a very difficult time, but she began to sense that she could even take that as a a sense of consolation because of the sacrifice she was offering. And so she also went through a sense of abandonment. She says, God hides, He is wrapped in darkness. And so this, in the spiritual tradition of the Church of the saints, there’s been a lot of experience and reflection on the desert in darkness. Especially we think of St. John of the Cross, who spoke of the dark night of the soul for purification, which on the souls road to union with God, it went through this dark night. A dark night of the senses, which was detaching the soul from all sensible things, but also a dark night of the Spirit, detaching a soul, even from spiritual consolations, from its imperfections from self, love, and that it’s here. One of the authors said, the soul experiences a terrible longing for God, which is all the more severe. And they’re there, because of the souls, the intensity of it. And there are temptations against faith and hope, and an inability to pray. The soul feels like it can’t pray anymore. It’s going through like a purgatory on earth. And all the different types of prayer and spiritual practices that used to help the soul now seem so arid, the soul senses that it has been rejected by God. And so there is this purifying presence, this purifying experience of the soul, and of a barrenness of dryness of lack of consolation. And one author, Carol, her name is Carol Zaleski said that in more modern centuries, there’s it seems like there’s a new temptation, the temptation of radical doubt. And these atheistic centuries that we’ve been living it seemed like the Lord has been asking saints to share this experience. This temptation of that God doesn’t exist. So what is the meaning of this darkness and desert? As St. John of the Cross says, it’s often a purifying experience. But it’s not just purify that is it’s not just to purify the soul of its imperfections. But in Mother Teresa, for instance, we see I think that it’s also redemptive. That is, it’s also helping save other souls. It’s also for the benefit of others, sharing Jesus’s own agony and passion. And so Mother Teresa’s work of helping the poorest of the poor, was not just material poverty. But her interior life was often like the lives of the poor that she served, unwanted, unloved, abandoned. It was like she was experiencing also the spiritual poverty of the world, of those who felt meaninglessness, and loneliness in their lives. One time she wrote to her sisters, my dear children without suffering, our work would just be social work, very good and helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus, not part of redemption. Jesus wanted to help us by sharing our life, our loneliness, our agony, our death. All this He took upon Himself and has carried it in the darkest night. Only by being one of us, He has redeemed us, we are able to do the same. All the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed, and we must have our share in it. I wish to live in this world that is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them, to take upon myself something of their suffering. And she said, If I become a saint, I will surely become a saint of darkness. I will continually be absent from heaven, to light, the light of those in darkness on earth. Perhaps that’s why the Lord permitted her, these letters of hers to get out to help people who are experiencing this darkness. And so, Mother Teresa, in spite of all this remained faithful, in spite of these terrible doubts, she didn’t lose her faith, she continued to the end of her life, to do God’s will. And she gradually began to understand what she was going through. So it was still painful, but she had a much deeper understanding, which helps a whole lot. She even began to love this darkness, this painful darkness, because she felt it was a part of her sharing and carrying the cross of Jesus to save souls. What are some of the lessons that we can learn from this? This is a very mysterious thing. And it’s different for each person. So it’s not something that we need to seek out, God knows how, and when for each person. But one thing it shows us is that a person can have an interior cross, there’s some crosses, which are known exteriorly, like, for instance, like an injury, or like, financial burden, but this is an interior cross. It helps us to not to judge other people. We don’t know, the interior crosses they may be carrying, and this is very important, it helps prepare us so that we have a more realistic idea of what the journey to God is. That the good feelings that might be there at the beginning, will not always be there on the journey, and teach us not to rely on our feelings, but an act of faith and love as an act of the will. The spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for 40 days, tempted by satan. And so again, this is the mysterious thing. Satan and the spirit. Satan tries to use the desert to attack us. He knows it’s a time in which we’re very vulnerable. He tries to tell us that God doesn’t love us, that God is rejecting us, that He can’t help us or that He doesn’t even exist. And so he’s telling us that what we’re going through is either God fault, or it’s our fault. And all of those are lies. So why does the spirit lead us into the desert? Think of the Israelites. Why did they go to the desert? In some ways that desert for them was harder than Egypt. So they were tempted to turn back to Egypt; in some ways the desert was harder. But the desert was the passage to the promised land. It was hard, but it was leading into the promised land. And the promised land is not just Palestine. But the real Promised Land is heaven. It’s union with God. And so that Spirit leads us into the desert, to lead us towards union with God, and to lead us closer to God. And that’s very important to remember, because it doesn’t feel that way. It feels the opposite. It feels like we’re getting farther from God. The desert didn’t feel like the promised land. But it was moving them towards the promised land. It was the path to the promised land. So the desert, this difficult desert of dryness and lack of consolation and darkness and doubts, is not a sign of God’s rejection, or of God’s absence, though, that’s what it feels like. But it’s actually a sign of God’s love. And that’s very important. That desert is not a sign. It feels like God’s rejection or God’s absence. But it’s actually a sign of God’s love. Just like the Israelites, when they were in the desert. It didn’t feel like God’s love. But it actually was because this was necessary to lead them. So the desert is a place of transformation, of change, of opportunity. It’s a death, but a death which leads to union with God. I will lead you to the desert and I will speak to your heart. That is, I will form your heart. I will purify your heart of all that is not Me to prepare your heart for union with Me. I will lead you to the desert and speak to your heart. And so the desert helps us to understand with Mother Teresa, understand our own experiences that we ourselves can have of darkness in a desert, or the experiences of others that were called to help can have that all this is actually a way of God leading us to the desert to speak to transform our heart to unite our heart to His. Amen