Love and the Dark Night

October 16, 2014

"So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13)


This is the third panel of a tripartite series on faith (part 1 and part 2), hope (here) and love.

An authentic understanding of the meaning of love is of paramount importance for the New Evangelization.  Since time immemorial, the meaning of love has eluded the poets and the philosophers as well.  However, with the advent of Christianity God has revealed to man a most sublime understanding of love.  Unfortunately, our postmodern society has embraced a willful amnesia about its true meaning, returning instead to the reductive and romanticist ideas of pre-Christian man.

Like faith and hope, salvific love is a unity of a human act to which God responds with the divine gift of His life, His grace.  However, as Paul says in his great ode to salvific love, love is intertwined with faith and hope. We earlier discussed that first trust and then faith are essential aspects of an authentic relationship (see the segment on faith).  Yet, Paul tells us that faith without love is worthless (see 1 Cor 13:3); such a faith, as James teaches, is dead (James 2:17).  Love defines the structure of an authentic relationship. Faith begins such a relationship but love completes it in a true communion of persons.  Let’s look a little more closely at the human aspect of love.

Jesus demonstrates the full meaning of love in His Passion.  He witnesses to what St. John means when he says that God is love.  Jesus shows that love is total self-gift.  The Cross is the Son’s definitive revelation in salvation history, of God’s very life. The Trinity is a Communion of Persons, a Communion that is an eternal act of total Self-gift, the ongoing emptying of each Divine Person into the Other.  The Trinity establishes the structure of authentic communion for created persons. 

Man is made in the image of God, a Trinity of Communion and so we see that we are made for love, for total self-gift.  We can only fulfill ourselves by giving ourselves away (Gaudium et spes, 24). This is the Trinitarian paradox. While total self-gift is manifested differently according to the nature of the multitudinous relationships man experiences, what is common at root is that the more disinterestedly one wills and acts for the authentic good of the other, the greater the act of love—that is, the more we perfect ourselves in love, or said another way, we become holier.

A saving relationship with God then is one that begins in a total commitment to Him (faith), trusting in His promises of eternal life for those who remain in this relationship (hope), and who act in accord with the authentic structure of such a relationship (love).  But to this point we have emphasized only one aspect of the human experience of faith, hope and love—the rootedness of these acts in human reason—the intellect and will.

However, human beings are a unity of body and soul comprising one, seamless, unified nature.  This seamlessness means that everything that happens in the soul has a counterpart in the body and vice versa.  When man acts in accord with the truths of faith, hope and love, he experiences in himself an affective (that is appetitive/emotional) reinforcement.  Emotions are an integral aspect of the human experience; their purpose is to move us toward goods and to flee evils.  Thus, in the natural order there is an integral relationship between the human act of love and its affective experience.  However, because of the fall, that is, because of concupiscence our appetites and emotions are not always reliable measures in discerning the truth.  Affects respond to all apparent goods; only the intellect can adjudicate between apparent and authentic goods.  The affects cannot take into account the circumstances that will make the pursuit of an apparent good (say a piece of cake) not authentically good for us (because we have already had two pieces).  Because of concupiscence, we now are faced with the task of judging our affective responses and working to master them.

This brings us back to the question of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

The question was asked: did she lose her love for God?  Well, just as with faith, love is not lost—it is only willfully abandoned and all of the evidence says that she did not abandon her love.  We see this in the many acts of love she continued to pour out upon those whom she served.  In these she lived out the love she had for God by expressing it toward those whom she could see (see 1 John 4:20).  So what explains her experience?  If she lived out a life of heroic faith, hope and love why would God withhold from her from the human feelings of consolation proper to her faith and love.

The answer lies in what is meant by the holiness to which we are called and the struggle concupiscence makes of trying to attain this holiness.  We are made to give ourselves totally to God and then to others. Holiness is nothing less than the measure to which we master ourselves and then use this self-mastery to actualize our capacity to completely love God and our brother.  With respect to faith, hope and love, we naturally experience affective reinforcement for our acts of the will (our acts of faith, hope and love).  However, because of concupiscence, there is always an admixture in our motivations.  There is the desire to give ourselves selflessly to God because that is who we are, but there is also a fallen desire to experience the consolations arising from these ongoing choices.  To the extent that we consent to these fallen desires, they in a real way deprive us of the achievement of making a total, disinterested gift of ourselves.

Those, who in this life experience this dark night are those whom God knows to have reached such a level of perfection that they will be able to remain faithful to their commitments. These heroic souls are given the great grace of embracing the Cross and Jesus Christ’s dark night ("My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me"). God gives them the opportunity to most perfectly give themselves totally to Him by withholding from them the natural consolations of faith, hope and love. Such living saints continue to love God; they give themselves totally to Him for His sake and not for anything that they receive in return because they have no other competing motivation.  Indeed, they have to overcome temptations and feelings of emptiness to continue to will themselves in faith, hope and love, making such a trial even more heroic.  For those of us who are not adequately in mastery of ourselves, if we do or do not “feel” something we are usually convinced that this is the truth because this is the purpose of our affects.  But as we said, affects are not always reliable here, east of Eden.  Our intellects must now be the arbiters of truth, not our affects.  To continue in faith and love in the face of such obstacles is perhaps the most effective means of purification, and effective means for the building of the Kingdom.

Many in the secular press at the time of this public revelation about Blessed Theresa’s dark night gloated gleefully.  They thought they had uncovered a fraud; they saw her as no different than themselves and the despair they forever struggle to keep from rising up to the surface of their consciousness’s.  There is a great difference between the emptiness that Mother Teresa experienced in her dark night and the emptiness that those without faith experience. Mother Teresa experienced hers in love, knowing but not feeling that she was united to her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.  She was given the grace to press on in her mission and to continue in her growth in holiness. She did not try to fill the emptiness with material goods of this world but left it there, trusting that even though she could not feel Him, that her feelings of emptiness were not trustworthy.  She trusted that her entire being was in truth, being filled by her Lord, Jesus Christ.

Those without faith attempt to fill their emptiness with the “stuff” of the world. Eventually they will experience despair because the longing of their restless hearts is for the infinite God.  They do not realize (or admit in many cases) He is the real Object of their thirst, but they do come to suspect their emptiness will never be filled by the stuff of the world. They do not grow in holiness but regress into selfishness and so look with disdain at those who tell them that faith, hope, love and peace are possible. They cannot receive the grace they need for their healing and so they continue to take, to use others when their healing only comes through giving.

It is not surprising that Satan can turn a great life of heroic faith into an argument against its possibility. This is simply because love is misunderstood in our society. Only those who experience self-giving love can understand how the dark night can be God’s gift to those who He loves most. It is this heroic love, this holiness that needs to be the goal of every Christian because it is not only possible, it is necessary for every Christian.  A fruitful new evangelization depends upon many more of us working more earnestly toward such a goal. 

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us!

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