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For starters, it should warn us about easy formulas. One old saying goes, "If you don't feel close to God anymore—guess who moved." But I wouldn't want to have asked that of Mother Teresa.

She never overcame her pain over God's silence. In a strange way, it became a part of her. In the midst of this struggle, a wise spiritual counselor told her three things she needed to hear.

First, that there was no human remedy for this darkness. (So she could not control it.)

Second, that "feeling" the presence of Jesus was not the only or even the primary evidence of his presence. (Jesus himself said that by their fruit—not their feelings—you shall know his true followers.) In fact, the very craving for God was a "sure sign" that God was present—though in a hidden way—in her life.

Third, that the pain she was going through could be redemptive. That Jesus himself had to experience the agony of the Absence of God: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" His suffering redeemed us. Like him, Mother Teresa could suffer redemptively by clinging to God in the midst of darkness.

Am I a "Spiritual Glutton?"

Mother Teresa's story highlights the difficulty of defining spiritual vitality. It feels like Augustine's definition of time: as long as no one asks me what it is, I know what it is. How can we define being fully alive spiritually?

Paul calls the Holy Spirit "the Spirit of Life." From Genesis the Spirit is the one who animates and energizes human beings. So in the times when I am most energized to do ministry: when I am motivated to pray, when sermons come easily and preaching is a joy, when sin looks bad and my "360 evaluations" look good—then I feel spiritually vital.

The danger for most of us is that we desire feeling good more than we desire God.

But this is not the ultimate test.

I'm learning to distinguish spiritual vitality from simply being in a good mood. The danger for most of us is that we desire a particular state of being (feeling good) more than we desire God.

Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith says the fastest-growing religion in America today is neither Christianity, Islam, nor some eastern religion. It is what he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). In MTD, the most important "truth" about God is that he wants us all to be nice, to feel happy, and to be delivered from pain (that's the therapeutic part). Outside of being available when I need him, God will not interfere much with my life (there's the deism).

We are drawn to MTD because we want our life to be nice, happy, and uninterrupted. Smith says that MTD is in our culture—including our churches—like fluoride is in our water.

John of the Cross spoke about something like this condition. He called it "spiritual gluttony," a condition where God is merely a means to fulfill my desire to experience warm feelings and spiritual energy. John saw this as a temptation to all Christians, and taught that God will actually withdraw good feelings from us to help us grow. The "dark night of the soul"—which has come to be used by many people for any experience of suffering—actually has a very focused meaning for John. It is the season in which God withdraws comfort and emotional ease for a purpose which is good, but which we may not understand.

The Little Way

True spiritual vitality, then, is not primarily my subjective experience. It's not about "feeling spiritual."

It is being made alive by the Spirit. And only God can judge the extent to which that is actually happening from one moment to the next: "The wind blows wherever it will," said Jesus. "So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

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Fall 2011: Dark Nights of the Soul  | Posted
Dependence on God  |  Faith  |  Prayer  |  Renewal
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