A History of Darkness
Teresa's vocation, however, brought solace to tens of thousands and inspired millions. Her dark path was lighted, at last, with consolations. Beneath the pain of divine absence ran a deeper river of joy—a sense that she was in the center of her Lord's will in her service to the poorest of the poor. If she didn't feel Christ's presence as an intimate embrace, Teresa had no doubt that when she and her sisters were with those who felt unloved, they were in fact with Jesus.
She often said, "We are not social workers. We are contemplatives in the heart of the world. We are 24 hours a day with Jesus."
Luther: "The Backside of God"
Most of us know how, as a young monk, Martin Luther struggled mightily with a sense of his own sinfulness and inability to please God. This struggle ended when he realized that righteousness is not within our ability to achieve; God himself freely gives it. Problem solved, right? Not exactly.
Again and again throughout his life Luther descended into severe spiritual anxiety, starting with a particularly long and intense depression a few years after the Reformation's onset, in 1527.
During that period, says Luther scholar David Steinmetz, the Reformer was terrified that "God had turned his back on him once and for all," abandoning him "to suffer the pains of hell." Feeling "alone in the universe," Luther "doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God—doubts which, because they verged on blasphemy, drove him deeper and deeper" into despair.
His prayers met a "wall of indifferent silence." He experienced heart palpitations, crying spells, and profuse sweating. He was convinced that he would die soon and go straight to hell. "For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.'"
This Anfechtungen (his term for the experience) returned repeatedly, forcing the Reformer to develop a theology of spiritual darkness. He concluded that without the trials of Anfechtungen, "no person is able to know Holy Scripture, nor faith, the fear and love of God … indeed such a trial is the very best sign of God's grace and love for man."
For Luther as for Lewis, such darkness is a way that God strips us of the narrow self-interests that cloud our view of him. Yes, God is revealed in Christ and in Scripture. But we often fail to see or sense him, confusing his transcendence with absence.
In his early lectures on Romans, Luther used the example of a patient and a physician. The hospitalized patient feels his fever, nausea, headaches, and stiff joints, and is convinced by that he is getting worse and, in fact, will soon die. A doctor, says Luther, tells this man that, against all the evidence of his senses, he is in fact getting better. What is required here is a simple act of faith.