Fr. Tom Hopko, an Orthodox theologian that I often cite and thoroughly appreciate, was speaking in a lecture I listened to recently about the “divine darkness” that Mother Teresa lived in for the last 30 or so years of her life. He argued that her unflagging fidelity to the God she experienced as absent for so very long was what made her holiness to efficacious, so great. This faith was what “deified” her (deification refers to the Christian affirmation that Jesus offers us a participation in the very life of God). He said that inasmuch as she remained faithful to God and her mission, and even manifested joy throughout those decades of darkness, she demonstrated what deification is really all about:
When you can love while you have the sense that God is absent — this is deification. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He loved even when he was abandoned in his humanity by the Father; abandoned because he “became sin” [cf. 2 Cor. 5:21] for us, which means essentially experiencing abandonment by God. On the cross Jesus loved us and his Father even when there seemed to be nothing ‘in it’ for him. And the myrrh-bearing women who came to embalm Jesus’ corpse did the same — they came to love the corpse of Jesus; a corpse that could give nothing back. For those saints called along this road, this is the baptism by fire — to give your life for the other’s good.
Descending into Hell
In other lectures, Fr Tom asserts that inasmuch as we live this fidelity to God’s will in a fallen, broken world rife with ambiguities and contradictions, sinful disorders and evil desires, with physical and mental suffering — a world filled with so many irresolvable tragedies — our love for God under the form of fidelity will plunge us into that same “divine darkness.” Those, for example, burdened with sexual addictions, alcohol addictions, drug addiction, same-sex attraction, or those born into circumstances of poverty, abuse and ignorance must all walk by means of this dark valley; which in Jesus is shown to be the haunt of God. And Christians themselves must be willing to join God in walking with others through their hells, to love their broken neighbors, to bear others’ burdens, to deal with the ambiguities of others’ tragic situations even as they seek to embrace in faithfulness what is true and good. Spending one’s energies on condemning evils and not on the active willingness to enter into others’ hells — one person at a time — is to evade the antidote and fail to imitate Jesus crucified. Who’s converted by the mere condemnation of another’s evils? Yes, evil must be named and exposed, but conversions come from co-suffering with Christ the sin of the world on behalf of all and for all. In the Apocalypse, dragons are conquered by slain lambs. That takes time, long-suffering patience, unrelenting commitment, and dark faith. Jesus on the cross plunged fully into the suffering and pain and darkness of all of the malefactors, entered their muck and filth in order to raise them up, to wash their wounds and pour out balm on them for healing, bringing into death, new life; into sin, mercy, into hatred, divine love, into slavery, salvation; into despair, hope and even a joy that comes only from knowledge of God’s infinite love that emptied itself out in Jesus crucified; a love that opened the Gates of Paradise by first walking through the blackness of death and hell with us. But if Christians don’t really believe in this God, the God of Jesus Christ who became a corpse for us before being raised up, then why would anyone bother resisting the temptations and suffer the hardships of fidelity in the midst of tragedy? Why would anyone bother facing all the ambiguities and messiness of walking with those who are in darkness? Why would they not instead just drink and snort and succumb to sexual perversions and do anything to eliminate the tragedies, to dull the pain, to forget the night by any means, when they have no sense that God has already opened for them a way of hope and joy and salvation in this life, and, most importantly, in the life hereafter where all irresolvable tragedy will pass into eternal resolve where all tears are wiped away, all sufferings are banished, all wounds are healed.
This ‘baptism by fire’ image also reminded me of a documentary on 9/11 I watched years ago that had this stirring comment in it:
These [firefighters] were men of character, who loved and believed in what they did. It’s what made them run up the stairs in the Towers even as everyone else ran down.
We who love and believe in the God of Jesus Christ are called, no matter what the circumstances, to run up.