Search the Internet, and you’ll find literature in abundance regarding the hackneyed phrase, dark night of the soul. The phrase surfaced again with the canonization Sept. 4 of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, founder of the Missionaries of Charity.
The Dark Night of the Soul and ‘The Dark Night:’ Some distinctions
In the lexicon of popular phrases, the dark night of the soul should be distinguished from the dark night as developed by St. John of the Cross in his treatise, “The Dark Night.”
This Sunday, May 15, the Church brings to completion the Paschal Season by bestowing the Holy Spirit on us in the Liturgy, rich and beautiful.
The Birth of the Church
On that first Pentecost morning 2,000 years ago, the frightened apostolic community had already been huddled together for 10 days awaiting the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised to send them his Paraclete-Counselor and Advocate. The Eleven were present, as were the women, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the women who had attended to his needs, and the various followers of the Lord.
At nine o’clock, a sound like that of a mighty wind filled the house. Then what seemed to be tongues of fire came down and rested on the heads of each of those present. As the Church came to birth, the Holy Spirit opened to all the knowledge of God and brought together the many languages of the earth in the profession of one faith. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit who enabled them to speak in foreign tongues, as the Spirit gave utterance to each” (Acts 2:3, 4).
In 1943, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen made a prescient observation: “A proof that we are in danger of losing our freedom is that everyone is talking about it. Picture a group of men on a roof-top proclaiming in song and story the glories of architecture, while below saboteurs have already knocked out half the foundations of the house–and here you have the picture of modern freedom.”
During the recent extended holiday weekend, Americans proclaimed in song and story the glories of our American freedoms, the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights given by God and not by any person—inalienable rights.
St. Joseph’s role in salvation history celebrates the mystery of God’s dealing with a special man and his special vocation. A unique grace was offered him, and he accepted God’s gracious gift. It was entirely possible for him to turn away from it or reject. If, down through the ages, the beauty of Mary’s annunciation has inspired poetry, art, and music, the annunciation of Joseph merits similar artistry, for he stands with her, joint guardians of the Word-made-flesh.
Setting the Familiar Scene
To paraphrase the Matthean narrative (1:18-24): Joseph was anticipating his marriage to Mary, his betrothed. According to Jewish Law, the marriage contract had already been drawn up by the parents of both parties. Once the groom took the bride into his home, the marriage would be finalized. Joseph had prepared their home in Bethlehem, and their plan was to settle down to a peaceful married life. Their plan.
What is the proverb? Man proposes, God disposes.
The stage is set for God’s inscrutable plan to unfold, and Joseph’s drama is about to begin. Finding Mary pregnant, he is shaken to the core. He is not the child’s father. Either Mary has been unchaste, or she has been raped. Under this cloud, he may not live with her. But he cannot live without her. (The biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond E. Brown, SS, tells us that Mary’s strange pregnancy is the fifth listed in the Matthean genealogy of Jesus. Four other Old Testament women also had strange or scandalous pregnancies before marriage (A Coming Christ in Advent, 28.) It will take two angels to present a preposterous alternative to their plan and then untangle its knot. And what of the human plan? It will be turned on its head.
Joseph’s Sensitivity to Mary
The Law is clear. An unchaste woman must be stoned to death. Joseph loves the Law and keeps it always in mind, but stoning Mary? Unthinkable! This horror cannot be allowed to happen. Though her pregnancy is deeply disturbing, he is convinced of her virtue and will not agree to a public trial. Nor will he permit her to be shamed or embarrassed. The primacy of love is at work in Joseph’s heart.
Quietly, very quietly, Joseph will divorce her with no formal inquiry into details. He won’t flaunt the Law, but he will save Mary’s life and reputation by putting her away. How the plan is to be carried out, we will never know. Back and forth it goes—the Law or a quiet divorce, a quiet divorce or stoning. This is his dilemma with no obvious resolution.
The problem follows him to bed. It’s the decision of his life, and he must surely pray: “God of my fathers, Lord of mercy, give me Wisdom, the attendant at your throne” (Wis 9:6).
Scripture describes Joseph as a righteous man. As a tekton, an artisan, a builder, he is known to deal honestly with others. He who is righteous or just is a modest individual, one who can discern how to act in difficult situations, and above all, a person whose faith in God is steadfast and complete, even in the face of persecution. Many Old Testament figures like Joseph in Egypt are described as ‘righteous.’
Joseph’s Dream and the Angel’s Message
The subject of dreams and their interpretation is usually related to unresolved issues which may be left over from previous years or from current problems.
So Joseph has a remarkable dream. Most people wouldn’t make important decisions based on the mandate of a dream. But according to the wisdom of Depth Psychology, dreams offer us a latent truth about ourselves, however confusing. The individual must decode the images so that, clearly, logically, the truth will emerge.
The angel speaks:
‘Joseph, you belong to the family tree of King David from whom the Messiah will be born. You must not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the Child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit, a mystery wrought by God.’
‘Mary will give birth to a son, and you must name him Jesus. As the Child’s earthly father, you must give him his identity. The Law requires it. Without your consent, God’s plan for the world will be thwarted. This Child will save his people from their sins.’
Joseph awakens with the certainty of Mary’s innocence. He will obey the angel’s message. Fear no longer grips him. He and Mary will be God’s instruments in the plan of salvation. The angel of the Lord has untied the knot. Peace floods his soul. He hasn’t flaunted the Law. Rather, he has discerned its depth according to God’s design.
Throughout the Child’s infancy, Joseph faced many decisions that needed discerning, supported by faith and reason. His faith excluded naiveté and superstition. Still, there was a limit to reason, and, in the long run, in this singular event, reason had to be suspended in favor of the leap of faith and complete trust in God.
Patron of Discernment
Strictly speaking, the notion of discernment refers to making small and big decisions in the light of faith and at the level of faith. We human beings are moved by a maze of complex motives which are driven by images, ideas, attractions, revulsions—in other words, spirits, good and bad. We use the word spirit in a number of ways, for example, school spirit, the spirit of generosity, the spirit of ’76, the spirit of the Constitution.
When confronted with making a decision, certain variable emotions or spirits make us take notice. Feelings of serving God’s pleasure or only my own may clash. Certain feelings may pull us in the direction toward God, while others pull us away from God. It’s a tug of war, the battle from within.
Discernment may first involve a tug of war between choosing the good and the bad or between choosing the good and the better. Prayer evens out this tug of war so that interior balance remains. When we can honestly tell ourselves that the good spirit is bringing us peace, joy, charity, and the like, then we can be virtually certain of a good decision. If the opposite is true, that is, if in making a decision, unrest and agitation are present, we can almost always be sure that the decision is not a good one. In “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt assigns these discerning words to St. Thomas More:
“God made the angels to show him splendor
As he made animals for innocence
And plants for their simplicity.
But to man, he gave an intellect
to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.”
Out of Obscurity: A Patron for All and for All Seasons
There is good reason why Joseph is considered a hidden or forgotten saint. After the year 1,000, his name is mentioned in a few saints’ lists in Germany and Ireland. In the Christian East, Joseph ranks as a minor figure in the life of Christ.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, Joseph is depicted as an old man because the Church wanted to preserve the notion of Mary’s perpetual virginity. In the Counter-Reformation, he is depicted as the patriarchal head of the Holy Family, but he is still old and considered the foster-father of Jesus and not his earthly father, a more precise description. Following the leads of St. Bernardine of Siena and St. Francis de Sales, contemporary art rejects earlier depictions, and portrays the sound theology that Joseph was young, virile, and of marriageable age. (Sandra Miesel, “Finding St. Joseph,” Online article).
Our saint is the patron of families, patron of fathers, patron of laborers, and of organized labor. He is the patron of many religious institutes named after him. In him, we have a shining example of all the virtues needed for the Holy Family, the Christian family, or any family.
Chi Mangia Bene Vive Bene
On March 19th, Joseph’s guidance over the family is celebrated mainly in Sicilian or Southern Italian families. An altar with fine linen is set up in his honor and is decorated with flowers, fruits, and fancy breads.
Epecially-prepared foods, including stuffed artichokes, a variety of fish, pane di San Giuseppe, pasta di San Giuseppe, zeppole di San Giuseppe, sfingi, and other sweet cakes are served in several courses. Chi mangia bene vive bene—whoever eats well, lives well: the boast of Italians.
St. Teresa of Avila: “Go to Joseph”
St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, encourages the Universal Church:
“I do not remember even now that I have ever asked anything of St. Joseph which he has failed to grant.”
“I wish I could persuade everyone to be devoted to this glorious saint, for I have great experience of the blessing which he can obtain from God.
“Though you have recourse to many saints as your intercessors, go especially to St. Joseph, for he has great powers with God.”
Go to Joseph.
Happy feast day.
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (PhL), musicology (PhD), theology (MA), and liturgical studies (PhD). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her Email address is email@example.com.
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St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux rank among the thirty-three Doctors of the Church. Their lives have played decisive roles in the building up of the Church, and their writings enrich for their theological content and spiritual doctrine. Who were these women?
St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80)
As a Third-Order Dominican religious woman, Catherine experienced God’s love not from books but from the immediacy of her own experiences in prayer. “Her doctrine was infused, not acquired,” declares the Papal Bull of canonization. She told her confessor that she never learned anything about salvation from others, but only from “the sweet Bridegroom of my soul.” It is said that Catherine could not finish the Lord’s Prayer without falling into an ecstasy. “Match love for love,” she writes; God is a Trinity of Power, Wisdom, and Mercy, and it is fitting that the Wisdom should take upon himself our human nature so as to remedy our disobedience, ignorance, and selfishness.”
From 1376 to the end of her life, she influenced public affairs, first concerning a Crusade against the Turks, and the second, dealing with her efforts to return the Avignon papacy to Rome. She spent her final days in Rome pleading for the unity of the Church. In “The Dialogues of Divine Providence,” she addresses Christ with clarity, force, and sweetness. Concerning his passion and death, she writes: “Oh Loving Madman! It was not enough for Thee to become Incarnate, that Thou must also die?”
In 1939, Pius XII declared St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi as the chief patron saints of Italy. A contemporary portrait of the mystic-saint, painted by Andrea Vanni, hangs in the church of St. Dominic in Siena, Italy. Her feast day is firmly fixed for April 29.
We now turn to consider two Carmelite saints, one who shone like a glittering star and the other, like the tiniest pearl of great value.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82)
In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila gives a vivid account of her early Carmelite life as worldly and indulgent. As she began to receive remarkable graces in prayer, she came to see that her vocation within a vocation was to reform the Carmelite Order. Those who knew about her tepid religious living and who themselves lived lukewarm lives opposed the reform. For the former group, she seemed a hypocrite, and for the latter, reform would show up their own mediocrity. Nevertheless, with St. John of the Cross, she undertook the reform of the Carmelite Order.
Teresa was a shrewd woman but lacked any formal theological training. She writes therefore from her own personal experience with a lively charm, ever astute, but with a disregard for orderliness in her writing. This may be partly due to the fact that her confessors directed her to write down her thoughts in the swirl of her reform.
Ascetical theology is indebted to Teresa for describing in words an ordinary lay person can grasp the four stages of the mystical life: mental prayer, the prayer of quiet, the prayer of union, and the prayer of ecstasy. Her best known book is The Mansions of the Interior Castle, a beautiful metaphor for the inner life of man and woman.
On prayer, her counsels are practical: “Never, for any reason, neglect to pray.”…“The quality of one’s life and the quality of one’s prayer interact with one another. Both must be steadfastly oriented toward God.”
Teresa’s sense of humor is legendary. One day, as she rode on a donkey traveling from one convent to another, she was thrown to the ground. She quipped to the Lord, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” Below is one of her many prayers, universally loved and often quoted:
Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you.
Everything passes. God never changes.
Patience obtains all.
Whoever has God wants for nothing.
God alone is enough.
The original sculpture of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa” by Gian-Lorenzo Bernini (1645) is located in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Teresa’s feast day is October 15.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97)
St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, who died at age 24, entered the Carmelite Order at the age of 15. Two of her older sisters were also nuns in the same monastery. She sought to live a prayerful life but she could find no explicit ministry that she could practice when she reflected on First Corinthians, chapters 12 and 13. But then she made a startling discovery–it was really a grace.
The Mission of Love
Thérèse offers all in the Church a valuable lesson on 1 Corinthians 12-13. She goes to the heart of First Corinthians:
I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In a word, love is everlasting. (“Liturgy of the Hours,” Oct. 1, 1450-51)
As Thérèse read the ode to love in chapter thirteen, her heart was filled with joy:
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my calling is love … In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction (Ibid).
She became convinced that the power of the love of one person could build up the Body of Christ, anywhere and at any time.
In her autobiography, Thérèse writes: “I knew that the Church had a heart that appeared to be aflame with love. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love embraces every time and every place.” At last, she found her answer. Her calling was love, and she perceived the power of the love of one person to build up the Body of Christ.
Unfortunately, photographs of her can be insipid, and many look on her ‘little way’ as sentimental piety. If it were, it should be rejected. But in fact, it is a heroic way concerned with the present moment.
Why has the Church ranked this cloistered nun with such a short life among the Doctors of the Church? First, she grasped the heart of the Church’s mission. In the vocation of love, there is no separation or opposition between love of God and love of neighbor. Limitations of the cloister would not curtail her ministry or her total self-giving, which she knew was the most effective and most fruitful action of the Church. Second, her ‘little way’ is simple, direct, and universally accessible, especially to the homebound, the infirm, and the forgotten.
Finally, Thérèse embraces a theology of Christian hope. Sooner or later, every person comes to the edge of the cliff, and perhaps many times during one’s lifetime. The time of unemployment is one example of this. It is a dynamic faith and unshaken trust that casts one’s care on the Lord. For her, the Carmelite vocation was an apostolically-fruitful life, a life lived in the heart of the Church. Though St. Francis Xavier spent his life as the itinerant apostle to the Indies, Thérèse spent herself as a cloistered missionary, and for this, she has been named with him as Co-Patron of the Missions. “Thérèse’s ‘little way’ no longer seems little.” (Stephanie Paulsell, Reading St. Thérèse, Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Summer/Autumn, 2010. 74) Her message, Paulson concludes? “More love.” Her feast day is October 1.
Here we have three women-saints, three Doctors of the Church, each so different in personality yet one in purpose. Their message to women as well as to men: pray, work your best, and let God do the rest. Of saints, Phyllis McGinley writes: “What are saints except geniuses–geniuses who bring to their works of virtue all the splendor, eccentricity, effort, and dedication that lesser talents bring to music or poetry or painting?” (Saint-Watching, 17)
Like musicians, painters, poets, saints are human beings but obsessed ones. They are obsessed by the goodness and beauty of God as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language, and Beethoven by sound.
Saints are not born; they become God’s masterpieces. They are made into God’s works of art.
Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (PhL), musicology (PhD), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (PhD). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her Email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.