Take me where the light is
John Mayer
I have still not worked out quite why the recent Time Magazine article on Mother Teresa’s book of private correspondence, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, has fascinated me so much without my even reading it. The obvious reason could have to do with my interest in matters of the human experience of faith, but that is not often enough to draw me into an article about faith in Time. I have never really been interested in Mother Teresa—I have admired her, but only in that vague way of knowing that she has done remarkable things as a nun in India, and little else. So that can’t explain my interest. The truth is, I don’t want to understand this fully until I have read the book (which I will), but I can say that over the last few hours since reading the article, there is something about Mother Teresa’s anguish to find the voice and presence of God in her daily life that makes sense to the artist, even the poet, in me.

The story that these letters tell is an uncomplicated, even if remarkable, one at the surface. For nearly fifty years, between the moment of her calling to work among the poorest of the poor in the streets of Calcutta and her death, Mother Teresa’s “thorn in the flesh”, her contradictory burden was her sense that Christ was keeping himself away from her—her sense of spiritual dryness, emptiness and distance—this, while she was speaking of Christ’s abiding presence in the life of the believer, this while she maintained her smile of faith and hope. Apart from a few instances, according to these letters, this “dark night of the soul” persisted through her entire life. The theologians will work out what the implications of this confession (many of her letters were in fact confessionals to priests and spiritual leaders in whom she knew to confide), but for my part, I began to think about two fundamental things. The first was easy—Mother Teresa’s confessions were encouraging, as the authors of the article presumed, for a flawed believer who experiences doubt, but more than that, they reminded me of how un-recorded has been my spiritual life. I doubt if I could pin-point by date a stretch of spiritual barrenness in my life. To do so, one would have to be deeply pious and diligent about the quest for God’s presence—one, in other words, would have to have been a very holy individual a very disciplined and consistent praying individual who took care to assess daily her position with Christ like Mother Teresa.
Still, I was struck by her humanity and the ordinariness of faith—that struggle to hear God, that struggle to replay the elation of feeling connected to Christ. My thinking crossed paths with some passages I was reading from August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, particularly the scene in which the community dances the juba in a manner “as African as possible” according to Wilson. I was reading (not watching), but I knew that the abandonment of possession and release that a good company would achieve in that “holy ghost” scene would evoke the ascendancy of spiritual liberty that transported people from an ordinary place to a place in which they became other than themselves or completely themselves. Perhaps for Loomis, entering the dance at its height, somewhat drunk, but overwhelmed by possession, the moment of insight and loss of control would represent exactly the kind of sublimation that Mother Teresa was hungry for. It struck me that the Afro-Christian pattern of tarrying for hours on the threshing floor every Sunday night, a period of holding siege to everything until the Holy Spirit reveals himself may be seen as on culture’s reaction to the feeling of barrenness that Mother Teresa describes.
Much of Wilson’s work can safely be read as a part of a grand metaphor for the artist, and I would argue, the poet. And this is how Teresa’s dilemma engaged me on the second level. I realize that for me writing poetry is a profound act of faith. Not in the sense that I am seeking to find inspiration from God or anything so familiar. But in the sense of never being sure, while I am writing, that I have found something useful to say, something of value. I write in the dark, the words making their way across the page in an improvisational tight-rope walk that I hope I will be able to sustain until I reach the other end. Indeed, I have to suspend all disbelief for the moment, and live in a world of myth and faith that says that things have worked out in the past, so chances are they will work out in the present. But nothing reassuring comes back to me, nothing at all. It is like Mother Teresa’s admission that her prayers seem to be returning to her as daggers—not with love, not with any acknowledgement of his presence. But I press on with the writing because the alternative is to stop which would put to lie everything else that I have done in the past. Which would mean that at last, the magic has gone and the well-spring has dried up. It is in these moments that I find great gratitude in the fact that so far something god has come from the process. Because caught in this moment, I am acutely aware of how fragile this business of writing is, how one can abandon a good idea easily, and in the process, be stumped for writing for such a long time. Even the most secular engagement with this process is so rooted in matters of our psychological play with ourselves, that calling the process of persisting with the writing an act of faith does not seem at all untoward.
Perhaps many poets persist despite being stuck exactly where Mother Teresa found herself for fifty years. They have serious doubts about the value of what they have produced. They are constantly aware of how much their own skills as poets have somehow failed to meet the vision they have in their head of what excellence means. They accept accolades and sometimes even speak with the bombast and arrogance of people who are fully assured of their skills, but quietly, these acts are really a compensation for doubt. One’s salvation is ignorance, usually, and the lack of ambition. For my part, I am grateful that both in my spiritual walk and in my poetry, I do have moments of assurance that something useful has happened, that something beautiful and sublime has occurred. This will happen long after the work has been published and put aside. And for me, it is this instant of satisfaction that allows me to have the faith to push ahead even when things look quite bleak. And I embrace such moments even if they are delusional, because they are necessary for my persistence as a poet.
The writers of the article on Mother Teresa proposed a theory that her sense of darkness and torment may have been at some level an imposed torture that she kept in place to keep her humble, to allow her not to become so carried away by her “success” that she would lose sight of God in all of this. In this sense, her alienation from God would have been like Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. The problem, though, is that, in her case, the tragedy of her alienation seems wholly problematic because it represents the very evidence of complete alienation that comes with faithlessness and being cursed of God. It would seem like a high burden to place on a believer. The Bible has a few people who have felt that distance, people of God’s own heart. But the redemptive narrative always allowed for relief, a point of restoration. Does it matter that Mother Teresa died in this state? Perhaps it is evidence that in the dynamic of her life with Christ, she was already living in the realm of the eternal. At one point she intimates (almost heretically) that after she enters heaven, she will continue to perfect this alienation from Christ. One has to admire Mother Teresa for persisting. A poet faced with that sense of persistent doubt about his or her art might not be as assured of a redemptive greeting in the after life as Mother Teresa would appear to have been. Poets need moments of pleasure and assurance about the grace of their art, both to humble us and to allow us to persist in the task of making poems.
But, as I said at the beginning of this piece, I don’t really know quite what I think about the article, about the book which I will read, and about why it fascinates me, but I will some day; and I say that as an act of faith—as evidence of something not seen and as the substance of something hoped for: my definition of the imagination.

Originally Published: August 26th, 2007

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...

  1. August 27, 2007

    this act of persisting, of sustaining, of stepping out on nothing and believing that something is there -- is indeed an act of faith.
    it is true that when you are squarely focused on a thing, the Universe sends you many connections to the thing you are focused on. this week, for me, it's been the *service* of my art ... how affirmation from trusted sources is important but also how applause is not the purpose.
    and this slip from you:
    "...something god has come from the process"
    was worth the whole darned post.
    (now, was it really a slip?)

  2. August 28, 2007
     Charlene Spearen

    At the risk of being accused of using too much verbiage, I will endeavor to get right to the point. Kwame Dawes’s effort to bridge Mother Theresa’s grappling with her feelings of doubt that God and the Devine Trinity really exists (for that is at the crux of one who is experiencing “spiritual dryness”) with the journey of one who continues to write his or her poems because he or she believes that somewhere, in the midst of all the rubble that finds its way to the page, is the possibility that something powerful, something mystical, something wonderfully worthy has been created is brilliant.
    Just the other day, I had a conversation with a graduate student who was working toward her MFA degree in fiction. The conversation meandered down several avenues, then settled on the question of what exactly compels me to keep writing my poems. I referenced the fact that I had been brought up in the strict doctrine of the Catholic Church and was, today, what is termed a lapsed Catholic. I referenced Mother Theresa in our conversation and how I had always been drawn to this nun’s movements because she seemed to be an ordinary woman who led her life by doing wonderful acts by simply caring for a fellow human being. The way in which Mother Theresa took ownership of her desire to care for the poor of Calcutta was grounded in what she saw as a need that existed here on earth–not as an act that would grant her access to the rewards of an afterlife. Her acts involved no precedence for prescribed manner of worship; they were actions that satisfied her desire to do the right thing for a human being who was in need of a compassionate act.
    I then explained to this emerging fiction writer that in some small way, I was following the path of Mother Theresa as to the reasons behind why I write poetry, and why over the last five years I have been compelled to work towards creating spaces that introduce the art of writing poetry to such audiences as children, teens, women who are struggling with issues of identity, communities of people who are dealing with addiction, cancer, or abuse. I take on the voices of these communities, then mingle them with my own moments of self doubt, spiritual bareness, my own history, and the history of those I continue to love despite their and my many human imperfections. I see and feel their varied needs, my needs, and feel there is something mystical and wonderfully sacred when the two merge in the act of writing a poem.
    However, the one issue that I did not address with the young graduate student who sat before me was why it was that I am still so reluctant to seek publication for my own poems. The answer came quite quickly after reading Kwame’s blog. The risky act of sending my work out to this or that literary journal is, without doubt, my “dark night of the soul.” I constantly struggle with the feeling that I have with each newly crafted poem created something that others will view as not being a “good poem.” I guess you could say that I am a “flawed believer” when it comes to my own work. I have yet to accomplish what some would call a leap of faith with regard to my own poetry. Bravo, Kwame Dawes, you have given me much food for thought–keep the words coming.