Belmont Club

A Woman in Calcutta

I first heard the phrase “dark night of the spirit” at age 18 from my New Testament teacher in college, but I was reminded about it again while coming across a video about a family who nursed a sick baby bunny back to health only to have a hawk swoop down from the nowhere and carry it off. The idea came round again on the wings of a sermon by 92 year old priest describing a nurse who volunteers at a hospice for children dying of cancer.

“She has the kind of faith,” the old priest said, “that has no expectation of hearing prayers answered. You may ask in what her faith consists. At all events it does not require require the absence of doubt, only the absence of despair.” He went on to say that Mother Teresa of Calcutta never spent a day in the last years of her life that were not filled with doubts.

Many people will be quite surprised to learn that the greater the saint, often the greater the doubt. These musings came together with something like the impact of fate when I read the letter sent me by Dr. Bala Ambati linking me to a blog post he wrote describing his trip to the mission of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta in the capacity a volunteer on a medical mission.

Bala is a most unusual doctor. Dr. Ambati graduated from New York University at the age of 13 and Mount Sinai School of Medicine at age 17, becoming the world’s youngest doctor in 1995.

Just as he was about to leave the mission house for home a Mexican volunteer brought in a woman found lying on the floor of Calcutta train station. No one would take her in. An examination showed she tried to commit suicide by drinking kerosene. So most of Ambati’s narrative was devoted to describing his efforts to patch her up with the scanty materials at hand. And he succeeded before he had to leave to catch the plane.

Some days later Dr. Ambati wrote me to say “unfortunately she passed away Tuesday night, 4 days after we met her. I guess all we can do is fight the good fight and leave the rest to God.”

Was it useless? Our answer to the question of whether it is worthwhile to try the apparently useless defines us. We moderns rarely face the problem squarely because it’s hard to accept that there are no happy endings, at least in the way we understand such things. So either we contrive — for the sake of our own sanity — to hide the rough patches or deny that we stand in a terrifying place. A universe where, as Raymond Chandler observed, poisoned cats die behind billboards; where hawks swoop down and snatch up bunnies, and a woman too poor to even poison herself properly dies in Calcutta without anyone even remembering her name.

It’s too hard a question for most of us, and we can be excused for ducking behind the movie seat when the monster shows up. But some are prepared to stare reality full in the face, with neither the consolations of denial nor commonplaces to hide behind and continue to act in the belief that it will all make sense. Some continue despite never being sure if they will ever come out the other side or even if there is another side. Its a kind of a spiritual heroism and that metaphor is a illuminating one.

Audie Murphy wrote about how afraid he was in combat,saying of his Medal of Honor action in the Colmar. “As if under the influence of some drug, I slide off the tank destroyer and, without once looking back, walk down the road through the forest. If the Germans want to shoot me, let them. I am too weak from fear and exhaustion to care.” The idea of Audie Murphy trembling in fear or Mother Teresa assailed by doubt seems odd, until you think about how natural it is.

The state of physical fear is close to the situation described by saints in the Dark Night of Spirit; the sense of no handholds, the vertiginous gloom. Like Murphy they know no one is coming to the rescue; they accept that nothing extraordinary will shield them and yet they go on.

Many of us think of Christianity as a “cheerful” religion, but Andrew Klavan, who is a convert to Christianity, wrote that “for me, one of Christianity’s central assets is that it’s a tragic religion — which is to say, a realistic one. The son of God prayed for release from a dreadful death and his prayer went unfulfilled. That tells you something, something you need to know in order to live with patience and wisdom.”

But I think it is not so much a tragic as one determined not flinch before tragedy; committed to patching up a bunny even though it may be eaten the next moment; or save an unknown woman in Calcutta if only for a while and to see in that no futility whatsoever, no cause for despair. And as to the terror, horror, beauty and wonder of life — why that is what God — or the universe as a synonym for God — is supposed to be like. The Old Testament warned Moses that he could not see the Face of God and live. We know the familiar lines from Exodus:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

To “see God”; to “know the truth” is asking for trouble. Are we sure we want do that?

If faith has an operational meaning it is not far different from a determination to go on. It was striking to read in a Scientific American interview of Gerard ‘t Hooft to glimpse how wide the vistas of scientific inquiry are. Yet the issues confronting modern cosmology have surprisingly ancient names: determinism, free will, entropy, and the possibility of the destruction of information.

We would be right to wonder whether these names are simply terms for things puissant and perilous known of old. Whether the powers and principalities that man would approach or harness are not in fact factions of some battle in the heavens. For there is in scientific or spiritual endeavor an unavoidable element of danger. We just don’t know what will happen after opening doors. Of physical theory ‘t Hooft said, “the suspicion is, probably, answers will come as a package. You can’t just solve one problem without touching the others; they’re probably related. Maybe you have to solve all problems in one giant stroke. If that’s the case, then you have a long fight ahead of us, because it’s going to be very difficult.”

All real knowledge is dangerous. We’ve managed to disremember that. But if the last century’s atomic bomb has not convinced us then the even the greater discoveries coming thick and fast in this one must. We could be the bunny and the hawk behind the next door. And yet we are curiously unwilling to look either scientific or spiritual reality in the face, stuck as it were between the Scylla of inevitable knowledge the Charybdis of fear; wishing we could uninvent the Bomb, nerve gas, the ubiquitous wire tap, the killer robot … and yet unable to do. Wishing we could not have children to spare them this; wishing we weren’t here.

But we are here; and perhaps the only question is whether to proceed with our eyes open or have a nervous breakdown as a civilization; and if to continue then answer especially in times of tragedy and suffering whether it is worth going on.

There was one curious observation that John of the Cross made about the Dark Night of the Spirit. He argued that man must eventually meet the devil in “the high places” of Creation and yet the one place man can hide from Satan was in doubt. “The soul’s journey, consequently, is not only hidden and freed from the obstacle these faculties in their natural weakness can occasion, but also from the devil, who without these faculties of the sensory part cannot reach the soul or know what is happening within it. Accordingly, the more spiritual and interior the communication and the more removed it is from the senses, the less the devil understands it.”

And sometimes I think the history of True Believers of the last century shows us it is sometimes helpful to doubt — if only to preserve free will — and by these curious paths advance to where we know not.

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