Catholics and Protestants alike were amazed to learn of the perpetual sense of spiritual darkness and abandonment Mother Teresa experienced as she worked among the poorest of the poor. But in confessing that she had "come to love the darkness," she expressedaconvictionthat her sense of being separated from God was a way of sharing in the experience of those she served. Paul's exhortations to "Rejoice!" in Philippians can strike us with the same wonderment that this remarkable woman's life evokes.
In his March 5 sermon on Phil 3:17-4:7, Mark Labberton suggested that the passage is profoundly appropriate for Lent as it builds on the larger themes of Philippians that challenge us to "live in light of ultimate reality." Paul does not focus on observed reality but speaks of a life lived in light of ultimate things, and Lent is indeed a season in which we seek the ultimate things of God in the dark and quiet spaces of reflection, confession, and repentance.
These sober Lenten disciplines can help us surrender exalted images of ourselves and the neuroticism of comparisons with others. This season of darkness for Christians can yield fruit every bit as sweet as Mother Teresa's deep empathy and love for the poor. During Lent we face our own limited humanity; the examination of the logs in our own eyes can give us a greater capacity to understand others and offer them our gentleness.
The spiritual discipline of prayer enables us to focus on ultimate things and refuse to have our horizons limited by observed reality. When Paul writes that believers' worries and anxieties can be alleviated in prayer and replaced by divine peace, he is reflecting on Psalm 145, which connects the character of a "gracious and merciful" God with God's love for the people of God. Thus when Paul exhorts us to "rejoice always," he is not calling us to some anesthetized indifference to suffering or a pious performance that pastes a smile over a broken heart.
No, Paul speaks of a joy that is cultivated in prayer, prayer that is bathed in love and that produces a peace that recognizes the Lord's presence with us.
Paul speaks of a joy that knows and trusts the character of our God who is faithful, gracious, compassionate, and loving. During this season I pray as did Paul that the eyes of your heart might be enlightened and grow with more insight about God's love for you, God's understanding of your frailties, needs, and desires, and God's delight in fellowship with you and your life among others. May you too find the joy that comes from intimacy with God through the darkness, and the clarity that comes from seeking the most excellent things.
Love Lazarus Sechrest, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament
School of Theology