Saints Who Struggled With Doubt
When I contemplate the saints in heaven, I see them as bathed in the joyous light of God. No cares, no sorrows, no agitation; only wave upon wave of happiness cascading into their souls. Forever happy and safe, they can only lift their hands and voices in praise. Some saints experienced a portion of this light all along life’s journey; others, no less holy, traveled along a dark path. The following saints share their advice for navigating through dark times to the Land of Light.
1. Saint Jane Frances de Chantal (1572-1641)
Among the saints, a good number were wives and mothers. St. Jane Frances de Chantal was happily married to Baron Christophe de Chantal. They brought seven children into the world, four of whom survived to adulthood. The Baron’s accidental death while hunting ended her earthly happiness. She was only 28 years old. Her husband’s death caused a lifelong struggle with doubt: “On the one hand, I am caught between the excruciating pain, and on the other hand, my love for our holy Faith that is so deep, that I would rather die than deny the least article of it.”
She chose steadfastly not to cave in to discouragement. In response to her uncertainties, she lived a very prayerful life, asking God for a spiritual director. When St. Francis de Sales came to preach a Lenten retreat at her parish, she recognized him as the director she had seen in a vision. She begged him to be her spiritual director, albeit with no small challenge. She expressed the desire to become a Carmelite nun, and he suggested that she might start her own her religious congregation.
In response, she founded the Congregation of the Visitation with the help of St Francis. When she died, there were 87 monasteries and tremendous growth after her death. Nonetheless, her journey was not on a radiant path: “Most often, there is a confused sort of strife in my soul, between feelings of being plunged into impenetrable darkness that I am powerless to do anything about; I have a kind of spiritual nausea that tempts me to give up trying. When these trials are at their most severe, they hardly let up at all, and they cause me unimaginable torment, so that I would almost be willing to do anything to be relieved of this torture.”
Her Response to Doubt
Why God allows certain souls to walk a dark path remains a mystery. St. Jane was a very holy woman, so it was obviously not her own fault. She endured her struggles principally by three means; first, she opened her soul to St. Francis de Sales. Spiritual direction is very important for all persons who are seeking enlightenment. She did not trust her own judgment as being perfect, and therefore gave herself to trust in his advice. Revealing one’s struggles to a trusted guide is most beneficial to remaining in peace.
Secondly, she exercised trust in God, though she felt nothing: “I’ve had these temptations for forty-one years now; do you think I’m going to give up after all this time? Absolutely not. I’ll never stop hoping in God.” Thirdly, she practiced patience and constancy to a heroic degree and thereby completed the journey in peace.
2. Saint Paul of the Cross (1694-1775)
St Paul of the Cross gives a remarkable example of perseverance through darkness. This wonderful Italian saint of the 18th century founded the Passionists, a congregation whose principal devotion is the Passion of Christ. The notable aspect of Paul’s experience of darkness is that it not only lasted forty-five grueling years, but twelve years of intense spiritual joy preceded it and five years of consolation followed it. He understood his trial in terms of sharing in the Passion of Christ, especially the aspect of feeling abandoned by God. He likewise grasped that his sufferings were obtaining grace for those who were in need of spiritual help.
Nonetheless, he did not despair nor allow himself to be mired in discouragement during his trek through the dark forest. His faith kept him going, knowing that a pasture of unearthly joy lay just beyond the shadowy woods. Eventually, his trial passed into a five period of heavenly sweetness. He received visions of the Virgin Mary, St. Michael, and the Christ Child. He often experienced a spiritual transport known as an ecstasy, by which his senses were suspended and he became entirely absorbed in God. St Paul’s example shows the value of patient endurance and calm trust in God during the trial of darkness; in addition, he illustrates the joyful reward for perseverance.
3. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)
St. Thérèse is quite a charming French saint. She was proclaimed the “greatest saint of modern times,” by Pope Pius X. She earned this accolade not so much through her charm, but through her virtuous life and wisdom. Her teachings, found principally in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, explain her doctrine known as the “Little Way.” A brief description in her own words is, “The abandonment and the love of a child who knows that his Father loves him.”
However, this childlike confidence came to perfection in a crucible of suffering. In the last eighteen months of her life, as she was dying of tuberculosis, she passed through a “trial of faith,” as she termed it. “He (God) allowed my soul to be enveloped in utter darkness,” she said, “and the thought of Heaven, which had consoled me from my earliest childhood, now became a subject of conflict and torture.” In her youth, she thought atheists were not being truthful, but now she had an intimate experience of their thoughts.
St. Thérèse's Example and Advice
She did not stand by idly under the deluge of these thoughts. She went to work. “I try to practice my faith, even though it brings me no joy. I have made more acts of faith in the last year than during all the rest of my life.” By day and by night she clung to the truths of the faith, even to writing out the Creed with her own blood. ”Oh, if you knew what horrible thoughts constantly oppress me,” she said. Her method consisted of never debating with the thoughts. “Whenever I find myself faced with the prospect of an attack by my enemy, I am most courageous; I turn my back on him, without so much as looking at him, and run to Jesus.”
The Meaning of Her Trial
Was God punishing her? Was He purifying her soul? Her own intuition on the matter was that she was atoning for those who had lost the faith. She gave a comparison of sitting at a table with the worst atheists and their bitter food, and yet clinging to God and interceding for those who denied Him.
Ultimately, having passed through this experience with doubt, she can now help those who still walk in the shadows. “I believe that the blessed in heaven have great compassion for our wretchedness,” she said, “They remember that when they were frail and mortal like us, they committed the same faults, endured the same struggles, and their love for us becomes greater even than it was on earth. This is why they do not stop protecting us and praying for us.”
4. Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997)
“If I ever become a Saint-I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven-to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”
When the time came for Sister Agnes Gonxha to profess religious vows as a Loreto Sister, she desired the name of Thérèse. She felt a strong bond with the 19th century French nun, and wanted to have her as a patron. However, another nun had already taken that name, so she opted for the Spanish equivalent, Teresa. Mother Teresa has many things in common with her patron, not least being a battle with doubt.
The “Call within a Call”
On September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa was on a train ride from Calcutta to Darjeeling, for a much-needed retreat as a Loreto Sister. On the way, she had a mystical encounter with Jesus, who asked her to go the “holes of the poor,” to bring them relief. She was happy teaching as a Loreto Sister, but she obeyed what she termed a “call within a call.”
For the next several months, her spiritual life overflowed with consolations. Then the darkness descended. When the change came, she at first thought it was her fault. In the years that followed, she came to understand that it was a sharing in Jesus’ own thirst on the cross. In letters to her spiritual directors, she revealed an aching thirst for God, which mirrored Jesus’ own thirst for souls. Painful though it was, she accepted her trial of faith as being a way to emulate Jesus on the Cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1, Mt.27:46)
Saint Teresa’s Example
Saint Teresa shows that the suffering caused by doubt is not meaningless, nor is it necessarily our fault. It has value in God’s eyes, when offered to Him with love. She accepted it as way to imitate Jesus on the cross, and thereby to help souls to Heaven. In Catholic theology, this is known as "co-redeeming.” Jesus is the sole Redeemer, but He allows members of His mystical body (the Church), to share in His work. (see Col 1:24) Moreover, His grace can be at work in the soul, as fully manifest in Saint Teresa, and yet not be felt. Faith is not a matter of feelings, but a decision of the will.
Upward and Onward!
If you walk a dark path in this life, be not discouraged. Those who have successfully completed the passage can help those still on the way. St. Jane Frances de Chantal reveals the value of guidance in the spiritual life. St. Paul of the Cross shows the value of patience and trust while journeying through darkness and the rewards that follow. St. Therese teaches the necessity of exercising soul muscle (faith) and ignoring the enemy. St. Teresa shows that the suffering caused by doubt has value in God’s eyes, when offered to Him with love. By their example, advice and most especially by their heavenly help, the saints can help the doubtful to go upward and onward to the Land of Light.
The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux
ICS Publications, 2005
The Hidden Face: A study of St. Thérèse of Lisieux,
by Ida Friedericke Görres, Pantheon, 1959
Mother Teresa: Come be my Light, edited and with commentary by
Brian Kolodiejchuck, M.C., Doubleday, 2007
The Story of a Soul is available in pdf format here.
…or as a free audio book.
St. John Paul II explains what co-redemption means in an apostolic letter called Salvifici Doloris.
An article about St. Jane Frances de Chantal.
Butler's Lives of the Saints, Concise Version, edited by Michael Walsh; Harper & Row Publishers, 1985; pages 414-416
© 2018 Bede