"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves [in prayer] but it does not speak"
-- Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
The above quote is from the recently released letters of Mother Teresa which are due to be published soon in what TIME magazine calls "an innocuously titled book". The book is called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light and gives the world a first glimpse into what many are calling her "dark night of the soul" a la St. John of the Cross. This period, as the letters reveal, was characterized by no feeling of the presence of God whatsoever according to the TIME article.
Meanwhile, I often hear people claim just the opposite. These folks are sure they feel God, sure they know he is there, and often feel he leads them to make certain decisions after a time of prayerful consideration. They say that God is telling them to do something or that he is guiding them with a "still, small voice". Surely it is possible to feel God and some of those who claim to actually have. For those of us who are unsure, we would be wise to heed the admonitions of Ruth Tucker in God Talk: Cautions for Those Who Hear God's Voice.
In light of these two varieties of religious experience, one arguably no holier than the other, there is a question that presents itself to the rest of us standing at what I'm going to call a watershed of doubt. There are many watersheds of doubt in a human life and the question of feeling God is just one. The question is this: How can either "know" unless of course they "know" in which case they "know"? To clarify, the first "know" in my question is to claim to know something. The second "know" is to truly know something. The "third" know is a doubling up of the second sense; it is to "know" in the second sense that you "know" in the second sense. Now, go back and read the question again to see if it makes any more sense to you. If not, an interesting book to read, which I have not read, might be Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief which deals with the intersection of religious experience and the sense of knowing in the question above.
I add these multiple senses of knowing to the question to acknowledge the fact that I don't see any reason to rule out as impossible these second and third senses of knowing. Interestingly, the Greek word for knowledge is gnosis (γνώσις) from which the Gnostics got there name. The Gnostics believed strongly in the idea that the material world is inherently evil and that only through a special knowledge or "gnosis" can we hope to free our spirits to live in a the eternal state of disembodied perfection. An example of an ancient Gnostic text would be The Gospel of Judas where the "Christ of [Gnostic] faith" asks Judas to help him shed his mortal body by betraying him.
I've heard it argued before and I think there is merit to the argument that much of modern Christianity parallels ancient Gnosticism. We see disdain for the material world in a poor theology of resurrection and new creation and a lack of environmental concern. We see emphasis on a unique sort of knowledge in phrases like "God has laid it on my heart", "God called/is leading me to do this", and "God spoke to me". And we see this Platonic idea of the body as a prison from which the soul escapes in an unhealthy emphasis on the idea of a rapture as escape and accusations of peacemakers as anti-Christ candidates.
Whatever the case may be, I want to suggest that perhaps Mother Teresa longed for some sort of gnosis of feeling. To "know" in my third sense of the word is to feel and for this "Saint of the Gutters" to spend a whole life doing exactly what Jesus called all followers to do and still not feel is to confront a monumental watershed of doubt, perhaps larger than you or I will ever confront. But is it possible that to feel is not a concept of true Christianity? In other words, are we expecting something from God that he never promised to offer? To answer these questions would involve, at the very least, dealing with the Biblical idea of the Holy Spirit as teacher in John 14:26, Paul's intimate relationship with the Spirit as seen in Acts 20:23 and the believer's intimate relationship as seen in Romans 8:16. Just how these Johannine, Lukan, and Pauline concepts (wow, I guess the Spirit's interaction with man was a widespread idea in early Christianity!), relate to Mother Teresa's lack of feeling is what would interest me there.
What interests me now is the fact that when the revelations of her doubt were first reported, I was not surprised at all. After all, I am not sure that I have ever felt God in my life and yet I am not distressed. Perhaps you would counter that I am in a state where ignorance is bliss and I should be very distressed and do something quickly to change course. You might say that I am in an "artificially electric lit night of the soul" to twist the metaphor a bit. I admit that this could be the case and I'm open to suggestions. But I also want to argue that this lack of feeling has never discouraged me in such a devastating way as it did Teresa and others who are raised to believe that this is the only way to know God exists. Rather, any doubt that came along with a lack of feeling expressed itself in me in the form questioning God which has only led to further growth faith.
As C. Michael Patton points out over at the Parchment & Pen blog, the story of John the Baptist in Luke 7, provides a good example of Jesus' response to doubt and questioning. John the Baptist having heard of the deeds Jesus was doing throughout Judea sent his disciples to Jesus with a question: "Are you the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?" Instead of responding by criticizing John's doubt or claiming that if John were truly of God he would be "in the know", Jesus points right back to the acts which caused John's questioning in the first place. He says, "Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them." If N.T. Wright is correct in assuming in The New Testament and The People of God that 2nd temple Jews still saw themselves as being in exile, John's disciples would have heard echoes of Isaiah in the words of Jesus and known that by answering in this way, he was answering in the affirmative. He was himself enacting within history the long awaited coming of Yahweh.
So what answer does Jesus give for John's doubt? Instead of appealing to a feeling of blind faith, inspiration, or secret knowledge, he points to concrete historical events that were occurring at the time. I think it's significant that John didn't question the miracles, but only their meaning. These were events that were occurring throughout Judea and even at the very time that John's disciples arrived according to verse 21. John wasn't relying on a feeling for belief. After all, the idea of "feeling" God's presence on an individual basis may have been altogether foreign to a 1st century Jewish mind. However, John who was most likely very familiar with the Isaianic passages about the end of exile, knew the signs of Yahweh's coming. Jesus knew John knew the signs of Yahweh's coming. Therefore he simply said, "Go and report to John the things which you have seen and heard".
So here I stand with John's predicament: I have no feeling of God and arguably no conception of what it means to feel God. I have, however, received reports similar to what John received about the things which were seen and heard, namely the gospels. I believe through no other sense than reason alone that these are historically valid documents attesting to actual events. These actual events point to the fact that God has not abandoned his creation. These events still answer, in our day as they did in John's, the question of Jesus and his relation to Yahweh. While a Mother Teresa longs to sing the phrase, "You ask me how I know he lives. He lives within my heart," she would do better to say along with me, "You ask me how I know he lives. He was seen and heard. He is risen."
After Jesus replied to John with reference to his actions, he said, "Blessed is he who does not take offense at me." Whatever else Jesus meant by this statement, far from taking offense, I have come to faith in God on account of the historical acts of the Jesus of history as compared to the feeling of the Christ of [Gnostic] Faith. That is possibly all Mother Teresa had to hold onto. Lacking a feeling, it is certainly all I and many others have and at the moment I am content.