Doubting Teresa

I read with great interest the recent news about Mother Teresa’s battle against doubt and uncertainty in her faith. In a new collection of her letters called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (which releases on Tuesday, Sept. 4), readers will apparently get an intimate, transparent look into the emotions and spirit of one of the most revered religious figures of the 20th century. Most of us have been pretty surprised at what these letters reveal. The famed nun — a woman who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of India’s poor in the name of Christ — tells of her nearly lifelong struggle with spiritual emptiness and the silence of God.

There’s been plenty of bloggy commentary about the contents of the book, most of which hit news cycles a few days ago to ramp up the book’s publicity campaign. Some have criticized the publisher for exposing these obviously private (and pain-filled) letters to the public — Teresa apparently wanted them destroyed, but the Vatican held onto them as the potential relics of a saint-to-be — but I’m thrilled to read them, because they give me hope. Here’s an excerpt:

 

If there be God – please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul… How painful is this unknown pain – I have no Faith.

 

“Thrilled” is probably the wrong word to use in relation to someone’s private spiritual pain. No one wishes spiritual emptiness on anyone else, particularly those of us who struggle with it from time to time. I don’t rejoice in her suffering, just as I don’t rejoice in my own doubt and spiritual dryness. But I have hope because “I have no faith” is a statement I can identify with. It tells me that Mother Teresa, the super-Christian, was just as human as me.

Mother Teresa has always been an inspiration to me, but she was so high up on a spiritual pedestal that I could hardly relate, a living icon of sacrificial love and the simple life of a Christ-follower. Say what you will about the canonization process and merits of sainthood, but she had serious credentials. Decades of sacrificial service, selflessness, and heart-breaking work on behalf of the “least of these.” Wisdom. Compassion. Simplicity. Perspective. All things I aspire to, and all things she seems to have had in spades.

And yet we have this one thing — this spiritual darkness — in common. My darkness comes and goes. Some days I trust completely in the life and resurrection of Jesus and am deeply committed to the radical fullness of life in the kingdom of God. But some days I find myself…wondering. Wondering why some people seem to have a broadband connection to the voice of the Almighty when all I’m getting is the crackly static of some distant AM station. Wondering why some people are overcome with emotion during what they consider to be a Spirit-filled worship time, while I’m just thinking, “Boy, the worship leader sure knows how to use a good key change and drum crescendo to good effect.” Wondering why some days my prayer life consists of little more than a mumbled recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema, while others are not content unless their prayers are also accompanied by shouting and weeping.

My doubt and uncertainty have been constant companions ever since my college days, when I started reading more widely and studying more theology and breaking out of the Southern Baptist bubble in which I grew up. But it seems that Teresa dealt with her doubt from as early as 1953. She died in 1997. That’s nearly 45 years of crackly static.

Does this darkness cast any doubt — pun, unfortunately, intended — on the possibilities of her sainthood? I’d be surprised if it did. Because as impressed as I was with her before these letters were made public, I’m more impressed now. She worked and lived and suffered for God for decades, even though the felt presence of God was virtually absent from her life. She gave and gave and gave — pouring herself out on behalf of others — with almost nothing available to fill her back up. She felt abandoned by the God who had called her to such a difficult ministry, and yet she continued in that ministry for the rest of her life.

See Also

Abraham dealt with God’s absence for large periods of his life. Job asked hard questions of God with few answers (at least, until the whirlwind). David wrote psalm after psalm bemoaning the Lord’s hidden-ness. “How long will You hide Your face from me?” he asked in Psalm 13. In Gethsemane, Jesus questioned God’s plan — I’ve always read “take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36) as a statement along the lines of “isn’t there any other way?” — and notably dealt with God’s absence on the cross. The disciples even doubted the risen Christ when he appeared to them post-resurrection.

And now, we learn that Mother Teresa doubted, too. A lot.

So why are we so afraid of doubt? No one ever seems to talk about it at church. We put on our happy Best Life Now (TM) masks and shiny spirituality and sing our way through another couple of verses of the latest victorious praise song and don’t tell anyone we’re struggling with uncertainty. Why? Probably because it scares us: we think maybe our faith is unraveling. It’s messy: we’re not willing to admit we don’t have it all together. It’s socially unacceptable: I’ve been to churches that publicly ask you to “leave your doubt at the door,” because a doubting spirit can, according to their theology, mess up the effectiveness of prayer.

But the story of Mother Teresa — along with the stories of Jesus and David and Abraham — gives me hope. It lets me know I’m not alone. It gives me the freedom to be real, to admit I’m not always tight with the Almighty. And it reminds me of grace. I’m not saved because my theology is rock-solid. I’m not saved because of the certainty of my faith. I’m not saved because God always feels real to me. Nope. I’m saved because of Jesus.

So was Mother Teresa, the patron saint of doubters.

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