Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Time‘s cover story this week is about Mother Teresa. Specifically, it’s about her newly released personal correspondence in which she repeatedly expresses grave doubts about the truth of Christianity, even to the point of questioning whether God exists.

It’s a little hard to nail down from the Time article what Teresa did and did not believe. But some of her letters are heart-wrenching:

Yet less than three months earlier, in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she assured Van der Peet. “[But] 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 does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”

The picture one gets from this and many other missives is that of a person who desperately wanted to believe in God, but found it very difficult, and at times impossible, to do so. Here’s another:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart– & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — 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 & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

This sort of thing is hard to read. What strikes me personally about these letters is that to a certain extent the doubts she describes are ones I identify with. The arguments for and against the existence of the Christian God make for stimulating discussion (and I don’t think Christians have any non-laughable answer to offer in response to the argument from evil) but my main reason for disbelieving in God is his manifest absence from my life. At various times I have tried all of the things my Christian friends have suggested to me, but none has worked. When I read the Bible, I not only do not feel inspired, but I find myself, within a few verses, forcing myself to read on. When I pray, I only end up feeling silly for the effort. When I read the works of serious theologians and thoughtful religious people, I find myself horrified by the sophistry and the shallow reasoning. And as I go through my day-to-day activities, it never even occurs to me that there is a supernatural entity with a plan for my life. I can’ t imagine how anyone persuades himself to believe such a thing.

The truth about what Teresa actually believed died with her. Her letters offer some interesting insight into the mind of an important historical figure, but that is all. Two things infuriate me about the Time article, however.

The first is the asinine doublespeak from the various religious figures quoted in the article. They seem to think that in some way Teresa’s doubts reflect well on God’s glory:

Kolodiejchuk finds divine purpose in the fact that Teresa’s spiritual spigot went dry just as she prevailed over her church’s perceived hesitations and saw a successful way to realize Jesus’ call for her. “She was a very strong personality,” he suggests. “And a strong personality needs stronger purification” as an antidote to pride. As proof that it worked, he cites her written comment after receiving an important prize in the Philippines in the 1960s: “This means nothing to me, because I don’t have Him.”

Right. Because clearly Teresa’s main problem was her overweening pride. I would point out that, according to the article, Teresa’s spigot went dry not for a brief period after a bout of success, but rather for the rest of her life. Strong purification indeed.

The second irritation is that explanations of Teresa’s doubts that don’t involve a kind and loving God forsaking her for her own good are given barely a single paragraph, and are then quickly dismissed:

The atheist position is simpler. In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: “There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance,” he says. “They thought, ‘Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I’m not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.’ They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired.” That, he says, was Teresa.

Most religious readers will reject that explanation, along with any that makes her the author of her own misery — or even defines it as true misery.

Hitchens’ conclusion, while not the only one possible, is certainly well-justified by the excerpts presented in the article. But the article has no time for that, preferring instead to offer more gobbledygook about how Teresa’s suffering is just more evidence of God’s boundless love.

I’ll never understand how religious people think.

Comments

  1. #1 dzd
    August 29, 2007

    It certainly puts a different spin on her constant God-talk and shilling for the Catholic Church’s regressive social policies.

  2. #2 Susan
    August 29, 2007

    I saw the artice about Mother Teresa on the news a few days ago. I thought it was facinating how deep her doubt appeared to go. From what I understand, Teresa’s philosophy was, the way to find God was through intense suffering. Not to ease the suffering of others but more to suffer vicariously through the misery of others. It would seem, after years and years of self inflicted suffering and watching others suffer, there was no devine reward. Just emptyness.

  3. #3 itchy
    August 29, 2007

    From what I understand, Teresa’s philosophy was, the way to find God was through intense suffering.

    I’m not overly familiar with Teresa, but that’s an interesting view in that it’s so similar to the Buddhist “life is suffering” noble truth.

  4. #4 p. van der feen
    August 30, 2007

    Just a comment on the mother teresa article. Have you ever read this?

    http://members.lycos.co.uk/bajuu/

  5. #5 bill
    August 30, 2007

    > “that of a person who desperately wanted to believe in God”

    I think you’ve missed the point. She didn’t just believe, she had experienced a presence that she took to be God/Jesus. Then it was gone: “the silence and the emptiness is so great”. She is desperate to get that communion back again.

  6. #6 Rebecca
    August 30, 2007

    Itchy, I rather think her beliefs were in total opposition to Buddhism. While both focus on suffering in Buddhism the focus is learning how to relieve suffering and how to not suffer. In Teresa’s beliefs joining with the suffering of Jesus brings you closer to him. So one belief works to alleviate suffering in the world while the other works to elevate suffering to a sacrament.

  7. #7 Kevin Z
    August 30, 2007

    Fantastic post Jason, I really learned quite a bit about Mother Teresa. I never knew of her doubts before. I know what you mean when you write how reading her doubts made you feel and how you identify with her. I wrote briefly about my similar doubts and how I entered the road to atheism on my own blog here.

    It is very painful to know you’ve been had in such a major way. It is even more painful to know my close family members still abide by this religion, but with seemingly pseudo-conviction.

  8. #8 MJ Memphis
    August 31, 2007

    “I’m not overly familiar with Teresa, but that’s an interesting view in that it’s so similar to the Buddhist “life is suffering” noble truth.”

    As Rebecca said, there is no real similarity at all, as even a cursory look at Buddhist doctrine will show. The first noble truth is that “life is filled with suffering”, but it cannot be understood in isolation from the other noble truths: “suffering is caused by attachment/desire”; “to eliminate suffering, eliminate attachment/desire”; “to eliminate attachment/desire, follow the Eightfold Path”. The Buddha did not advocate the embrace of suffering (although prior to his enlightenment he pursued an extreme asceticism, which did not give the results he hoped for); he taught the means to transcend it.

  9. #9 Pierce R. Butler
    August 31, 2007

    An excerpt from a letter quoted in Hitchens’s The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice:

    In her speech Mother Teresa frequently referred to what God wants us to think or do. As my table-mate (an MD from Aid to International Development) remarked to me: ‘Do you think it takes a certain amount of arrogance to assume that you have a direct line to God’s mind?’

    I was unable to find in this book something I recall having read from Hitchens, probably in an article, about her having made a highly-publicized visit to the Pope in the Vatican wearing her stained work clothes, to the effect that “anyone with less ego would have worn her best dress.”

  10. #10 Monado
    September 1, 2007

    Perhaps it’s that ol’ reaction formation again. A man with doubts about his sexual orientation can be the most homophobic (viz. Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, and a long string of others), while others who are more secure feel that it’s not their problem. So perhaps the loudest bible-thumpers are the secret atheists. As Mark Twain said, ‘God has never answered a prayer’–surely that gets to them sometimes? I can see M. Teresa doing good works endlessly, taking donations from criminals, glorying in offering suffering to Christ rather than fighting against what God did to her dying patients, and endlessly abasing herself in the hopes that the actions would prove that God was real or at least that some good would come from a belief in him.

    Of course, one could simply believe as an atheist or humanist that letting one’s fellow beings suffer is wrong on the “do as you would be done by” prinicple and doing everything possible to cure, alleviate, and prevent AIDS or other diseases. And that would mean not letting religious scruples stand in the way of handing out condoms.

  11. #11 Justin
    September 2, 2007

    The coverage of this by non-believers has been disheartening. It’s like people are just fishing for “Got ya!” or “Nyah!” moments, as though it will be a mark against Christianity. Most people who are serious about religion have doubts at times, and it’s common in people of great faith/spirituality to have great doubts. If God is your entire life, then it’s very scary and saddening to think about the possibility that you are wrong. This is a mark in her favor as far as religion goes, not against her. If we found out that she never, ever questioned her faith: now THAT would be a mark against her, because it’d be blind faith.

  12. #12 Justin
    September 2, 2007

    PS. Just for the record, I’m an atheist (though it shouldn’t really matter in this case).

  13. #13 realpc
    September 3, 2007

    Jason,

    You don’t sound like a natural atheist to me. By “natural atheist” I mean someone who has no need to search for anything beyond the physical. It sounds to me that, like many or most people, you have some desire for connection and meaningfulness.

    Connection and meaningfulness can be experienced in many different ways, if we are open to it.

    Mother Teresa’s experience is the universal human experience. We all struggle and we all experience spiritual isolation, whether we are religious or not. I don’t know any details about her, but I do know that being spiritual and close to God was her claim to fame. That put her soul into a dilemma which she may never have escaped.

    Our intellects, our egos, cannot connect with our God. It just doesn’t work that way. Whatever is our claim to fame in this life will shut us off from God (by “God” I do not mean a guy in the sky. We have no way to comprehend or define whatever it is we experience as God).

    For many of us, we must sink to wretched lows before we allow ourselves to be embraced by infinite meaning and love. Sometimes that’s the only way the ego ever shuts up long enough for spiritual truths to sneak in.

    But most of the time most of us are somewhere in between, not caught up in mystical raptures but not in the depths either. It’s a constant struggle to remain connected with our creative infinite source, while experiencing our individual uniqueness and specialness. The human soul is in constant tension.

  14. #14 Kevin Z
    September 3, 2007

    Monado, Mark Twain has one of my favorite quotes “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

    Everyone, there was a segment on NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook about the revelations of her letters. I found the page for it here. I think you can listen to the ~45 min. show from that website, if not you can subscribe to On Point podcast (its one of the better news discussion programs I’ve heard) and it should show up for download since it was very recent (aug. 30).

  15. #15 Daryl McCullough
    September 4, 2007

    Jason, thanks for this essay. It showed a lot of compassion and sympathy for someone who is on the opposite side of the atheist/theist divide.

  16. #16 Beth
    March 31, 2008

    I haven’t read the “Times” article about Mother Teresa’s doubts.
    One thing I know for sure. She was the best example of love in today’s world.
    “Love” is a word that is kind of a “spiritual word”. You can’t buy it or touch it–only show it and have faith that it does exist.
    God is love. That is why I have faith in God and the Lord Jesus Christ. I know of their love and forgiveness. I am very sure that Mother Teresa did too

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