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.