Tears of a Saint

A few weeks ago a book entitled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light was released to a considerable amount of media attention and critical commentary (including a an in depth and balanced cover story in Time magazine, I highly recommend) . The book is a collection of Mother Teresa’s correspondence with her supervisors and confessors largely during the time between her founding of the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 until her death in 1997. The letters demonstrate that Mother Teresa experienced a profound “dark night of the soul” or separation from God for essentially the entire time she was working to help, in her words, “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society.”Her struggle was apparently so profound that on at least two occasions Teresa even appears to have questioned the very existence of God and truth of Christ.

Revelations of her struggles and doubts prompted some atheistic and agnostic commentators to voice a sort of “I told you so” triumphalism. Comedian and talk show host Bill Maher (who, while a funny and obviously bright man, could be charitably classified as a religious bigot) gloatingly quipped during the August 23rd episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that:

“I think it’s interesting that someone who has long been thought of to be on the God team this week we found out is on my team! [he laughs, holds up Time magazine] Did you see this? “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa.” “Newly-published letters reveal a beloved icon’s 50-year crisis of faith.” Apparently she thought it was a crock, too! [laughter] [applause] [he kisses the magazine] Thank you, Mother Teresa.”

Christopher Hitchens, a vociferous critic of Mother Teresa’s and author of the recent God is Not Good: How Religion Poisons Everything (also the one who Keith mentioned recently criticized Billy Graham), opined in a Newsweek editorial that:

“She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.”

Hitchens, who penned a 1995 polemic against Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity (The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice), closes the editorial in a passage that drips with sarcasm and contempt for Teresa, Christianity, Catholicism, and religion generally:

“I say it as calmly as I can—the Church should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.”

Mr. Hitchens obviously feels comfortable saying what he really believes. But how fair and accurate is the interpretation of these letters offered by the likes of Hitchens and Maher? Do these letters really expose Mother Teresa as a fake? An agnostic? As a member of the “other team,” as Maher phrased it? I think not.

Let me start off by saying that I don’t intend to conclusively establish Mother Teresa’s faith or relationship with Christ. This is not something I am capable or desirous of attempting. I also do not wish to comment as to the substantive allegations of hypocrisy leveled by Hitchens anti-Teresa tome (which I haven’t read). It is possible that Mother Teresa had hypocrisy in her life and that she sinned, in fact I am fairly sure that she did. Unlike the Catholic church, I ascribe no special “saintly” standing, authority or power to the woman. From what I know of her it seems that she exhibited more of the “fruits” that Christ spoke of then I ever will. Apart from that I am more concerned with the notion that her doubt and alienation is somehow incongruent with faith in Christ.

The doubts and loneliness expressed in those letters, far from being opposite to faith, are part and parcel of the Christian’s walk with God. The scriptures are full of spiritual estrangement and doubt on the part of the faithful. Doubt seems integral to the whole of the Bible. From the intense spiritual anguish expressed by the psalmist, to the existential despair demonstrated in Ecclesiastes, to the vivid picture of Thomas’ doubt when Christ stood right before him, the pain of spiritual doubt seems an integral and expected part of the journey. In fact, to see spiritual pain and estrangement we only have to look to Christ’s anguish in the garden and on the cross, culminating in the excruciating “My God, My God why have you forsaken me” (echoing Psalm 22:1). In short, I believe the Bible demonstrates (as do our own experiences) that faith and the pain of doubt and spiritual alienation can coexist (a point made well by Michael Gerson in his Washington Post op-ed “The Torment of Teresa“)

What critics such as Maher and Hitchens are really criticizing is not true Christian faith, but a caricature, a strawman. This point was demonstrated well in the exchange which followed Maher’s comments mentioned above. One panelist contradicted his assessment arguing that doubt is a component of faith. Maher struck back arguing that the two were completely opposite and that Christianity required adherents to essentially walk in lock step and never question the party line dogma. We need to recognize that the interpretation of our faith as dictatorial and enslaving is not uncommon. The truth is that many times we are guilty of encouraging and confirming this misconception. Something we must be always vigilant and prayerful to guard against.

The culture at large, and in truth many Christians (especially those who ascribe to errant “prosperity gospel” theologies), seem to believe that for religious faith to be true it must produce health, wealth and spiritual bliss. I find it no coincidence that Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now and The Secret have both been such runaway bestsellers (I also find it no coincidence that some of the most fervent exponents of such ideas have private jets – but that’s for another post). They appeal to the same desire . . . “spirituality” that promises material wealth, health, and happiness if executed correctly. The secular culture looks at the torments of Teresa and thinks “see, Christianity can’t be true.” Those in the prosperity gospel camp see pain and suffering and think “see this is what happens when you don’t pray hard enough, have sin in your life, and aren’t close enough to Jesus.” We must resist the temptation of assessing the veracity of faith by how successful, healthy, and happy a person is.

The Time article discusses how Teresa eventually seemed to have integrated her spiritual suffering into her faith and found peace. This process was apparently aided through the counsel of the Revered Joseph Neuner, who:

“seems to have told her the three things she needed to hear: that there was no human remedy for it (that is, she should not feel responsible for affecting it); that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and her very craving for God was a “sure sign” of his “hidden presence” in her life; and that the absence was in fact part of the “spiritual side” of her work for Jesus.”

Teresa apparently took this message to heart, writing to Neuner in 1961 she stated:

“I have come to love the darkness–for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth.”

Such a statement, while imbued with difficult truth, should encourage faith not undermine it. Let us remember where our hope truly lies. Our hope is not found in the promise of life without suffering, it is found in the truth that Christ shared (and continues to share) in that suffering and in our faith that God is in sovereign control . . . even in the midst of our spiritual loneliness and doubt.

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