Mother Teresa — Crisis of Faith

Posted on September 22, 2007

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motherteresa-crisisoffaith

“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.”
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

On Dec. 11, 1979, Mother Teresa, the “Saint of the Gutters,” went to Oslo. Dressed in her signature blue-bordered sari and shod in sandals despite below-zero temperatures, the former Agnes Bojaxhiu received that ultimate worldly accolade, the Nobel Peace Prize. In her acceptance lecture, Teresa, whose Missionaries of Charity had grown from a one-woman folly in Calcutta in 1948 into a global beacon of self-abnegating care, delivered the kind of message the world had come to expect from her. “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,'” she said, since in dying on the Cross, God had “[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate. She condemned abortion and bemoaned youthful drug addiction in the West. Finally, she suggested that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world “that radiating joy is real” because Christ is everywhere — “Christ in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.”

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 two statements, 11 weeks apart, are extravagantly dissonant. The first is typical of the woman the world thought it knew. The second sounds as though it had wandered in from some 1950s existentialist drama. Together they suggest a startling portrait in self-contradiction — that one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.

And in fact, that appears to be the case. A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist.”

A New Ministry

If this brings You glory — if souls are brought to you — with joy I accept all to the end of my life.
— to Jesus, undated

But for most people, Teresa’s ranking among Catholic saints may be less important than a more general implication of Come Be My Light: that if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem. One powerful instance of this may have occurred very early on. In 1968, British writer-turned-filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge visited Teresa. Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived with a film crew in Calcutta he was in full spiritual-search mode. Beyond impressing him with her work and her holiness, she wrote a letter to him in 1970 that addressed his doubts full-bore. “Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you,” she wrote. “He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite.” Muggeridge apparently did. He became an outspoken Christian apologist and converted to Catholicism in 1982. His 1969 film, Something Beautiful for God, supported by a 1971 book of the same title, made Teresa an international sensation.

At the time, Muggeridge was something of a unique case. A child of privilege who became a minor celebrity, he was hardly Teresa’s target audience. Now, with the publication of Come Be My Light, we can all play Muggeridge. Kolodiejchuk thinks the book may act as an antidote to a cultural problem. “The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”

America’s Martin wants to talk precisely in religious terms. “Everything she’s experiencing,” he says, “is what average believers experience in their spiritual lives writ large. I have known scores of people who have felt abandoned by God and had doubts about God’s existence. And this book expresses that in such a stunning way but shows her full of complete trust at the same time.” He takes a breath. “Who would have thought that the person who was considered the most faithful woman in the world struggled like that with her faith?” he asks. “And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?” Martin has long used Teresa as an example to parishioners of self-emptying love. Now, he says, he will use her extraordinary faith in the face of overwhelming silence to illustrate how doubt is a natural part of everyone’s life, be it an average believer’s or a world-famous saint’s.

The above text and picture is from the August 23, 2007 article by David Van Biema in TIME magazine. Follow this link to read the full article: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415,00.html
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