Q. My wife just shared with me an online article about Mother Teresa’s lack -- or rather absence of -- faith for the better part of her life. This has upset her so much that I am taking this means to get these questions to you. Did she go to her death not knowing God or not knowing if Jesus was real? If she moved through life suspended in a deep dark void of emptiness, then what did she believe? -- P.G., via email
A. The original story, by David Van Biema, appeared last week in TIME magazine online with the headline: “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith.” It included excerpts from the new book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light - The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta (Doubleday), edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who is cofounder of the priestly branch of the Missionaries of Charity that she founded, and postulator of her cause for canonization.
The book consists primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years. These letters reveal poignantly and pointedly her long-term spiritual struggle with the sense that God had abandoned her.
No wonder the reports were disturbing to your wife. As usual, the secular media stories lacked the theological depth, nuance and context for reporting on such matters. It’s simply not true that the letters show Mother Teresa had a lifelong “crisis of belief.” The main problem here is that reporters and commentators are confusing two very different things: belief in God and the feeling that He is near.
The excerpts published from Teresa’s letters suggest that it was only on two or three occasions that she actually doubted, or was tempted to doubt, that God did not exist. Apparently, that kind of doubt didn’t last. What did remain was the sense — she usually described it in terms of her feelings — that God was not close to her, that He had even abandoned her. She spoke of “emptiness,” “loneliness,” darkness.”
We shouldn’t minimize the seriousness of such a personal spiritual trial. But to say Teresa felt abandoned by God is very different from saying she had come to the intellectual conclusion that God doesn’t exist — and then remained in that conviction. (A couple of atheist commentators are actually trying to claim that she was secretly one of them, but that’s a total misreading of the evidence.
I’d encourage your wife not to rely on secular sources for an adequate understanding of news about Catholic matters. In this case, she need not worry that Teresa went to her death “not knowing God” or “not knowing if Jesus was real."
Actually, Teresa stands in good company among the saints who had similar struggles, though perhaps her struggle lasted longer than that of most others. St. Thérèse, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross all had a similar “dark night of the soul,” not to mention Our Lord Himself, who cried out on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). And Jesus was quoting from a psalm by King David, who had a similar experience (see Psalm 22).
As the editor of the new book notes, the fact that Teresa struggled this way is in fact one more clear indicator of her heroic holiness. Who among us could dwell for half a century among the most desperate people on the face of the earth, without wondering often, “Where is God in all this?” Yet she never gave way to despair, never let her feelings paralyze her, and continued her work of sacrificial care for the poor — a mighty, persistent act of a will that had abandoned itself to God, even when it seemed abandoned by Him.
Remember St. Paul’s words about the theological virtues: “So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). When faith and perhaps even hope stumbled, Teresa doggedly pursued the way of love. In doing so, she remained close to the heart of God, even when she couldn’t hear His heartbeat.
Order Mother Teresa's Secret Fire by Father Joseph Langford by clicking here»
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