Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mother Teresa's doubt

So it turns out that Mother Teresa, who spent her life caring for the neglected and dying poor of Calcutta, India, had agonizing doubts about the existence of God. She confesses her lack of a sense of God’s presence in letters that have been compiled into the new book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.” Time magazine’s coverage is here.

Some critics have jumped on this revelation as proof that all religion is nonsense that won’t stand up to scrutiny by even its most fervent believers.
I disagree.

What these letters show is a change in Teresa's experience of God’s presence – in her feeling, not her will. She remained fully dedicated to the work she had felt called to do, work that few of us could stomach. This radical action for the poor – with the poor – is what distinguishes her from a pew-fleeing backslider. Even more telling is that she still longed for God, still prayed even when her prayers felt dry and empty.

Psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May wrote in “The Dark Night of the Soul” that one of the things that commonly happens in the Dark Night is that
“... people lose the concepts and images about God that have served them so well in the past. It is not at all uncommon in experiences of the night for individuals to doubt that they even believe in God anymore because all the signs and hallmarks of what they considered to be their faith are disappearing. Yet to a perceptive companion, the love for God is still there, and stronger than ever in the concern and yearning felt by the individuals. John [St. John of the Cross, 16th-century author of the classic “Dark Night of the Soul”] counsels that this loss of belief is also a good sign. Because ‘God transcends the intellect,’ the mind must be emptied ‘of everything it comprehends.’”
Feeling God's presence, however fleetingly, is such a powerful experience that belief in God's existence seems easier than belief that the sun will rise tomorrow. I know. I've felt it. I've also run into the dark wall of nothingness, where I questioned everything. Everything. And that was at a time when I needed the comfort of faith the most.

But a funny thing happens in the dark. You learn new ways of seeing. Sometimes our comfortable images of God need to be shattered, if only to remind us that God is God and we aren't. Belief isn’t a matter of deciding what you believe and never thinking again.

Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries said something once that stuck with me: Don’t forget in the dark what you learned in the light. That's good advice. But I'd add this: Don’t stop learning in the dark. If you bang your leg, it might mean you need to rearrange the furniture when the lights come back up.

I suspect there is no such thing as a believer who has never felt the absence of God, who has never felt either abandoned or deluded. Many years ago, when I first read C.S. Lewis' "A Grief Observed," written in the terrible darkness after his wife's death, I was a little embarrassed for him. The fervent Christian whose writings had meant so much to so many people seemed to have lost his faith. When I reread that book after my husband's death from cancer this April, it seemed wise and breathtakingly honest -- which was more help to me than any faith-filled assurance that all would be well.

True faith is more than “blessed assurance” and happy feelings. It’s also putting one foot in front of another, living as though there is a God – as though that God is loving and expects you to love others – even when it all seems unreal. That’s what Mother Teresa did for decades.

Mother Teresa used to say, “God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.” By any measure, she was faithful to Christ and his call to minister to the “least of these.” That made her a role model and light to many. Even her once-secret doubts shine light. They are a useful lesson to a society that values a feel-good theology of abundance and overlooks the hard work of discipleship.

At least that's how I see it. How about you? Have you walked in darkness? Did it change your beliefs or actions?


D.J. said...
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D.J. said...

Good insight, Jane.

Some of our deepest experiences with God may well come through our deepest suffering, through times when our doubts rise up. Look at the story of Job. Here is a man who loses everything - wealth, family, health - and yet remains steadfast in his trust in God ("Though he slay me, still I will hope in him.") Eventually, even his intellectual pride is shattered as God shows up with a breathtaking (and very humbling) proclaimation of his own glory, power, and wisdom. Job comes out of this experience remarking that though he knew God from afar, now he had "seen him with my eyes." Yes, we like to focus on the fact that in the end God restored his fortunes, his health, and blessed him with more children, but in the words of one of my very wise college professors, "He still had 10 tombstones in the backyard and never found out why." Often in darkness, we lack understanding. Lack of understanding breeds doubt. Doubt can be sinful when we think little of God and reject his love and sovereignty, but it can also be a powerful tool to cause us to cast ourselves upon the love and grace of a God who is in control of all things, and "does all things well." Difficult as it is to hear, I echo Jane's comment - "God is God and we're not." In the face of doubt, cling to Romans 8:28, and cling to Christ.

Anonymous said...

It shows us that even though she could not feel him, she knew he was there... it's something we're taught as children... he's always there, even when you think he's not

Anonymous said...

There is a Zen saying: "If you meet the Buddah on the road, slay him."

If you think that you have it all figured out, and that you fully know God's nature, then what you are worshipping is not God but your constructed image of God. It is an idol; not one of stone or metal or wood, but of thought, but an idol nevertheless.

As the old hymn says:

"The dearest idol I have known,
What'er that idol be--
Help me to tear it from its throne
And worship only Thee."

It may be hard to abandon the thought-idol, but "if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off."

Anonymous said...

It is the nature of man to imagine he can understand god, to be able to interpret actions so they make sense to man, and assign these sentiments to his god, so that god's action makes sense, according to man.

This reduces god to an image of man.

If god, or gods do exist, then we might understand them as a petunia understands us, or a sequoia. Perhaps it knows the other exists, but understand it, probably not.

But for man to have a god he can worship and obey, that god must relate to man on terms man can understand. As god does not usually speak directly to people, we have books and religious leaders to guide. But there is no assurance these books and leaders are not self serving, and once again man is reduced to faith.

Faith in what? More importantly, what is the basis of this need for faith?


Mark Upton said...

Some people are troubled by the recent news that Mother Teresa struggled with a 60-year spiritual emptiness so profound that on more than one occasion she doubted the existence of God.
I am not one of them.
I find the news incredibly encouraging. Because like many Christians throughout the centuries, I have also suffered through what Madeleine L’Engle referred to as “bouts of atheism.”
I find that my bouts usually occur right after big disappointments in my life. I feel hurt by people or circumstances God could have changed and I retreat out of my heart and into my head. I begin asking the question: “How sure am I that Christianity is true?”
Philosophical questions are simply more comfortable for me than going to God with my confusion so I depart my heart and embark on a quest for certainty in an effort to make myself feel more secure. What I’m looking for here is an escape from the confusion and sense of betrayal I’m feeling at the time.
I’m not alone in this. We live in a culture that places a high premium on the illusion of certainty. We want our politicians to be certain in their pronouncements. We want the stocks we pick to be sure things. We can’t stand blind dates.
And when certainty eludes us, we either manufacture a false certainty or conclude the choice we’re considering isn’t worth the risk. The politician who admits doubt isn’t elected. The prospectus that comes with our mutual fund is thrown in the trashcan. And people who are hard to read rarely get asked out.
But certainty is an illusion. Reality is simply too complex to completely fit within the finite human mind. Especially if the object of your knowing is a person who is unmanageable and unpredictable.
This doesn’t mean that reality can’t be known. It just means that certainty can’t be the prerequisite for knowledge. It means that coming into contact with reality is like trying to hug your big fat uncle. You can get your mind on reality but you can’t get your mind around it. You can apprehend the truth while failing to comprehend it. Knowing is more of a process than a point of arrival. Which means that all knowing involves risk and those risks scare us.
This is why many will be troubled by Mother Teresa’s words,

“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.”

Some will read Mother Teresa’s admission that her inner spiritual life was much darker and more painful than any of us had dared imagine and be tempted to conclude that Christianity is too uncertain to risk. Others will conclude that she wasn’t even a Christian. Very few will be able to sit in the uncomfortable space she creates where God is both real and unpredictable.
But this is why Mother Teresa’s writings are such an encouragement to me. She apparently had courage to stay in a space I so quickly flee from. She ministered to the very people I’m afraid to spend very much time thinking about. She continued to pray day after day all the while feeling completely abandoned by God.
How does it make you feel to hear her ask God why he has forsaken her? Are you tempted to dismiss her life and teaching as false? Are you thrilled to add this quote to your arsenal of proofs that Christians are faking it?
But wait. Notice that she called God “My God” while stating that she has “no Faith.” Could it be that real Christianity is just more emotionally complex than we’d imagined? Could it be that God is simply more unpredictable than we’d like to admit? That Jesus sometimes plays hard to get on purpose?
This is why I’m thrilled that her church chose to ignore her request that these writing be destroyed and actually published them instead. What she was ashamed of and sought to hide I am encouraged by and seek to highlight. Like the Apostle Thomas before her Mother Teresa has shown me that Jesus has room in his flock for doubters.
I’ll close with a quote from Frederick Buechner that has always been a great encouragement to me, “Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

Anonymous said...

I think that any Christian working in Calcutta, India would question God's presence in that seemingly forgotten corner of the world. However, the Bible states clearly that God is "always with us" and "God will never forsake us."

It is Mother Teresa's humanity that made her question and doubt. I don't look at her doubt and emptiness as anything more than her reaction to the severe poverty that the peopole of Calcutta endured. Without Mother Teresa, many who died, died in her loving arms and with her prayers.

What is important is that her faith was steadfast - and it is by faith that we are received into God's kingdom.

Anonymous said...

There is plenty of reason to doubt God. Ignoring reason makes one intellectually weak.

Anonymous said...

Mark Upton writes: Frederick Buechner says:
“Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me.”

Many ways are easily imagined, yet each that I think of require god to do something which man cares about, saving people, avoiding drought etc. Each would be a message from god that man is important. But perhaps man is not as important to god as men would like. Or perhaps the Cathars were/are right.

In any event, requiring faith as the important factor in being saved, and not some exact behavior or work, allows being saved to be determined by the individual, not just the part of having faith, but what the faith is and is based upon.

If then all I believe is that god exists, requires no code of behavior on my part to my fellow man or other travelers on this insignificant planet, but allows me everlasting life.

And whatever happened to the Cathars?

But make no mistake: for those who need religion, who require belief in a higher being, there is no substitute.

To quote Karl Marx: Religion is the opium of the masses.


The_Weaver said...

I think there lies a great misconception in assuming that people of any spiritual life "needs" this incorporation for any reason. True spirituality is something that is present within a person through a viable experience. Although, I have encountered a few who are coming from backgrounds, generations in which any conviction is simply embedded in their psyche.

That being said, the fear of such questioning is taboo, for it undermines the teachings of doctrine. I believe the Divine encourages questioning so that we may draw closer to Her, His, or for myself, Their essence. Every question raises the bar, allowing for spiritual journey, a journey to seek a higher understanding of the nature of the Divine.

This nature can never be fully understood, but the true seeker spends their lifetime on this journey. We do so, because it is important to us. We do so, because of the sublime profundity that it brings to our being.

There are many mechanisms for such a journey, whether it is art, taking a walk through the park, or becoming a part of various charities.

As long as every individual realizes that no "human" being has the power to sway our spiritual-ness, nor should they try, a peace and sense and transcendence will be attainable beginning in this age where people of all faiths and of none can like in a tolerant and society.

My personal story takes place two years ago. Already within a profound system of spirituality, I found myself in the hospital near death. As a woman who accepts the supremacy of the Godhead as the Divine Mother, I rested in Her, but was tempted to return to the religion of my roots. I remained with Her. She inspires me. I made it through, and She inspires me still. There are those who attempt to invalidate this experience, but for me it was the ultimate in darkness becoming light.

Do I "need" Her? Probably not, but a person doesn't "need" their mum after 18 and a person doesn't need a "best friend." I'll tell you something else too, you can't validate experience. and I'll leave it at that.

Melissa said...

This is VERY encouraging! Just because we question doesn't mean we disbelieve. I question many of my relationships; spouse, children, friend. But I'd never walk out on them or give up on them. Stay the course, even when we don't always feel like it. That's FAITH!

Anonymous said...

My question remains unanswered. What happened to the Cathars?

Those with strong religious beliefs should know about this sect and what happened to them.

The reason I bring this up has to do with the negative things religion can be used as an excuse for.

Faith might be a wonderful thing to some: to others true believers have brought horrors. Which is the truth? They both claim that honorific. It seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

If it is in the eye of the beholder, having no ability to prove itself to another, it becomes whatever the wishful wish it to be.

This is the essence of faith.
I believe, therefore it is.


pastor said...

Do you remember who said, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and also "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." Seems to me that Mother Teresa was following faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus both as she felt forsaken by God as she continued to submit to God's will. Serving God when you're not sure where God is may be the greatest test of faithfulness.

D.J. said...

Excellent point, pastor.

Bill Van Fleet said...

Mother Teresa suffered because she believed she should believe what she often could not believe. This suffering could be considered an example of cultural victimization. When the culture causes pain, suffering, disability, and early death (PSDED), the individuals within that culture become victims of that culture. But it is characteristic of cultural victimization that the victims do not recognize that they are victims of the culture, because the culture defines as good and right that which is causing the PSDED. It takes being outside of the culture and looking in to have a clear awareness of this victimization.

Most of us can look within cultures that practice female genital mutilation and can see the young girls as victims. They do not necessarily see themselves as victims, and may actively seek it, even though some have died in the process, as I understand it.

In our own culture, we poison our children, causing enormous amounts of PSDED. But we do not accept that that is what we are doing.

How much quiet suffering takes place because of our cultures demanding belief as an act of obedience?

Our religions do enormous amounts of good. But how much PSDED do they also cause?

I believe that it is possible for our species to arrive eventually at a way of life that does not involve cultural victimization. Metaphorically, I refer to our species at that time as “Homo rationalis.” Our religions will at that time be markedly different from the way they are now. I have written much about this, and it is available free to everyone at

The_Weaver said...

I have a BA in Religious Studies and know exactly what happened to the Cathars and anyone else who didn't follow the dogma of the day. I have also been a victim of religious persecution. Now, am on the brink of anti religious persecution from people who try to argue science using the word "proof" and the philosophy of "logic."

Science is so influential to my spirituality, and that sounds really oxymoronic, I'm sure. I'm terrible with math, but I make a point to try and understand the conceptual and theoretical aspects of scientific discovery, particularly astronomy.

That being said, the word "proof" is not in the scientific vocabulary, but exists only within Philosophy. Science bases its findings on empirical (That which can be found via the senses) evidence. Theories, though not drastically, change and frequently. So, on the one hand, science as a means to destroy faith is ludicrous. On the other, religions which eschew science are the point of this topic. Questioning faith. "Is doctrine fact or metaphor."

When I hear "rational" versus "irrational" I have to cringe. The first time I entered the discussion I wasn't prepared. I had to question. Those are plausible "arguments." Then, I studied Tibetan Buddhism. It dawned on me that these logic equations are based solely on the English language, and here's why. In Tibet, as a part of the tradition, the first step in becoming a monk is learning their own logical system which is completely different.

Here's my point, and it will carry into the next section, the deliberate approach to call not faith, but human experience into question in order to elevate one's own theism or lack there of, in order to tear down the spirit is subject to response. If one puts a "Well, this should rattle your world" concept in front of someone else, then a little ping pong game is warranted, because that's the point, the continual questions asked.

If we lack the ability for self inquiry, even if it's belief in the self, then where's the color, the flavor?