Doubting Teresa

Signs of Hope in Mother Teresa's Long Crisis of Faith

Can there be any example more illuminating about what faith demands than Mother Teresa’s recently revealed crisis of faith?

Crisis of faith…and Mother Teresa? Yes, the two go together. She was human after all. Her crisis of faith is revealed by biographer Saviero Gaeta in his forthcoming book Il Segreto di Madre (Mother Teresa’s Secret). Gaeta has close links to the Vatican, having worked for the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, according to a recent article in the London Daily Telegraph. Saviero, the article said, obtained access to Mother Teresa’s letters as the foundation for her biography. Most telling about the letters is the juxtaposition of a woman who experienced mystical experiences between 1947 and 1948, and yet who later wrote that she was working on the Lord’s behalf on “blind faith.”

In one of the passages attributed to her letters circa 1958 she wrote: “My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains,” and that though it seemed “my faith, my hope, and my love are overflowing, and that my intimacy with God and union with His will fill my heart; but if they only knew…” The letters suggest that this crisis of faith lasted, on and off, for the better part of 50 years.

Although many may find this crisis of faith disturbing in such a towering religious figure, I find it inspiring. Why? Because it proves to me that I am not alone—and that doubt is human.

Can anything be more human than Mother Teresa’s struggle with faith? After all—who ever said faith should be easy? If it was a sure thing it wouldn’t be called faith, right? And if a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and saint-to-be can doubt, and carry on, why can’t I?

There’s a dictum amongst dramatists that if you want your heroes to be truly heroic you put an insurmountable obstacle in their way. And if you want them to be truly human you test them against that obstacle over and over again until the obstacle itself becomes a flowering part of their humanity.

Another towering religious figure of the 20th century—the Mahatma Gandhi —who worked the same continent, included doubt as a natural process of faith. Gandhi, in a 1931 talk he gave to the people of the United States as part of a radio broadcast from London, alluded to the fact that faith involves questioning. Gandhi refuted the idea that God does not exist, and in doing so he cut to the root of all faith. I include it here because it hints at an individual arriving at faith against an undercurrent of doubt. (The following passage is an except form the book, God Makes the Rivers to Flow: Selections from the Sacred Literature of the World.)

I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds together, that creates, that dissolves and re-creates. That informing power or spirit is God. And since nothing else that I see merely through the senses can or will persist, He alone is.

True this is a view of faith from a Hindu perspective. But it cuts to the quick by suggesting that faith is intuitive. And it suggests that in the final accounting faith is nothing short of forever changing.

And Mother Teresa’s last letters suggest that her faith (and doubt) was ever changing too. In a letter written six years before her death, Mother Teresa wrote that she was “beginning to love my darkness.” Was she beginning to love her doubt, or was she learning to love her tested faith?

Perhaps the only answer available to us now is that she chose the word “love.” What can be more uplifting to any “doubting Thomas” than the life of a woman who embraces uncertainty in a heroic act of faith?

Gaeta’s biography of Mother Teresa, “Il Segreto di Madre Teresa,” is published by Piemme.