Since the 2007 publishing of her letters in which she strongly expresses her continued religious doubt, I’ve felt a strong kinship with Mother Teresa. Not because I do comparable good works, but because I can relate to her continual questioning about the nature and existence of God, and the meaning of human experience.
David Van Biema, of the Religion News Service (published in the sltrib.com; 7 Sep 2012), has recently reminded us of the enigma that is Mother Teresa:
On Sept 5, 1997, the world mourned when Mother Teresa . . . died of a heart ailment at age 87.
Exactly 10 years later, the world did a double take when a volume of Teresa’s private letters revealed that the tireless, smiling nun spent the previous 39 years of her life in internal agony. Jesus, she wrote, no longer seemed present to her, in prayer or even in the Eucharist. In letter after tormented letter she described an unrelenting spiritual “dryness,” a “torturing pain.” Her smile was “a big cloak” of deception. She admitted at one point to doubting God’s existence. Eventually she apparently became reconciled to her condition; but as far as we know, she died with it.
The news was disorienting. . . . Her Catholic Church remained unperturbed: Pope John Paul II had already alluded to her “inner darkness” as a “test” she had aced. Yet for many the question remained: How, short of hypocrisy or a psychotic break, could such alienation coexist with such obvious devotion?
The paradox still shock me.
I can’t say that it really shocks me. Here we have a woman who has dedicated her life to helping the poorest of the poor. We can only imagine what horrors she witnessed. If you multiply this suffering times the billions who have had to endure it, how could you not question the very roots of your belief structure? Why has God foresaken all these people?
But frequently devoid of faith, and for whatever reason, she continued her work with the poor in Calcutta, India, and eventually expanded her mission around the world. So, for 39 years of her life, overcome with doubt, she continued her ministry to those who most needed it. It would seem that if we were to look at Mother Teresa’s motives, suddenly they become more altruistic. Doubt and good works can coexist in the same person.
Van Biema goes on:
[T]he 2007 Mother Teresa is more compelling than the 1997 model. A woman who does great works for God is a paragon. One who does them while overcome with loneliness and doubt is a fascination. . . . [S]he may be less easily fathomed than the smiley Mother–but once considered, she is harder to forget.