Mother Teresa's Doubt I
Bill Long 8/26/07
Why the (Catholic) Defense of Her is Misguided
When the hot news of Mother Teresa's fifty-year long struggle with faith and doubt hit the stands a few days ago, the first reaction of many people was to run to her defense. Before the nature of her doubt was explored, for example, you had the Roman Catholic apologists leaping into the fray and defending doubt as a demonstration of her humanity and, paradoxically, of her faith. As the Rev. Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame University theologian said:
"It shows that she wasn't a plaster-of-Paris saint who never had a doubt about God or the ultimate meaning of life.."
Other quotations to this effect could be multiplied. Thus, already the ranks are closing around Mother Teresa, explaining her lapses of faith as almost normal challenges that any "saint" would face, made even worse perhaps by her "extreme saintliness," whatever that means.
The purpose of this and the next essay is to take issue with that interpretation of Mother Teresa's "doubt." Though all the evidence won't be "in" until the book is published on Sept. 4, from the material available to the press I think we are on good grounds for asserting that Mother Teresa lost faith during her half-century of "doubt."
What has struck me in the first few days of the hubbub around her "doubt," which no doubt is delighting the publisher, Doubleday, is that no one is yet trying to understand the nature of her doubt and then ask the question whether the kind of doubt she faced had implications for what we should conclude about her faith today. When you take some time to explore the doubt in the excerpted letters quoted in news stories, you begin to see her as suffering from a typical 20th century intellectual disease that afflicts small and great alike.
Let's explore the nature of doubt and her doubt, and then try to understand the way that the late 20th century in the West transformed the nature of how intelligent people look at religious faith.
Doubt and the Christian Faith
It isn't just enough to say, when examining faith and doubt, that doubt is a part of faith. You must be more specific about the types of doubt there are. Some, like mushrooms, are deadly while others can actually be a spice to whatever salad you are eating. In my judgment, there are three types of doubt that a Christian might face. First, there is a doubt regarding the existence of God. Second, there is a doubt concerning the truth of basic affirmations of faith. Finally, there is doubt relating to the reality of a living connection between a person and God.
Let's say a word about each. Many people througout their life doubt the truth of doctrines learned as a child or young person. For example, the modern liberal Protestant movement ("Modernists") cannot be understood without recognizing that it abandoned certain traditional views--such as of the Virgin Birth of Christ or the inerrancy of the Bible. The movement lives, if indeed there is any life in it, by doubting traditional affirmations. Many Fundamentalists try to write off the Modernists as not being Christians because they have abandoned the "faith once for all delivered to the saints." But there is lots of faith left in Modernism, despite the doctrinal doubts.
Then, there is the doubting of God's existence. I suppose this is a subset of the first kind of doubt, because you are questioning whether the first affirmation of the creed ("I believe in God the Father Almighty") is true. This doesn't seem to have been the species of doubt faced by Mother Teresa. What bothered her was not the question of God's existence but the third kind of doubt, the issue of God's felt presence or her connection to the Living God.
One can call this kind of doubt various names, such as a spiritual emptiness, a darkness, the Dark Night of the Soul, a loss of the feeling of intimacy between you and God. It is the kind of doubt that leads to the abandonment of prayer and a bit of a feeling of betrayal. The feeling of betrayal comes because the Church teaches, the Scripture gives examples of, and your earlier experience was suffused with experiences of the presence of God. The abandonment of prayer comes in its wake, since ultimately you, as a rational creature, conclude that there doesn't seem to be any reason to try to maintain a connection between you and God if one party of the phone conversation is always silent.
This third kind of doubt, with a dash of the first, was the one that seemed to afflict Mother Teresa. One of the excerpts I saw ran as follows:
"If there be God--please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul....How painful is this unknown pain--I have no Faith."
These are the words of a person tormented by the feeling of divine absense, by a sense that the connection between her and God had been lost. For any who have felt the absolute nakedness either of abandonment by God or the silence of the heavens when you have long pleaded with God in heartfelt prayer, her words are familiar, all too familiar. They reflect a profound sense of disappointment and aloneness, the feeling that the thing on which you have relied, on which you have put all your weight, centered all your massive energy, skill, love and devotion, is really not something that responds to you.
The next essay finishes these thoughts.