Mother Teresa's Doubts

Much is being made of the recent disclosure of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's fifty-years of struggle with doubts, even, at least at times, as to whether or not there is a God, whether Christ was for real, and whether there is a human soul that might survive death to be rewarded in the hereafter.

As a result of this disclosure, it seems that commentators of every sort are having a field day, even to the extremes of atheists claiming that it proves they've been right all along (and that Mother Teresa was a pious hypocrite) and Christian fundamentalists lamenting that she is surely in hell and blaming the Catholic Church for leading her astray in thinking she could earn heaven just by doing good things for people. But on the whole, even more moderate folks seem puzzled. Surely she deserved better from God for all her saintly heroism! However, I think that we can learn two things from Mother Teresa's long ordeal.

       One is that we should not confuse devotion, and especially the emotions that may accompany it, with faith. As a young nun, she may have experienced an extraordinary degree of feeling close to God and even, if we can believe her testimony, personal inspiration from Jesus to begin her extraordinary mission. And so if, in the midst of the demands of that mission, she suffered from a sense of loss of this closeness for the rest of her life, no doubt it was all the more excruciating in comparison to what she had formerly experienced. But in no way did she allow this distress to affect her dedication.

       But (second), even more, I think that what Mother Teresa was suffering from—and what is revealed also in many of the recent commentaries on the subject—is a widespread confusion between faith and certain beliefs or belief in general.  Faith, at least in the gospel sense of the word, is a loving trust in God. It is primarily an affair of the heart, and involves a willingness to be at God's disposal.  In contrast, belief is an affair of the head, with specific beliefs presented as information conveyed to the mind or understanding. It is very important that we distinguish between the two.  So while persons may intellectually adhere to all the articles of the Creed, they might entirely fail to live in a faithful way according to their implications. As the Apostle James (2:19-20) warns us that "You believe in the one God—that is credible enough, but the demons have the same belief, but they tremble in fear", as well they should, because, as he adds, "Faith [i.e., in the sense of mere belief] without works is useless."

But on the other hand, even if we really have faith, can we say that we can really understand God or comprehend him? If we do, then chances are we have a false idea about God, or are even devoted to an idol of our own making.

       Perhaps this is why St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), the Church's greatest theologian of the spiritual life, often spoke of a "Dark Night of the Soul" in which our faith must be purified of all reliance on our human concepts and ideas about divinity.  As he wrote in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel (Book 1, Chapter 13:11): "To come to the knowledge of All [i.e., God], you must not desire the knowledge of anything" (or "nada"—in the Spanish there is double negative).    Then John adds, "To come to the knowledge that you have not, you must go by a way that you know not." Accordingly he makes it clear that we must not fix our desire on anything less than God—which apparently includes our own sureness of our knowing anything. In other words, to reach what is incomprehensible (what God really is) we have to go by means of a path or a struggle that is equally incomprehensible.  Only thus can our faith be purified of all self-interest.

       John of the Cross admitted that his maxims were not for everyone, but only for those who seek to reach God by the most direct way possible. Mother Teresa was certainly one of those ambitious souls. Apparently no one warned her, early on, as to what she was getting into!

R W Kropf 9/3/07                                      Teresa2.doc  07-09-03.html