Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa expressed profound doubt about the existence of God throughout her adult life according to a new collection of her letters. This revelation is a source of shock and curiosity for some, and proof of the falsehood of religious faith for others. It’s the cover story in TIME this week.

Apparently Mother Teresa wrestled with these questions throughout her adult life. They led her to ask if the charitable work she was known for was hypocritical. “What do I labor for?” she asked in one letter. “If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”

Doubt is a profound part of religious life. Many of the greatest saints in the Christian tradition experienced doubt. The Book of Job is an extended discussion of doubt and it offers no safe harbor. Similarly, many Psalms express open, raw questioning. Jesus asked, “Why have you forsaken me?” For the biblical writers, the experience of evil was too profound to be ignored, so profound that it had to be a part of the life of faith. And the Bible provides no easy answer. In our culture of fast food theology, we tend to forget this biblical complexity. The absolutist morality of some religious teachers has made doubt appear to be a sign of weakness, not a part of the mature life of faith.

It’s understandable that doubt would creep into the inner lives of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order). They carry out the most difficult work imaginable. I met with a group of these nuns in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia some years ago and we discussed doubt and faith. The nuns drove a van into the city streets in the evening and picked up the most vulnerable and ill. They also received terminally ill patients from the hospitals and were among the first to operate a hospice for patients with AIDS. Daily, they witnessed death, and actually sought out the dying.

In the hospice, I met a little girl whose face was severely disfigured because a soldier had hit her with a rifle butt. She was also scarred from some type of burn. Her disfigurement was so great it was difficult to see the form of a face.

How can a caring person not experience doubt in these circumstances? As we discussed the question, the nuns were forthright. They did get overwhelmed at times, but they always felt the strength of a spirit beyond their own resources, they said. I thought how remarkable that must be, and also how inadequate my faith was.

The little girl’s face still haunts me. And the reality of the evil that disfigured her cannot be easily resolved with platitudes, nor philosophical treatises discussing evil. It’s just too deep to be explained away. It’s no wonder Mother Teresa wrestled with this.

The fact of evil doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God, nor the correctness of belief. Paradoxically, the presence of doubt is no measure of faith in the long term. Perhaps it’s more important for us to know a figure no less charitable and self-giving than Mother Teresa, as Job before her, experienced the same doubts and fears the rest of us harbor. Doubt is an existential reality and in that realization is maturity and perhaps a measure of hope. To doubt is not simply to be lacking in faith. It is to be human. And to be faithful is not to be free of doubt, it is to engage the difficult questions and struggle with life’s meaning in the face of the evil that distorts and disfigures in many different ways. And In the meantime, we serve, each in our own way, we serve because no matter the answer, the suffering must be eased, the ill cared for, the dying comforted and held close.
This, we do know.

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