The Doubts of a Saint: Mother Teresa's Unfelt Faith

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict 

Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God, - please forgive me. - Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa was the stereotypical nun. Self-effacing, self-sacrificing, hard-working and always in prayer, she seemed to embody saint-like qualities. She held the hands of lepers as they died. She kissed the cheeks of faces sunken in starvation. She ministered to the poorest of the poor, with her hands, her smile and her loving attention.

Certainly she had faith at least the size of a mustard seed. Or did she? A book released earlier this year says yes ... and no. In "Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta," we learn that Mother Teresa's prayer life grew arid and empty; that she felt abandoned by God; that even as she promised Jesus' love to others, she no longer felt it. She was desolate.

The letters contained within "Come Be My Light" reveal the depth of Mother Teresa's desolation, which continued – with a brief respite – for 50 years. The meaning of her experience, and the lesson we can glean from it, is less clear. Was her desolation, as many theologians have postulated, a "dark night of the soul," shared by mystics across the centuries in preparation for union with the divine? Was it a clinical depression that could have been cleared up with medication? Was it truly a crisis of faith? And what – if anything – can we learn from it?

"Mother Teresa was a saint, she wasn't perfect," Sr. Mary Core, OSB, says. "She served the poorest of the poor and spoke for those who had no voice. Whether she had doubts or not, Mother Teresa's faith was evident."

Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu was 18 years old when she entered the community of the Sisters of Loreto in Ireland. After nearly 20 years of happy religious life, Mother Teresa had a series of mystical experiences in which she heard Jesus ask her to found a new order that would serve the poorest of the poor in India. Almost from the moment that she left the Loreto Sisters and founded the Missionaries of Charity, she ceased hearing Jesus' voice and experiencing his presence.

Theological explanations
"St. Ignatius Loyola suggests three possible explanations for spiritual desolation," writes James Martin, SJ, in America magazine (9/24/07). "First, we may be 'tepid, lazy or negligent' in prayer. ... Second, (desolation) may test 'how much we are worth and how far we will extend ourselves in the service and praise of God.' ... Third, it may give us 'true recognition' that consolation is 'a gift and grace from God our Lord.'"

Whether we ever discern the true reason for Mother Teresa's desolation – none of the above seem to fit - Fr. Martin says grace might come via her letters. "Having ministered to the sick and dying in Calcutta during her lifetime, she will now minister to the doubtful and doubting as a sort of saint for the skeptics."

The role of doubt in faith
"It's common to question your faith at different times of your life," Sr. Susan Hutchens, OSB, says. "Young people need to do so, in order to claim their faith as their own. Older people may find themselves in doubt because they never came to grips with the question, 'Who is God?'"

Other kinds of doubt can grow and persist at any time of life. Doubts about one's worthiness, for example, or doubts about God's attentiveness and benevolence. "Doubt is part of the human condition," Sr. Mary Jean Feeney, OSB, says. "We need hope. Hope is the bridge between doubt and faith."

Sr. Sheila McGrath, OSB, agrees. "We aren't wrong or bad for having questions and doubts. It's helpful to have doubts - they can strengthen our faith. Think of how much we appreciate the sun after a spate of overcast days. Hope helps us get through. And remember, saints from John of the Cross to Teresa of Avila had profound doubts. So when we doubt, we are in good company."

Of course, having doubts feels more like a curse than a blessing, particularly when they make us feel guilty and unworthy. "Doubts that God really loves us or will forgive us for our sins can precipitate troubling spiritual crises," Sr. Teresa Ann Harrington, OSB, says. "Sometimes the best prayer is the one quoted in Mark's Gospel: 'Lord, I do believe, help my unbelief."

The role of faith in doubt
As Mother Teresa continued to put one foot in front of the other, her faith – however unfelt – must have helped propel her forward, the Sisters agree. "Faith is a gift," Sr. Susan says. "Jesus said, 'I will always be with you,' but he didn't say how or where. Just because you don't always feel God's presence, or believe you have faith, doesn't mean you don't have faith."

That is, faith is not a feeling, per se, but a gift that must be nurtured. "God is with us no matter where we are on the continuum of faith," Sr. Marlene Miller, OSB, says. "If at this moment you don't believe, that's okay. But by tending your faith, you will have a strength available during times of crisis."

Our relationship with the divine
Cultivating awareness of God provides strength when we don't feel faith, or when the fervency of our faith fades. While Mother Teresa certainly appeared to have lost the feeling that God was with her, for example, many of her letters – including the one excerpted at the beginning of this article – are addressed to God.

Mother Teresa's life of prayer clearly yielded a faith at least the size of a mustard seed: look at the mountains she moved. Puzzling though her desolation will continue to be for theologians – some postulate that she experienced her abandoned feeling because she asked Jesus repeatedly to drink only from his chalice of pain - the bottom line for the rest of us is this: she never quit trying. Her faithful actions will continue to move mountains for the rest of us in her death.
When you have doubts ...

Know that it is all right to doubt, but wrestle with it. Try the following methods when you need them:

*talk about it with God
*talk about it with friends
*seek some silence
*listen to good music
*go out into nature
*keep a journal
*write a letter to God
*ask your parish priest
for the name of a good spiritual director

- compiled by Srs. Sheila McGrath and Teresa Ann Harrington