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A doubting Teresa

Revelations that the spiritual icon questioned her beliefs don't belittle her faith or her work.

September 01, 2007

The Sept. 3 issue of Time magazine teases newsstand browsers with a headline worthy of the Weekly World News: "The Secret Life of Mother Teresa." The impression that the exemplar of faith-based compassion was involved in something unsavory (dogfighting?) is dispelled by the fine print: "Newly published letters reveal a beloved icon's 50-year crisis of faith."

Time's cover designers obviously think even that revelation falls into the shock/horror category. The story inside is more balanced. It quotes the dramatic contents of Teresa's letters to various spiritual advisors -- including a reference to Jesus as "the Absent One." But it also quotes a Jesuit priest who likens the ebbing of her intense religious feeling to a marriage in which infatuation gives way to a more subdued loyalty when one of the spouses falls into a coma.

Still, many admirers of Mother Teresa, Calcutta's "saint of the gutters," will be shocked to read that she once wrote: "I am told God loves me -- and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." A few will be tempted to agree with essayist and atheist Christopher Hitchens that her perseverance in the religious life despite her doubts was an example of "cognitive dissonance." Hitchens compares it to the doublethink of communists who realized that the Soviet Union was a failure but dared not admit that their lives were therefore meaningless.

That leap of unfaith is unnecessary. Mother Teresa's agonies of doubt place her in the mainstream of Judeo-Christian belief. Almost from the beginning, those who worshiped God worried that he had deserted them. In the Hebrew Bible, the psalmist cries: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" -- a sentiment echoed by the dying Jesus in the New Testament.

Almost as well known is the paradoxical plea of the man who asked Jesus to cast demons from his child: "Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief." To the nonbeliever, the coexistence of belief and unbelief can seem to offer proof of cognitive dissonance. To the believer, however, it can be perceived as a consequence of a world in which the reality of a good God is manifest at some times and excruciatingly elusive at others.

What endures for many believers, even in times of "darkness & coldness & emptiness," is the divine injunction to serve others. The Book of Hosea says (and Jesus reiterates) that God desires "mercy and not sacrifice." Mother Teresa wasn't the first, or last, person to heed that call even when beset by doubts. That doesn't diminish either her faith or the good works it inspired.

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