Mother Teresa, a decade after her death, is all the rage now. Where? None other than with atheists of all people.
What’s All the Buzz About?
And why? Because of the publication of an innocuously titled new book Mother Teresa: Come to My Light (Doubleday, September 2007).
Consisting primarily of correspondence between Mother Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, the book offers insight into the inner life of a believer known mostly through her external works of mercy. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by the Catholic Church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she experienced the absence of the presence of God. As the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, she experienced Christ’s presence “neither in her heart or in the Eucharist.”
Extravagant Dissonance of Supernatural Candor
Time Magazine labeled these new revelations, in contrast to what previously we knew of Mother Teresa, “extravagant dissonance.” The new breed of missionary atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, is even crueler and more mistaken than Time.
Hitchens, author of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great, recently sought to do the work of a soul physician on the soul of a believer now dead a decade. His scathing polemic claims “she was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.”
Hitchens and his ilk make for poor psychologists, destitute historians, and bankrupt soul physicians.
Stages of Faith
From a psychological perspective, research into the nature of faith, such as that done by James Fowler in Stages of Faith suggest the opposite about Mother Teresa than what Hitchens summarily proposes. Rather than exhibiting hypocrisy or being bereft of faith, Mother Teresa, in continuing to serve Christ by serving others while experiencing the absence of the presence of God was revealing the highest level of faith. Hers was not the trust of a child, nor the blind faith of those at lower levels of belief, but the highest, deepest, and most dependent reliance.
From a historical perspective, Mother Teresa’s experience has been so common for so long that it has its own name: “the dark night of the soul.” Great believers of the past, of all shapes and sizes, types and denominations, have experienced lengthy bouts of agonizing doubts.
Amongst Catholics, to name a few, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, and Saint Teresa of Lisieux (from whom Mother Teresa took her religious name) all endured the absence of God’s presence.
Of many representative Protestant believers, Martin Luther is a primary case study. So intangible was Luther’s Christ, that Luther developed an entire “theology of the Cross” to explain the paradox of a God who is most present in His very absence.
Thus, if unbelieving atheists wanted to harp on believing doubters, they’ve missed the boat for the past 2,000 years. If they think Mother Teresa is the first test case, then perhaps they should read not only Church history, but, heaven forbid, the Bible. Talk about candor! Historical biblical characters (think Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Thomas—the Patron Saint of Doubters—among many others) all lived lives of faith even while doubting.
Soul Physicians’ Diagnosis
So what diagnosis would or should a physician of the soul offer concerning Mother Teresa? First, it is important to recall that she did have soul physicians—her Confessors and Spiritual Directors to whom she wrote this now debated letters. Funny that they did not expose her as a hypocritical heretic.
Funnier too, that her own biographer/complier (Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Senior Missionaries of Charity member responsible for petitioning for her sainthood and collecting the supporting materials) gathered these letters in support of her case for sainthood.
Time Magazine put it like this. “Kolodiejchuk sees it (the characteristic stage of faith known as the ‘dark night’) in St. John's (of the Cross) context, as darkness within faith. Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with it and abandoned neither her belief nor her work. Kolodiejchuk produced the book as proof of the faith-filled perseverance that he sees as her most spiritually heroic act.”
Funniest of all, that the Catholic Church, attacked by Hitchens and his crowd of hateful doubters of those who doubt, did not seek to hide these letters. In fact, against her dying wishes, the Church chose to preserve these testimonies of doubt as evidence of faith.
Clinging to Christ
One need not be a Catholic, nor a Catholic apologist, nor even a Mother Teresa backer to acknowledge the psychological, historical, and spiritual realities behind the inner spiritual life of the former Agnes Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa’s birth name).
Personally, rather than taunt her for her torment, I applaud her. More than that, I identify with her. Her candor combined with her tenacious clinging to Christ gives me hope that my doubts are a severe mercy of God designed to harpoon me to His Spirit while the irrepressible tsunami of God’s absence batters my soul.
African American Christian Faith
Her clinging faith reminds me once again of the clinging faith of enslaved African American Christians. Nellie, a former slave from Savannah, Georgia sounds like a modern-day Mother Teresa with her startling candor.
“It has been a terrible mystery, to know why the good Lord should so long afflict my people, and keep them in bondage—to be abused, and trampled down, without any rights of their own—with no ray of light in the future. Some of my folks said there wasn’t any God, for if there was He wouldn’t let white folks do as they have done for so many years”.
When her mistress questions her about her faith, a slave known to us only as Polly explains her hope. “We poor creatures have need to believe in God, for if God Almighty will not be good to us some day, why were we born? When I heard of his delivering his people from bondage I know it means the poor Africans.”
Mother Teresa’s faith was not a case study in self-contradiction. Instead, she placed her faith in Christ rather than placing her faith in her faith. Entrusting her soul to an invisible Savior, the world saw Christ in her even when she could not see Christ in the world.