In her op-ed piece, “Rooting for Mother Teresa” (the New York Times, July 13, 2013), Ada Calhoun expresses her disappointment that Pope Francis has recently put his papal predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II on the fast track to official sainthood while allowing Mother Teresa to remain “merely beatified.”
Calhoun writes that when she did some volunteer work in Calcutta for Mother Teresa in 1995, she “was moved by her total commitment to the work at hand, which amounted to diverting a flash flood of sorrow, suffering and need directly into her front door.”
Calhoun acknowledges that Mother Teresa has had her vocal critics – most notably the atheist Christopher Hitchens, who attacked her in his 1995 book, “The Missionary Position,” for, “among other things, not offering higher quality medical care to those in her clinics, and for taking money from the likes of Charles H. Keating, the tarnished financier, and the Haitian dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier.”
By way of contrast, some of the Catholic faithful have criticized Mother Teresa not for her deeds but for her doubts. The world at large did not become aware of her religious doubts until the publication by Doubleday in 2007 of “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.” The book’s editor, Brian Kolodiejchuk, with the Missionaries of Charity (the order founded by Mother Teresa in 1950), edited a number of Mother Teresa’s letters and diary entries and, in addition, provided a most useful commentary. This book is a must-read for anyone who is concerned with the complex and mysterious workings of the life of the spirit.
After reading Calhoun’s column, I went back to “Come Be My Light,” which I had first read within months of its initial publication. It cannot be denied that Mother Teresa’s letters and diaries do reveal a deep darkness within her soul, a strife of the spirit, a profoundly painful sense of God’s absence, the soul-shattering shock of having become an abandoned bride of Christ.
Typical of Mother Teresa’s many revelations regarding her inner turmoil are these words written on a separate paper attached to a letter to one of her most important confessors, Father Lawrence Trevor Picachy, on July 3, 1959:
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?
“The child of your love – and now become as the most hated one – the one You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved… The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. – Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness – My God – how painful is this unknown pain…
“When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul…”
This text shows Mother Teresa, born in Macedonia as Agnes Bojaxhiu, passing through what St. John of the Cross has called “the dark night of the soul.” Many truly religious people experience this darkness from time to time; what is admittedly unusual in Mother Teresa’s case is that she endures her “dark night” for years or even for decades. Nevertheless, over time Mother Teresa does come to “love the darkness”; for ever so slowly she reaches an understanding that her personal suffering is a sacred gift that enables her to participate more fully in the suffering of the poor of Calcutta and in the infinitely greater suffering of Jesus on the cross.
I would argue that what makes Mother Teresa a spiritual giant is that, despite her inner turmoil, she remains loyal to a vow she made in April 1942, when she was just 32-years-old, “to give God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’”
Year after year, decade after decade, Mother Teresa brought comfort, hope and healing to the poorest of the poor, to the lowest of the low in the slums of Calcutta.
She did this work not because her service to the poor made her feel good; she did this work because she was determined to honor her vow not to refuse God anything. It is in her courage to doubt that Mother Teresa most convincingly demonstrates the courage of her faith.
There are those who profess to be shocked at what Mother Teresa (1910-1997) has revealed in her private writings. There are some who have gone so far as to accuse her of being a hypocrite, a spiritual imposter who preaches the glories of a God-filled life even as she herself remains God-empty. To my way of thinking, such critics are religiously shallow; they seem to think that the religious life is defined by how we feel, by the robustness of our faith, rather than by what we do.
Our own Jewish tradition impresses upon us that religious doubt is never an excuse for lack of ethical action. Indeed, it is often the good deed that ultimately repairs our relationship with God. We Jews are now well into the month of Elul, the month of heshbon ha-nefesh, the month of taking moral and spiritual inventory, of tuning the muscles of our inner life to make ourselves ready for the High Holy Days, which begin in early September this year.
During this time of reflection, we can surely learn from Mother Teresa how to marry the courage to doubt with the will to believe and, whenever appropriate, to act upon what God holds most sacred.
James B. Rosenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, the Reform synagogue in Barrington.