Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa’s letters, which are to be published by Doubleday next month as Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, reveal that she was tormented by doubt throughout her fifty years of ministry. The editor of the book believes that her doubts “maker her more human.” (For more, click here.)

Malcom Muggeridge came to faith in God by investigating Mother Teresa’s work with the poor in England. The only journalist mean-spirited enough to criticize her work has been Christopher Hitchens.

How do we account for doubt in the heart of one of the world’s great saints and servants?

In the Bible, of course, anyone on whose life God has a claim, i.e., all followers of Jesus are called saints; but let’s allow the use of the word in the popular sense: a saint is a hero of the faith. I will read the book when it comes out, but for now I will risk a few guesses.

1. Great people have great faults and great struggles.

Michaelangelo’s David was made from a piece of flawed marble. The sculptor used some of the cracks in the piece to form natural lines in the masterpiece. In the same way, as St. Paul says, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Saints are damaged earthen vessels God uses carry the treasure of his love. (Lucy Fuchs has an interesting blog post on saints here.)

2. Cycles of doubt are part of the life of faith.

It is true of many of the heroes in the Bible. Job, famous for his patient acceptance of suffering, cursed the day of his birth. Jeremiah complained to God, “You deceived me.” Paul spoke of a time when “we despaired even of life.” St. John of the cross spoke of the dark night of the soul. Jesus on the cross prayed a prayer from the Psalms of David, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Most of us experience moderate, short-lived cycles of faith and doubt. Most of us experience a mixture of some faith and some doubt at the same time. Teresa had an extreme cycle: one year of visions and fifty years of doubt.

3. The nature of her ministry may have contributed to the depths of her doubting.

Mother Teresa lived with, identified with, and shared in the sorrows and sufferings of the poorest of the poor, the most wretched of the forsaken and dying. If one taught a prosperity Gospel in which God is on the side of the rich and powerful, in which wealth and health are signs of God’s blessing, such a Gospel could be self-fulfilling. People would pay to be confirmed in their complacency. It would be easy maintain faith in a Gospel of comfort, as long as one was comfortable.

But it’s a little harder to maintain confidence when one believes that God is on the side of the poor, the dying, the godforsaken. It is harder to maintain a joyful faith when one identifies with those who feel abandoned by God.

4. Faith is commitment more than it is positive thinking.

Teresa exhibited in her life what one philosopher called, “long obedience in the same direction.” Her refusal to give up when her faith had apparently left her is in itself a form of faith.