I perked up the other night when I heard Mother Teresa’s name mentioned on national news. Her diaries, some commentator intoned, show us an entirely different woman from the sainted nun who walked the streets of Calcutta doing good.
The reporter went on to say that most of her life she had doubts about God. The conclusions drawn from the media suggested that Mother Teresa was a fraud and a hypocrite–saying one thing publicly, while feeling something entirely different in her heart.
I began to scratch around to find out what the scandal was all about. What I learned was that her diaries, which she never intended for public consumption, have been recently published. They report a correspondence between Teresa and her confessors for 66 years. What do we learn from these heart-sent letters?
She spent much of her time wondering why she did not feel the presence of God. She often asked if God existed at all. She wrote about the loneliness that she felt and wondered if her work mattered. Her diaries would show that there were periods when the dark clouds would lift, but they always came back. Because of her doubts commentators have raised questions about the validity of her faith.
We must set the record straight. Mother Teresa felt at the age of 36 a calling to the poor and the abandoned who lived in the slums of the city. She felt called to work with the poorest of the poor, the sick, dying, beggars. So her work began: reaching out to the unwanted and uncared for in Calcutta, India.
Now over 4,000 nuns run orphanages, AIDS hospices, charity centers all over the world caring for refugees, the disabled and the needy. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work around the world. There are over 500 convents in 100 countries that still follow Mother Teresa’s vision of helping the least of these.
Was she a fraud? An imposter? How could anyone work day after day with the poorest of the poor, the dying and the abandoned, and not be depressed? How could any person not wonder if their work was in vain when the sea of need was unending?
The commentators have misunderstood the nature of faith. The Bible is punctuated with doubters like Job, Jeremiah and the Apostle Paul. Jesus himself asked: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
The roll call of religious figures in history is marked by doubt and human imperfections. Most wondered in the dark night of their soul if God was there and if their work mattered.
Faith is shot through with doubts. Mother Teresa kept her doubts close, but she shared her wonderings in her letters.
But the miracle of her life was that she kept on reaching out and doing the work she first felt called to until her death in 1997. Who could possibly sneer at such a record of selfless faithfulness?
Surely she could have given herself to eradicating poverty on a large scale instead of a one-to-one ministry. Certainly her clinics and centers could have been cleaner or more to date. Maybe she had an extremely conservative view of the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Nevertheless, God calls imperfect human beings to do God’s work. We on the inside of the church know that every saint has clay feet. Despite our flaws and imperfections, God uses human instrumentality. Doubting goes with the territory.
Once a reporter asked Mother Teresa why she did the dirty work of picking up little dying children and reaching out to those whose living conditions would never change. Wasn’t that an impossible task? Why do you do what you do? Her answer was succinct: “Young man, I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.” Seems like a pretty good definition of a saint–doubts, warts and all.
Roger Lovette is interim pastor of the Valley Christian Church in Birmingham, Ala. This column appeared in the Birmingham News.