Eugene Cho

mother teresa’s “crisis of faith”

Just returned from a several day speaking engagement to New York/New Jersey.  Will post some notes later on the trip.  Long non-stop flight back so took the time to read the article in Time Magazine entitled, Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith.

There may be some or many that may be disturbed and/or discouraged by the article.  In some sense, I felt “sad” for Mother Teresa for the “crisis” she was going through but simultaneously convicted by the life she pursued in FAITH despite the lack of perfect convergence of all things spiritual.  I look forward to reading the book [Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light] when it is released later.  Here’s an excerpt from the article:

That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. “The smile,” she writes, is “a mask” or “a cloak that covers everything.” Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love,” she remarks to an adviser. “If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.'” Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and the author of My Life with the Saints, a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa’s doubts: “I’ve never read a saint’s life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented.” Recalls Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light’s editor: “I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her.”

Take some time to read the article.  It’ll be worth your read. 

If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts?  Were you encouraged or discouraged, or something entirely different.  While I have joy in my convictions as a believer of God and follower of Christ, I am not afraid to call Mystery and Doubt my acquaintances.  They are have been both friend and nemesis and have accompanied my journey for some time…and have actually strengthened my walk with Christ.

Filed under: christianity, faith, religion

23 Responses

  1. Dennis says:

    Yup, just read it and I, too, look forward to reading the book. I’m curious if the author has an agenda…

  2. peterong says:

    thank you eugene for this post. it moved me and it resonated with me the reality of seasons of profound darkness. As I read the Time article, I could not help but think of C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Obseved.” the article provided such deep insight on the moments of naked turmoil of faith. i was encouraged that we are not alone in these sharing the “chalice” of doubt and absence and that she had some community to share the letters with. I am sad that she could not openly share these with the public and allow that to be part of her ministry as well. for so many of us, we have this impression spiritual giants being infallible and stalwarts without any moments of darkness. I think mystery and doubt are the necessary moment of “night” for us. it enriches and takes seriously our faith and adoration for God. It renews us. yet, in our church culture (especially Asian American), I find that these moments of authenticity towards our brokenness are seen as signs of embarrassment and weakness. In that cloaking of our brokenness I feel we rob others of an affirmation of the reality of doubt and also rob us of the ability to receive Grace in community. Grace that is so much yearning in a culture of such disrepair because of ungrace. thanks again and keep up the great work. it was great seeing you in action and to have a brief moment to connect hearts. hope all is well. Keep in touch.

  3. chrismarlow says:

    I love her honesty. I think it’s hard for us “Americans” to understand the constant pressure and hopelessness she must have felt. I wonder how many times she prayed for the sick and the hungry and how many of those prayers went unanswered.

    For me-I’m encouraged, when I doubt or wonder if my life is making a difference, I now know that someone who helped change and shape the world also had those doubts.

  4. Randall says:

    I wish this article (and Teresa’s book) had come out years earlier. For most of my Christian life I’ve been frustrated with the idea of a “relationship with Christ” which was presented to me not so much as a metaphor but as an actual relationship. There were (are) lots of sermons, books, and worship songs that talk about relationship as if some people had Jesus’ private cell phone number and chatted it up with him all day. But I never felt that and for years, I tried to hear but I didn’t.

    Today, my belief in Christ was more…what’s the word for it…utilitarian. I believed that he came to earth as God/man, died to save the world and to show them a new way to live. I did not believe (as I heard in so many gospel presentations) that “Christ died on the cross so we might have a relationship with him.” My faith has more to do with trying to figure out how to use the life that God has given me to make this world more like it was before the fall.

    There are some in the church who put a “relationship with God” at the heart of Christianity and while I don’t discount that there are some who do experience a deeply personal connection with God, I think what you do out in the world is far FAR more important as Mother Teresa’s life so amply shows.

    Wanna write more but I gotta go to work.

  5. Jennifer says:

    My first reaction was just to be so sad for her. I freak out when I am joyless for 50 min, never mind 50 years.

    But, I also think she was so lucky – more so than most people in the Christian world – because she had sensitive spiritual directors/supervisors who were safe for her to say those things to. I doubt most pastors, or church staff members, would feel very safe admitting that to their supervisor or congregation. I wonder how someone like Ted Haggard (he’s just a symbol of a lot of people) would have ended up in a different place if he had a safe confessor and could pour out his feelings without fear of losing his ministry or place in the Christian world.

    I also really respect Teresa for remaining faithful even when the good feelings were not there.

  6. gar says:

    I think I actually respect Mother Theresa even more after reading about this.

    The hardest person to be honest with sometimes is yourself.

  7. Dennis says:

    I think the article speaks to how “emotional” aspects of the christian faith can be overly emphasized. I appreciated what Randall wrote earlier.

  8. The Long Dark Teatime of Mother Theresa’s Soul

    So it turns out that Mother Theresa didn’t feel the presence of God for most of her career. Hmm.
    I generally find that trying to dissect the psyches of others is a quintessentially bad idea; it’s usually just too vague and patronizing to b…

  9. i second gar’s response: i respect her even more now.
    its good to know those we admire spiritually are still human…. and i’m sure she’s acutely aware of the Presence of God now! wow……….
    i look forward to reading this book.

  10. Rex Hamilton says:

    What an encouragment to find myself in deeper, more desperate prayer for those I minister too and the world in genral. Her feelings must come from that kind of prayer and the wrestling she encountered with God in those conversations. It also reminds me of how easy the ministry is here compared to those in the third world countries. I can be such a baby!

  11. rk says:

    but what if God really doesn’t exists?

    ok, that aside, using our feelings as an argument for the existence of God seems pretty weak. there are many who feel it and many who don’t. who to believe?

    sometimes i have such serious doubts too but i am hanging on cos i can’t see a better alternative. it’s a wager. it’s always a wager. no one can be 100% sure. which side are we wagering on?

  12. jpkang says:

    Honestly, I’m not surprised. Though not the same as the extended dark night of the soul that Teresa apparently experienced, I’ve long been struck and encouraged by the mixture of doubt and faith that I find in the disciples, clearest for me in Peter’s exclamation: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). How else can true faith grow (and false faith be given up) except through encounters with serious questions, doubts, and challenges?

    I also find very comforting something William Sloane Coffin, Jr. said: “Faith should make it possible to live with uncertainty; it shouldn’t provide certainty.”

  13. daniel so says:

    Eugene — Though I would never wish a crisis of faith upon anyone, I would say I was almost relieved to hear that even Mother Teresa was not exempt from struggle or doubt. I think people have a tendency to love the *idea* of person more than the actual person. We tend to see Mother Teresa as a cultural archetype, not a real human being. So, the fact that she struggled, as others have commented above, is strangely reassuring.

    I was a little bit disappointed at the headline Time put on their cover: “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa” — it almost sounded like they were trying to make people think she had a gambling addiction or similarly shocking secret.

  14. Blake says:

    I read this article last week when it first came out and Imust say that it has been hounding me a bit; how a woman so obviously after God’s heart and doing what Jesus himself would be doing could feel so far from God (came up in my devotional time this morning, actually). That statement you made PE about her continuing her work in faith, despite the darkness was huge to me. Now that I think about it some more, even Jesus had that time just before he was crucified.

    How incredible. She is such an outstanding woman. Like Gar and Mandy, my respect for her has gone up even more. (Though I don’t think my protestant mind will ever understand the catholic canonization process they’re in right now with her… but that’s another conversation 😉

  15. Wilson Wong says:

    I respect her desire for Jesus, and her work among the underprivileged, yet her agony points out the weakness of a faith based on feeling, but not on the Scriptures. Perhaps she also missed the whole point on how to enjoy the presence of God, Isa30:15″In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” –she worked too hard for it. She may be a great human being, but she is probably not the teacher we should follow in spiritual matters. The psalmists in the Bible had their dark moments too, but their psalms always end with a leap of faith into internal peace.

  16. […] eugene cho – where you can also find constant updates on the korean hostages in […]

  17. Aaron says:

    This article comes at a time when I, too, have been wrestling with the common disparity between the way I feel and what I do. It seems the majority of those close to me are so repulsed by “going-through-the-motions-spirituality” that they often refuse to do anything unless they “feel like it.” They desire to act out of genuine love and desire, but often fail to obey when it doesn’t strike their mood quite right. On the other hand, I read a quote this last week that read, “It is much easier to act your way into feeling than it is to feel your way into acting.” I’m not sure how I feel about this yet. I do, however, greatly admire Mother Theresa for the amount of love, sacrifice and simplicity that she continually lived by, even when she deeply struggled with feelings like doubt and loneliness. I find this both freeing and incredibly convicting.

  18. John Eaton says:

    Hey, Gene.

    Sweet postage here.

    Was it Newman’s classmates who offered “O God, if you exist, save my soul, if I have one”?

    And this one from Chicago: “God is dead, Nietzsche. Nietzsche is really dead, trust me on this one, God,” on a seminarian’s bumper down by the COOP.

    Grace be with you brother, now and always,

    John

  19. JB says:

    Late to the party here but count me as highly encouraged and one who’s admiration has much increased. I was truly moved when I read the Time article, and I find Mother Teresa so much more relatable now, and relevant to me personally.

  20. […] and the Experience of Doubt.  And okay, I’m a little biased because he quotes me [via my blog post on Mother Teresa] in the article. The inner torment Mother Teresa describes through her correspondence with […]

  21. Dear People:

    The public response to the “revelation” that Mother Theresa was subject to doubts and long periods of spiritual dryness says more about the spiritual state of our culture than it does about her. People nowadays can’t understand why she would remain a Catholic if she wasn’t “getting off” on it. Where’s the euphoria? Where’s the payoff? If Catholicism was such a “downer” for her, why didn’t she just move on? The idea of suffering for one’s Beloved (human or Divine!) as being a high privilege is meaningless to such people.
    (Remember Don Novello’s character of Guido Sarducci, gossip columnist for La Osservatore Romano on Saturday Night Live? In one of his sketches he talked about a plan to remove the cross from Catholic churches because “the logo is a downer.” I’m not sure people could understand the humor of that today.)

    It may be that God was calling Mother Theresa, who in “natural” terms was a “cataphatic” contemplative, subject to visions and auditions and sensible consolations, to a different vocation: that of the apophatic contemplative, who encounters God in the barrenness, mortification and dark night of all the faculties of the soul — until he or she learns that the feeling of God’s absence is the very SIGN of His presence. And she may not have fully understood everything that such a call might entail.

    We mustn’t forget that Christ felt abandoned by God too: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Clearly he never doubted God’s existence; atheists never feel “abandoned by God.” And I’m sure that Mother Theresa never doubted His existence either; she simply mourned His felt absence, like John of the Cross, and Rumi, and so many other mystics always have. So what else is new? What else is new is that people are clueless nowadays about the fundamentals of the spiritual life.

    Sincerely,
    Charles Upton
    cupton@qx.net

  22. Brian Pendergast says:

    I think what is missing from the discussion of this intriguing finding is that many of these letters were published despite Mother Teresa’s insistence otherwise. While there is great good (in my opinion) that can come from such a well-known spiritual figure admitting to having a season of great doubt and wilnderness-wandering, beyond what many of us could imagine, I feel a heavy sadness that these letters are published not merely without her awareness, but against her ealier wishes to do so. Are we (as a culture) that bent on stirring things up and making a profit that we violate someone’s life and innermost thoughts?

    It doesn’t feel very Jesus-like to do that to someone…honoring Mother Teresa would have been to honor her wishes to keep these letters as a mysterious, unknown part of her story. (even if it unfortunately continues to place her upon an inaccurate “faith pedastal.”

  23. emergingleadership says:

    Just finished the book. My take? Equal parts respect, sadness, awe, sympathy, frustration, admiration, shame.

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