Mother Teresa's Struggle

Admiration for a woman who accomplished great things in the face of spiritual despair.

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Pre-publication buzz about a book containing Mother Teresa's private writings, Come Be My Light, occasioned an unusually strong burst of media attention last week, including a cover story in Time and coverage on all the major networks. The big news was that the Albanian-born religious who devoted her life to caring for India's poorest and most wretched underwent a long period of spiritual doubt and torment. Beginning in 1948, the year the 38-year-old nun started the Missionaries of Charity, and lasting until her death in 1997, Teresa was haunted by the loss of God's sustaining presence in her life. Struggling through her doubts with various confessors, she learned to accept this painful condition as part of her Christian journey, as important in its own ways as the missionary work that she and other nuns in her order carried out.

At least as interesting as the revelation of Teresa's long spiritual drought have been the varied reactions to it. In addition to surprise and sympathy, many express even greater admiration for the woman who accomplished so much in God's name while feeling a spiritual deadness that drove her close to despair. But it is the reaction of the devout atheists that is perhaps most telling. In the Time article, Christopher Hitchens, a longtime critic of Mother Teresa (see his book Missionary Positions) who is now enjoying considerable celebrity for his no-holds-barred attack on religion, God Is Not Great, compares Teresa to the die-hard communists at the end of the Cold War: "There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. They thought, 'Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I'm not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.' They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired."

To say this was Teresa, or any other believer who suffers what the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross first dubbed a dark night of the soul, is to trivialize the experience of faith beyond all recognition. While many believers have claimed to feel a steady inner presence of the divine throughout their lives, just as many others—and probably more—describe it as a journey or struggle with high, low, and even absolutely arid stretches. Except for those who claim that feeling God's redemptive power is a paramount proof of one's salvation—a criterion emphasized by some Protestants and particularly evangelicals—many lifelong believers have never experienced that felt confirmation of their faith.

For many, the reality of faith is best described by St. Paul: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and often that "substance" is as elusive as the wind. Does that mean that their faith is founded on something as demonstrably flimsy as the communist ideal of the "end of history"? Or are the difficulty of faith, its changing and demanding character, and the fruits that it yields in acts of charity possibly the most powerful proof of its value beyond all merely worldly ideals?

Teresa's spiritual struggle may have been painfully long, but it was a struggle felt by most believers in an age of doubt and skepticism. In that sense, it was truly exemplary.