The Dogmatic Doubter

The publication of Mother Teresa's letters, concerning her personal crisis of faith, can be seen either as an act of considerable honesty or of extraordinary cynicism (or perhaps both of the above). These scrawled, desperate documents came to light as part of the investigation into her suitability for sainthood; an investigation conducted by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the Canadian priest who is the editor of this volume. And they were actually first published in the fall of 2002, by the Zenit news agency—a Vatican-based outlet associated with a militant Catholic right-wing group known as the Legion of Christ. So, which is the more striking: that the faithful should bravely confront the fact that one of their heroines all but lost her own faith, or that the Church should have gone on deploying, as an icon of favorable publicity, a confused old lady whom it knew had for all practical purposes ceased to believe?

Crises of faith, or "dark nights of the soul" as they were termed by St. John of the Cross, are not a new idea to Roman Catholics. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th-century French Carmelite who was the namesake of Mother Teresa, seems to have died while enduring an experience of spiritual night that she likened to a dark tunnel. Making the best of it, many confessors and theologians have even argued that such tests are actually a kind of confirmation or vindication. The Rev. Joseph Neuner, one of those to whom Mother Teresa turned in her own agony, enjoined her to believe that her ordeal gave her a share in the Passion of Christ, and that His absence was in a way a "sure sign" of His "hidden presence" in her life. This slightly convenient diagnosis seems to have cheered her up, if only temporarily. (Here might be the place to declare my interest, and to state that at the invitation of the Vatican, I testified against the beatification and canonization of Mother Teresa, as well as to confess that I tend to believe that the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.) Moreover, this was no mere temporary visitation of doubt. Here are some of the things that she told her various advisers. "For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves but does not speak." "Such deep longing for God—and … repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—[The saving of] Souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing." "What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true." Like an old-fashioned Morse signal, the cryptic and dot-dash punctuation somehow serves to emphasize and amplify the distress.

It is no small thing for a Catholic to feel no "presence" whatever, "neither in her heart nor in the eucharist," as Father Kolodiejchuk has phrased it. The sacrament of the mass is not to be undergone in a wrong frame of mind, and there are hints here and there that Mother Teresa was afraid she was endangering her soul. She felt that she should not even be thinking such things: "So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?" That last question in particular must have been an annihilating, difficult one to face.

Now, it might seem glib of me to say that this is all rather unsurprising, and that it is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels. The case of Mother Teresa, who could not force herself into accepting the facile cure-all of "faith," is that of a fairly simple woman struggling to be honest with herself, while also—this is important—striving to be an example to others. And I believe I have a possible explanation for the crisis. It derives from something that Lord Macaulay said, when reviewing Leopold von Ranke's "History of the Popes." The Roman Catholic Church, he wrote, "thoroughly understands what no other Church has ever understood, how to deal with enthusiasts" [my italics]. Wise bishops have long known to beware of the fanatical and the overzealous. After being lectured on doctrinal matters by the ultraconservative convert Evelyn Waugh, the pope is said to have concluded the audience by murmuring, "Yes, Mr. Waugh. I am a Catholic, too." When Mother Teresa first rebelled against the quiet life of the Loreto Sisters in 1946, and sought permission from her superiors to start a new order—The Missionaries of Charity—she was at first turned down and told to stay in her allotted place of humility. The local archbishop, a man named Ferdinand Perier, then found he had a true believer on his hands: a woman hungry for humility and yet fantastically immodest. ("Come Be My Light," the slightly sickly subtitle of this book, is what Mother Teresa claims, not that she said to Jesus, but that He said to her.) Only after she had wearied the diocese with demands that her ambition be referred to the Vatican did she finally, after two years of pleading and cajoling, get her way. And then, two months after she started her own show in Calcutta in 1948, the demons checked in and, in effect, never quite checked out again. She got what she wanted, and found it a crushing disappointment.

It seems, therefore, that all the things that made Mother Teresa famous—the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy—were only part of an effort to still the misery within. Again, the timeline would seem to support this interpretation. After 10 years of gnawing doubt, she reported a brief remission on the death of Pope Pius XII in the fall of 1958. Praying for him at a requiem mass, she found herself relieved of "the long darkness … that strange suffering." The respite only lasted for five weeks and then she was back "in the tunnel" once more. Soon after came the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which at a gathering of India's Catholics in Bombay she violently opposed, saying that what was wanted was not new thinking but more work and more faith. What could be a clearer indication of a deep need to suppress all doubt, both in herself and others?

Not many years later, she became a world-class celebrity with the film (and book) about her: "Something Beautiful for God," authored by the worldly English eccentric Malcolm Muggeridge. After that, her star power was so intense that the Church forgot Macaulay's wisdom and gave up any attempt to discipline her apparently enthusiastic fundamentalism. If Santayana was right to define fanaticism as "redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim," then Mother Teresa's international crusade against divorce, abortion and contraception was the tribute that doubt paid to certainty: a strenuous and almost hysterical effort to drown out the awful fear of "absence." One strongly suspects that, like not a few overpromoted figures, she suffered from more self-hatred the more she was overpraised. (After receiving one of many international prizes, she wrote: "This means nothing to me, because I don't have Him.") Not perhaps to push my analysis too far, but it could also explain some of the things that alarmed even her defenders: the accepting of stolen money from the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, for example, or the compromises she made with the tyrannical Indira Gandhi or the shady Charles Keating of savings-and-loan notoriety. Who cares about ignoble surrenders to the things of this impure world if they will fuel the endless drive to abolish misgiving through overwork? The same goes for the alarming doctrinal excesses. Every Catholic is supposed to regard abortion as an abomination (and, if it matters, I concur). But surely it takes someone both insecure and fanatical to exceed the official teaching and to tell the Nobel Prize audience, as she did, that abortion is the greatest threat to world peace?

Toward the end of her days, we have been informed by Archbishop D'Souza of Calcutta, her troubled and sleepless condition gave rise to such concern that she was subjected to an exorcism. According to this same clerical authority, the medieval banishment of the demons allowed her a good night's sleep before her death. One is glad to learn of it, and to know that she found a sort of peace. But since then, she has been posthumously exploited for having worked a medical "miracle" from beyond the grave: an episode which (to put it mildly) no respectable Bengali physician can confirm. I say it as calmly as I can—the Church should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe. •