One of the most important revelations about Saint Mother Teresa (1910 – 1997) was made after her death. It came in a collection of personal letters written to her spiritual advisers made public in a book published in 2007. The book called, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, revealed that Mother Teresa was plagued by serious doubts about her faith. The news headline read: “Letters Reveal Mother Teresa’s Secret: Book of Iconic Nun’s Letters Show She Was Tormented by Doubts in Her Faith.” The article stated in part,
In a rare interview in 1986, Mother Teresa told CBS News she had a calling, based on unquestioned faith…But now, it has emerged that Mother Teresa was so doubtful of her own faith that she feared being a hypocrite.
At first my heart sank upon hearing this news, but as I thought more about Mother Teresa having serious doubts about her faith in God, I found myself saying, “Thank God! Finally, something I can relate to about Mother Teresa!” As I was growing up, I remember seeing the images of her that were frequently on television news. Articles and books about Mother Teresa’s dedication to the “poorest of the poor,” and how she saw the face of God in the outcast and destitute of Kolkata, India (formerly Calcutta) were very popular. Pictures of Mother Teresa in her familiar blue-and-white habit, looking saint-like, were also common. Many times she would be holding in her arms one of the poor children she served. Seeing these images I recall admiring her, but I also remember feeling that I simply could not relate to the saint-like behavior or the unquestioning faith that she professed. The iconic figure in the news just did not resonate with my faith experience, which has always contained some measure of doubt.
Something common to our perception of religious figures, whether they be found in Scripture or in contemporary society, is that they can appear to have superhuman qualities. They can seem to be larger than life, having an inside track to God that you and I do not have. This can cause us to falsely believe that they did not (or do not) have the same human limitations and struggles that you and I must contend with.
It must be remembered that the religious people that we look up to are first and foremost human. If they were not, then they really would have little to offer us, for they would not have walked the path of life in the same way that we must walk it. If Mother Teresa were more than human, then we could never hope to have her level of faith, any more than we could hope to fly like Superman. But thankfully that isn’t the case. She and other great religious figures were (and are) human, and that is very good news.
The revelations about Mother Teresa’s doubts do not alter my belief in God nor my admiration of her virtuous, God-centered life. They confirm it. The simple truth is that faith must co-exist with doubt or it cannot be called faith. Faith without doubt or at least the possibility for doubt, is something else – fanaticism or extremism possibly, but it is not faith. The God that Mother Teresa professed belief in is not an otherworldly pie-in-the-sky god but rather a God whose presence transcends and envelops, who comes to us from within creation yet can seem hidden and very difficult to perceive. This is the basis of our need for faith – real, doubt containing faith.
Consider for a moment some other well-known religious figures, people whose lives are held up as being specific examples of lives lived by faith. Do you suppose that Abraham had serious doubts? How about Moses? Gandhi? Martin Luther King Jr.? If so, should we think less or more of them for having persevered in their life’s work, despite their doubts? Could it not be said that the greater the personal doubt, the more virtuous the life that struggles to see the presence of God in a world that can seem so cruel, random and chaotic, yet on the other hand can be filled with kindness, beauty, order and wisdom? Allowing our heroes to be human – in fact, being thankful for their humanness – can be an important first step for those who hope to follow in their footsteps. Allowing them to be human helps us to allow ourselves to be human as well, and accept our own limitations. When we do this, we will more readily see the spark of the divine that exists not only in our heroes, but also within ourselves and within all of creation.
Charles W. Sidoti, BCC is Coordinator of Spiritual Care at South Pointe Hospital, Cleveland Clinic Health System. He is the author of two books, “Living at God’s Speed, Healing in God’s Time,” published in 2011 and “Simple Contemplative Spirituality,” published in 2016.