My mother loved Mother Teresa and that made a big impression on me as a kid. The poor mattered a great deal. There are amazingly good people on earth. A nun I worked with for years at Children's Hospital in Boston hated Mother Teresa. I didn't think that was possible but she said when she worked with the Missionaries of Charity in South America, she found the recently canonized saint to be dictatorial, cold and even mean to the sisters of her order. Indeed we are saints and sinners at the same time which applies even to Mother Teresa, and here was a nun telling me so.
I was pleased that the new saint's well known doubts did not disqualify her. We learned of the darkness she struggled with in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The woman who was hailed as a “living saint” during her lifetime also was tormented by doubt. It seems that for years on end she doubted the existence of God.
Many of those who have greatly admired Mother Teresa as a shining example of faith in action found these revelations unsettling, but not me. Many of the towering examples of believers within the Christian tradition were not people who were free from doubt. Belief and doubt are not found in isolation within human lives, even in the lives of the saints.
As a preacher I am called to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has drawn near (this was Jesus' basic sermon) and that God is with us. It's just as important for me to acknowledge the absence of God. Sometimes we think that if we work hard at our spiritual practices we are bound to experience God, to feel God within us. But not everyone feels God, no matter how hard they try or how much they want to. Many know the ache of absence. The truth is that God is hidden, often silent, dark, and distant—so much so that it can be annoying to be around people for whom God is cheerful, close, and chatty.
Jesus knew the 23rd Psalm "Surely goodness and kindness will follow me all the days of my life" as much as he knew Psalm 22: "I cry to you, but you do not answer."
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, reported in The New York Times that Mother Teresa eventually concluded that her doubts actually aided her ministry. They helped her identify with the abandonment of Jesus on the cross and the abandonment that the poor face every day. He also made the point that Mother Teresa’s doubt helps us identify with her. Her self-sacrificial ministry can seem so distant from our daily life, yet she harbored some of the same doubts that may touch our lives. Martin was also quoted in Time as saying, “Everything she’s experiencing is what average believers experience in their lives writ large.”
The Christian life isn't about feeling feelings or acquiring spiritual experiences. Baptism ushers us into a life of greater depth than that—a life of faith. And faith is almost always a journey through the desert and the dark. Knowing the absence of God doesn't make you a second-class Christian. It can be a gift. A hard one, but a gift all the same. Your heartache—faith's heartache—can lead you straight to the heartache of others, to neighbors whose abandonment is human, not divine.
Mother Teresa not only kept company with the dying but also the doubting.
Hidden One, they say you are still speaking, and even if it isn't to me right now, give me faith to trust that you are as real as the poor, as close as the suffering, as audible as the cry of the abandoned; and let me find you there.
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