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i>Time magazine called it "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith." Bill Maher made fun of it, suggesting she was a crypto-atheist, and others gleefully concluded that this documented the clay feet of the woman who the world long ago anointed a saint. The London Telegraph reported that Mother Teresa "was tormented by a crisis of belief for 50 years," and that interpretation was echoed by numerous news outlets.
The stories were provoked by excerpts from the new book Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited by Missionaries of Charity Father Brian Kolodiejchuk and published by Doubleday.
The book reports on, and quotes from, letters between Mother Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years. These letters reveal poignantly and pointedly her long-term spiritual struggle with the sense that God abandoned her.
The reports were disturbing to many. Our Sunday Visitor, as well as many parish offices, received questions from fellow Catholics wondering how a woman so widely considered a saint could have had such a crisis, and wondering if belief was possible when one so obviously holy encountered this.
At the risk of repeating ourselves, this is an excellent time to reflect on the dangers of drawing any lessons about the faith from the secular media. It is also more proof, if proof is needed, that Catholics have been poorly catechized about many of the teachings of their own church.
The secular media often lack nuance and context in reporting on matters that require some theological depth. With regard to Mother Teresa, there is widespread confusion between belief in God and the feeling that he is near.
Letter excerpts suggest that on only a couple of occasions Mother Teresa actually doubted, or was tempted to doubt, that God did not exist. Apparently, that kind of doubt didn't last.
Mother Teresa stands in good company among the saints who had similar struggles, though perhaps her struggle lasted longer than that of most others. St. Therese, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross all famously endured such struggles. Indeed, Jesus himself, quoting the psalmist, cried out in his sense of divine abandonment on the cross.
It's a bit arrogant, then, of one online commentator to say of this controversy: "It seems to me that the Catholic Church is finally grappling with the complexity of the concept of sainthood." The Catholic tradition has long recognized the complexity of sanctity; it's the critics who are operating with caricatures in mind.
Finally, as the book's editor, Father Kolodiejchuk, noted, the fact that Mother Teresa struggled this way is one more indicator of her heroic holiness. Who among us could dwell among the poorest of the poor, the most desperate people on the face of the earth, sharing their lives intimately for half a century, without wondering often, "Where is God in all this?"
Yet, she never gave way to despair, and continued her work of sacrificial care for the poor. This can only be understood as a saintly woman's heroic and persistent act of a will that had abandoned itself to God, even when it seemed abandoned by him.
Our Sunday Visitor
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