So it turns out that Mother Theresa didn’t feel the presence of God for most of her career. Hmm.
I generally find that trying to dissect the psyches of others is a quintessentially bad idea; it’s usually just too vague and patronizing to be a useful or informative exercise. Our thoughts, motivations and urges are both accessible only to ourselves, and perhaps not entirely in our control. So I’m mostly content to simply accept at face value what someone claims they feel, want, and even believe. Mother Theresa’s actions, her political and moral claims and arguments, as well as the patina of myth and Western guilt that even today helps shield her from even reasonable criticism: there’s more than enough legitimate debate there to be had. Inside, she was just a person, like all of us, trying to make do with who and what she saw herself as.
This particular case of internal turmoil, however, is simply too interesting to let pass without a little comment.
For one thing, it’s a complete inversion of the a commonly presented cliché about how strong religious beliefs work: that the spirit moves, you follow, and all the arguments to the contrary are ultimately the empty natterings of Pharisees. Instead, we have a woman who says that she pretty much felt nothing for decades of her career, and yet for whom the desire to believe and continue the routines of faith was still overwhelming.
That certainly speaks to an incredible level of conviction, and you can of course think that laudable, as her would-be cannonizers do, if you believe that her beliefs are true. But if you are open to the possibility that they might not be true, then this is unavoidably a potential case study in how obsessively unwilling people can be to consider giving up ingrained beliefs, no matter what occurs.
The Time article glides right over a related problem when it speaks of glowingly of how “all believers” face doubts and seems to regard it as a universally happy ending when they overcome them or incorporate them into their faith. What it neglects to consider that many of those deeply held beliefs are things that, say, the Catholic Church’s teachings would consider heresy and falsehood. How can this maintenance of religious practice and conviction in the face of doubt possibly be universally laudable?
That implication simply makes no sense, either in theory or in practice. Catholics, for instance, most certainly found it to be a wondrous thing when Mother Theresa’s Calcutta audience gave in to their doubts about Hindu beliefs, lost their old convictions, and took up different ones instead. And while she was far less evangelical and accepting of other religions than many missionaries, even Mother Theresa’s found her highest joy not in the relief of suffering, but that when dying people in Calcutta cried out in pain, that they would cry out the religiously correct phrases.
What is really tragic here, though, is the fact that someone like Theresa felt the need to keep her true feelings (which were clearly not under her control) a guilty secret, even while counseling countless others. Her reasons for doing so (embarrassment, fear of making herself an issue or risking doubts in others) seem very human and forgivable, but the effect is still just unavoidably condescending. Without question, it deprived her missionary audience of important information about the beliefs being evangelized and the true experiences of those they were considering emulating.
This is especially unfortunate in light of the fact that many religious believers seem to agree that her experiences are an important and insightful part of understanding faith in any case.