The public revelation of Mother Teresa’s interior crisis (much of the documentation appeared on the Internet news site zenit.org in 2002, while the cause for her canonization was moving forward) has struck some as a cruel betrayal of her desire not to have her letters published. Others were shaken by what seemed to be her loss of faith or by God’s harshness with her. Some have linked her experience with the harrowing purifications of high mystical prayer.
The most voluble response has likely been that of Christopher Hitchens. An often brilliant polemicist and eminently readable essayist, Hitchens is perhaps the most prominent of nonbelievers to have recently published an anti-theist manifesto. His best-seller is titled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But over a decade ago he wrote The Missionary Position, a searing and often mean indictment of Mother Teresa, whom he dubbed the “Ghoul of Calcutta.”
There is a puzzling zeal in Hitchens’s fascination with Mother Teresa and his seizure of every media opportunity to disparage her. He opined in the Time magazine cover story (a remarkably balanced article) that she was like a die-hard, disillusioned Communist carrying on even though things were falling apart. On television news shows he attributed her perseverance to the fact that “advisors egged her on because she was a great marketing tool.”
Apparently the only good thing he can see in her life is what he thinks was her loss of faith. Thus, from his two-page opinion piece in Newsweek one gets the sense that Hitchens has discovered a strange sympathy for “this troubled and miserable lady.” But first he must convince himself that she has really lost her faith. Thus he moves from his first paragraph’s guarded “all but lost her own faith” and “for all practical purposes ceased to believe,” to his ringing conclusive indictment of “a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.”
Hitchens gave a much more accurate description of Mother Teresa’s crisis during a three-hour interview on C-Span’s “Book TV.” Correcting himself after asserting her loss of faith he said, “If not a loss of faith, a great loss of certainty.” Precisely.
The problem (and Hitchens could not have suspected it) is that Mother Teresa never had certainty. At least that’s what she told me.
In Calcutta during December 1975 and for a few days in the following March, I was doing the “long experiment of humble ministry” that Jesuits undertake during their last year of formation. On those days when I celebrated the Eucharist at the Missionaries of Charity motherhouse and worked at the House of the Dying, I had a number of conversations with Mother Teresa.
Two of them still inhabit my life. Our first talk concerned my worry that I should not go back to the comfort and riches of being a university professor in the United States. She told me to go back. “There is far greater poverty there. The greatest poverty is the absence of love.”
Much more puzzling was a comment she made shortly before I left Calcutta. I had asked her to pray for me. She said “for what?” “For clarity,” I pled. And she immediately said no, she would not pray for that. I complained that she seemed always to have clarity and certitude. “I’ve never had clarity and certitude,” she said. “I only have trust. I’ll pray that you trust.”
So Hitchens is correct on at least one count. Mother Teresa was living with a “great loss of certainty”—about herself, about her relationship to Christ, about her fate, about her very God. The feeling of not having faith is quite different from not having faith. Otherwise it would not be so harrowing to the believer, who cries out with nothing but trust.
It would be good if all of us, believer and nonbeliever alike, could learn once and for all that whatever faith is, it is not a crutch. Sometimes in faith, you have nothing to lean on. Nor is the “feeling” or consolation of faith something we can conjure up on our own. If anyone had such powers of conjuring it would be Mother Teresa. So much for feel-good religion—that “opiate of the masses.” Morphine is much more effective.
The real story, the deepest subtext, in Mother Teresa’s “dark night” is not that God was purifying her. God was actually giving her her heart’s desire.
Every Missionaries of Charity community I have visited has a large crucifix with the words “I thirst” over it. It is that broken man on the cross that Mother Teresa most wanted to identify with, the same Jesus she could see in the most bereft and seemingly unloved of her brothers and sisters on earth. In one of her desperate cries to Jesus she wrote, “Lord my God, who am I that you should forsake me?” Is it possible that she could not see that her very words were the same as those uttered by the man on the cross she so longed to be with? Could she not realize that she had finally found union with the man who cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Perhaps it is best that she did not appreciate the intensity with which her prayers were answered. Freed from her darkness, she would have left him to his cross. Such can be the paradox of finding one’s heart’s desire.