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Mother Teresa’s Struggles with Faith

October 4, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, essayist Richard Rodriguez, an editor at NewAmericanMedia.org, on Mother Teresa’s struggle with faith.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: Our world is bounded by religious certitude, certitude sounding from the minaret, certitude proclaimed from the balcony at the Vatican, certitude sung in the Evangelical super-church, certitude chanted in the synagogue.

It came as a shock to many in the believing world to learn this summer that Mother Teresa, one of the most famous religious figures over the last century, lived much of her life tormented by doubt. In letters and private reflections recently published, she longs for God, as for a husband who is indifferent to her. She writes, “In my heart, there is no faith. I want God with all the powers of my soul, and yet between us there is terrible separation.”

During her lifetime, Mother Teresa was criticized for begging for money from the corrupt of the world, for raving against abortion and contraception, for caring for the poor of Calcutta but not fighting to alleviate the causes of poverty. Now, some of her critics gloat and say that Mother Teresa has been exposed as a hypocrite.

But within Christianity, doubt has often been part of a holy life. Mystics and saints admit to the dark night of the soul. Even Christ on the cross cries out that he has been forsaken by God.

The daughter of Albanian parents, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu joins a teaching order of Irish nuns. Her first assignment is at a school for young women in India. On Sundays, she visits the slums, and she sees and smells and touches the lives of the poor. It is as though the loneliness of the sick and the dying connects to a loneliness within her.

In 1947, she asks the bishop of Calcutta for permission to devote her life to the streets. After many petitions, Rome, in 1950, grants her authority to begin her own order, the Missionaries of Charity. Within four decades, her society of sisters and brothers and volunteers are all over the world, caring for the old, the lepers, the addicted, the homeless, the dying.

In the chapel, she watches the other sisters in front of her very eyes so wrapped in prayer. She writes, “I see them love God, and I am just alone, empty, excluded.”

The Mother Teresa Center has decided to publish these private letters and journals against her wishes. The world needs the reminder in our dangerous age of religious certitude not to fear doubt.

Since September 11th, many Americans have been shocked by religious certitude in the world, its aggression and maleness. And now we’re at war in Iraq. I cannot think of a recent war about which it is more pertinent to note the strong support of some American religious communities.

Not coincidentally, a new atheism is on the rise in America. On American television shows and from atop the best-seller list, there’s open mockery of religion. The so-called new atheists in America often bark with certitude the equal of any fundamentalist.

Mother Teresa wins the Nobel Prize. She meets the famous and the powerful. She visits men on death row at San Quentin Prison. There comes to Mother Teresa the notion that, if she ever becomes a saint, she will surely be a saint of darkness, an example to those who live in doubt outside of Heaven.

The crowds grow. In crowds, she seeks out children, holds their faces in her hands, and stares into their eyes, and they match her unblinking recognition. She said that her life of service was only for God, and now we know the terrible irony: God was often hidden from her.

With each face she bathed, it was as if she were looking for God’s face, and so often all that stared back at her was the face of human suffering.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.