A Doubting Saint: Ever Feel Abandoned By God?

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A Saint who doubts? Perhaps for some of us those are two things that don’t go together. We may think that a Saint, or someone we consider very religious or spiritual, is always confident of the presence of God. Someone who never doubts or questions. Think again. Many of those “closest” to God have actually struggled most with periods of dryness and a lack of faith and hope. Even a feeling of being abandoned by God which can be one of the greatest pains of all.

Two weeks ago Mother Teresa was canonized as a Saint in the Catholic Church in a moving ceremony led by Pope Francis. I wanted to comment then, but was involved in some other things. As many of you who read my blog would know, I got to meet her twice in Kolkata, India many years ago. She also prayed for our oldest daughter on the  second visit. In a blog post last year, Mother Teresa of Kolkata:A “Pencil in the Hands of God” , I wrote about her struggles with doubt and a feeling of abandonment by God. These struggles went on for many years and indeed up to her death. Mother Teresa was open about them in her journal and letters to her spiritual directors. In the previous post, I wrote about seeing a movie based in part on her honest reflections, called The Letters. If you get a chance to see it, do so.

I also highly recommend a book that has excerpts from these journal entries and letters, titled Mother Teresa:Come Be My Light. It is edited with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. It first was published in 2007, and I read it in 2010. Whatever you may think of Mother Teresa (still hard for me to think of her as St. Teresa and I suspect many will continue to call her Mother), I encourage you to read this book and think again.

But it does bring up the question, why did she have to struggle so? After all, she had given her whole life to serve the urban poor of Kolkata and then the world’s poor as well. Shouldn’t she be one of the blessed and favored ones by God? She did have her enemies, but she certainly also received much global attention as well. Shane Claiborne relates a story illustrating the media questions she often had to face: “There was a reporter who asked Mother Teresa if she was married. That is a strange question to ask a nun, but maybe the whole nun thing was new to him. But her response was brilliant. She smiled and said, ‘I am certainly in love. And sometimes my spouse can be so demanding.'”

Yes, a demanding spouse. But one who seems to play hide and seek with those most devoted? Why? Why?Why? In the book I mention above, Father Neuner, one of Mother’s spiritual directors, had these comments: “My answer to the confession of these pages (her diaries expressing doubts of God’s presence) was simple: there was no indication of any serious failure on her part which could explain the spiritual dryness. It was simply the dark night which all masters of spiritual life know-though I never found it so deeply, and for so many years as in her.” (pg. 214) (emphasis mine).

Here is what Mother Teresa herself writes in a letter to this same spiritual director: “Dear Father, I can’t express in words the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me. For the first time in these 11 years-I have come to love the darkness. For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth. …Today really I felt a deep joy-that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony-but that He wants to go through it in me. More than ever I surrender myself to Him.-Yes-more than ever I will be at His disposal.” (pg. 214)

These are areas of mystery. I have gone through “dry” times in my spiritual life, but nothing like this. Times of deep discouragement, and yes even at times wondering if God is even there at all. But to have gone through it like Mother did for so many years, and with such intensity, and yet she just kept giving and giving and giving to especially the desperately poor. Here is what the writer of the book says: “Her darkness was an identification with those she served: she was drawn mystically into the deep pain they experienced  as a result of feeling unwanted and rejected and. above all, by living without faith in God.Years before, she had been willing to offer herself as a victim for even one soul. She was now called to be united in the pain, not only with one soul, but with a multitude of souls that suffered in this terrible darkness.” (pg. 216). (emphasis mine).

These may not be answers that satisfy the reader or anyone else. They really didn’t even satisfy Mother Teresa. But as she has now become a Saint in the Church, it is good to remember that the pain of darkness and identification with those we love is not a strange thing to people like her. Love and suffering do go together. Sometimes those that live with the most light radiating from them have also lived with the most brokenness and darkness.

I can’t begin to understand it. But it is real.

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