Do you remember all the buzz around the release of Mother Theresa's letters in book form after she died? (The book, which contained her personal correspondence with church leaders, published against her will, was released in September 2007).
What I remember many in the media picking up on was not her saintly insistence on working with the poor and forgotten, not her deep love for her fellow sisters, but the revelation in some of her letters that she was "losing her faith." I've read the book myself, and the rumors are not unfounded. The Catholic Church would never fabricate something like this. She describes periods of deep darkness, penetrating emptiness, and feeling that God was not there. She explicitly questions God's existence. She used words like "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" to describe what she was undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God.
Of course, the anti-religion community pounced on this one, no one harder than Christopher Hitchens who used this revelation from Mother Theresa's letters to say, "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person." (Of course, he's partially right. Religion IS man-made, but this says nothing about God, about the divine reality to which religion is an imperfect response).
Mother Theresa worked in the slums of Calcutta. She insisted on going there. She became more and more disturbed and restless about the fact that she passed by the poor and suffering every day on her way to her "real assignment" within the comforts of convent life. With humble assertivness, she wrote to her superiors within the Catholic church, on many occasions, insisting that they let her change her assignment to go work in the slums, with the "poorest of the poor."
But such work doesn't come without a cost. For Mother Theresa, it was the overwhelming suffering and poverty that she lived with day in and day out that sent her over the edge. Her letters reveal that she spent decades living with emotional and spiritual pain. God just seemed so absent in her reality. Where was God?
Anne Lamott said, "Religion is for those who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for those who have been there."
Mother Theresa had deep doubts and struggles. But what if this made her a person of more faith than most?
Discovery Network documentary of her experience dramatically reenacts her gruelling battle for her life. It must have been "hell." But the thought struck me: couldn't we say that, more than any of the millions of tourists that have followed the beaten path and seen the rest from a safe distance, Linda truly experienced the Grand Canyon? She knows better than anyone how "grand" it is, and how much of a "canyon" it is.
Have you ever felt like you don't have enough faith? Ask yourself this: What would "more faith" look like? What would you do differently? What would it change? If you've ever felt abandoned or as if God was not there, you are in good company with the biblical writers. In fact, it would even put you in company with Jesus Himself ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). Some passages in Psalms, Job, Lamentations, etc. contain more scathing descriptions of doubt than many contemporary Christians would be comfortable with. They don't just wonder and say, "Gee, it feels like God has left me," but they say, "God has left me. When is He coming back? How long will He stay angry?" (see, for example, Psalm 44:9-26).
We often talk of doubt as the opposite of faith. They cannot coexist, some say. But what if doubt like what Mother Theresa experienced is in fact strong evidence of an ongoing quest for the heart of God? Isn't it only the person of strong faith in a loving God who can question and struggle in the face of human suffering? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman is very open about the fact that human suffering is what ultimately led to his abandonment of his Christian faith. But where did we get the idea that the mark of faith is the ability to gloss over tragedy and say, "God has a plan"? If the Christian faith is about a relationship with God, couldn't such questions be an integral part of the relationship? We don't look for something that's not important to us. If we're looking, knocking on the door, or pounding on God's chest, we're still very much in relationship with Him.
I wonder if it is only the person of deep faith in a loving God who can question God in light of suffering. My deep belief in a God of love, providence, power, etc. is the very reason and source of doubt in light of things that happen in the world that don't seem to look very good on the resume of the world's Creator and Savior. I think that Mother Theresa's struggle is not just the expected response to what she experienced, but it is actually a faithful response. The call to love our neighbor is what drove her there, and quite remarkably, she ended up interpreting her emptiness as following Christ to the cross and experiencing the absense of God with him.
Is it really a sign of strong faith if I can step back and say, "God has a plan; I don't question," or is that actually more a sign of disengagement? Doubt can be the pinnacle of faith...at least, faith that is defined by a relationship that asks, seeks, and knocks (Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 7:7-8) and sometimes even wrestles and argues (Genesis 32:24-32).
If I were to get lost in the Grand Canyon, the person I would want with me is Linda Skrvana. She would not only have the experience of navigating the valley but could offer encouragement out of that experience. One thing I've found is that the most poweful voices of hope come from those who have been without it. Have you found this to be the case?
By the way, I need to spoil the ending of Linda's remarkable story. She was finally found, but not by a rescue helicopter, tourists, or park rangers. She was found by a Native American tribe who had picked up her trail and found her using traditional methods.
Did you get that? She wasn't found by anyone at a safe distance. When she was hopeless and alone in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, she was found by those who live down there and know their way around.
Maybe faith lives there too.
This post is an adaptation of a sermon I gave on February, 27, 2011.