Revelations Mother Teresa of Calcutta experienced deep doubts about her faith and have prompted much discussion in the popular media. Essayist Richard Rodriguez, a gay and somewhat skeptical Catholic, talks with New America Media Editor Mary Ambrose about the mysteries of faith and the meaning of religion.
How will the revelation of these letters affect Mother Teresa’s image?
I think it’s going to help her image–if that’s the right word–or at least it’s going to deepen our sense of her mystery and possibly her sainthood. I think she turned the world’s attention to people normally forgotten. And to that degree she was an example of something that is all too rare: someone who devotes their life to the care of others. She washed the sick. She touched the untouchable. She sat with the dying. This is not what most people do in their lives. That she turns out to be a person who suffered doubt in her experience with God deepens her mystery, rather than lessens it, it seems to me.
That was a dark night of the soul that lasted decades…
It’s a life-long struggle. It’s not unusual in the history of saints in the church that there would be this experience of doubt. Christ himself on the cross experiences doubt. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” That is his last cry into the darkness. Why have you left me alone? This is not a consoling cry. And throughout the history of the church there are these voices, monks and nuns who, we find out in their deepest moments of darkness, felt the emptiness of belief.
We think we go to church, temple or the mosque and it’s all very clear to us. Especially people who do not have faith, they think that people who have faith have no questions. But in fact as the church teaches us, doubt is very much an experience that lives along with faith.
What are the political implications for the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church is brilliant to publish these letters, though Teresa asked that they be destroyed. The church realizes these are very helpful to the world. The world of religion is in chaos, not because there is too little faith in the world, but because there is too much faith. People are killing each other in the name of God. In Iraq at the holy shrine of Karbala, Shia were killing Shia. It seems to me the world is afflicted with people who have no doubt.
They have no doubt that they know what God wills, that God is on their side, that they know God. It seems to me very useful in the world that there be someone, a woman of great, great holiness to be presented as someone who lived with doubt as a way to moderate this extremism in the world.
Everything in the world that is most worrisome is this black-and-white sensibility. It has infected religion, brings scandal to religion, it seems to me, that people in the name of God have erased all doubt from their mind and denied the human experience of doubt.
That’s what the Vatican has done with these documents. I think the real value of these documents is that they teach us that certitude is not what we want in the world.
I’m a Christian. I believe in the same God that the Jew believes in, that the Muslim believes in, he’s a desert God. He revealed himself to us and we have documents in which we remember that revelation. But that God is also hidden from us. Even within the holy texts, there are moments of great mystery, where we don’t know why God does this or did not do that. Job at the end of his persecution asks God, “Why are you doing this to me?” And there is no answer.