The Mystery of Mother Teresa

The Mystery of Mother Teresa

That a woman perceived of possessing great personal holiness turns out to be a person who suffered doubt in her experience with God deepens her mystery, rather than lessens it.



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.

It seems to me when religion at its deepest is when it allows doubt.

America now is very, very religious or very, very secular.

This feeds atheists. They say, “See, even she didn’t believe.”

People like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens –they are precisely the kind of problem that they present the religious world to be afflicted by. They are people who have no faith. Period. The whole idea of transcendence, a metaphysical reality beyond that which they normally experience, is foreign to them. This is very dangerous. They appeal to the political left when they should have learned its lesson.

What lesson?

For thirty years the political left has ceded religion to the political right in America. It has given all expression of religion to right-wing Christianity.

It seems to me what the left needs to do is shy away from this teenage-boy irreverence, these “farts in the chapel” that you hear from Hitchens. It’s not persuasive, not intellectually challenging because it does not admit to doubt. Like the fundamentalists, they live in a world of such certitude the rest of us are left wondering, “Where do we belong?”

It seems to me what Teresa was looking for in the face of suffering was the face of God. It’s very moving to me that she did not find that face so often but kept on doing it. It’s an example of great heroism. If I were looking for a saint right now, she would be it.

One of the main theses of the left is about morality and helping the poor. So I don’t understand why they have bailed on religion, the basic tenet of which is to help the poor.

The left in America and probably Western Europe have bailed on religion because the church has criticized their lives. I speak as a gay man.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard priests refer to the love I have for another man as a “lifestyle.” My own church denies me the central emotion within Christianity; the experience of love is denied me by own church. There is a tendency to retreat, or say that “religion is only a negative force in my life.”

I find that in the struggle over abortion, gay marriage, the churches have taken the negative stance in their institutional life. But I find them very consoling. There is much in Christianity that I use, steal, learn from, borrow, depend upon. Its inability to teach me about my experience of love is insufficient for me to walk away from it.

In some way the people in the pew teach the priest–the Church–what it means to love. The left, like spoiled children, having been accused of being sinful by the Church, they decide the Church is really sinful. That’s not useful. More useful is to spend a life of service to a Church that is not easily yours.

By publishing these letters do you think the Church is beginning to change and not be a granite face of certitude?

I think so. The public face of the Church is of certitude, unchanging and truths that are unchallengeable. But anyone who has grown up within the Catholic Church as I have realizes that it is an institution of great failure, compromise, moral and otherwise, and disappointment. The Church is not being uncharacteristic publishing these letters. I think the Church is realizing its best face is its own humanity. In that way, Mother Teresa becomes one of the great teachers of the church.

Are religious people in America looking for a certitude that takes them down a path that makes life more difficult?

We are influenced by two things. We think our friends and villains are clearly identified. We live in a world where you are saved or unsaved. This is true on the political spectrum from right to left, believers and non-believers.

The other thing is that America is a deeply Protestant country founded by Puritans who believed that financial success was a sign of God’s favor.

Manifest destiny.

That’s right. Americans have always breathed in this value: The best thing to be is middle-class. There is something shameful about being poor.

And self-inflicted.

And self-inflicted. We discuss poor white people as “trash.”

The preoccupation with the illegal immigration and the price that the middle class is paying for these peasants coming from Latin America–because that’s what they are: peasants. They are a drag on our national identity and a burden to us. Yet we sing our songs on Sunday because we are good pious Americans who believe in the middle-class God.

We are presented with an Albanian nun who spends her life–tormented by doubts–nonetheless serving the very poor, the people we will not touch.

What do we do with her? We sit around now thinking whether she was a good woman, or a hypocrite or she lied to herself.

We mock a life like this because we do not understand it. We do not understand the life that is given to poor people, because we are given only to the middle-class fascination and we have told ourselves that we–the middle class–are God’s select. So what do we do when we meet a woman of great doubt, great faith, great durability, who spends her life on her knees, wiping the faces of the dying and dead?

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