This is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read, written by Mother Theresa in letters that were first published in 2002 and have recently been getting a lot of attention in the media:
“What do I labor for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.”
“Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, â€” Listen and do not hear â€” the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me â€” that I let Him have [a] free hand.”
“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover themâ€”because of the blasphemyâ€”If there be Godâ€”please forgive meâ€”When I try to raise my thoughts to Heavenâ€”there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.â€”I am told God loves meâ€”and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
“I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God â€” tender, personal love. If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.'”
Tortured, I may have said. In, perhaps, a small way, I understand how Mother Theresa felt. This piece is an abbreviated section from a chapter of book I’m working on about my own journey away from faith. The chapter is called “Dealing with Doubt.”
It was my sisterâ€™s turn to ride in the front seat, so I climbed into the back. I wasnâ€™t in the mood to talk, but that wasnâ€™t unusual. I sat quietly as mom backed the station wagon out of the driveway and started driving down the street.
I was thinking about the doctrine of the virgin birth, that it was simply impossible for Mary to get pregnant without â€œknowing a man.â€ I wasnâ€™t stupid, after all. I was fifteen. I had read the booklet that my mother gave me about the sperm and eggs joining to form a zygote; I had taken health class in seventh grade. I couldnâ€™t think of even one kid in my class who didnâ€™t already know the material that we were taught. We may have been immature, giggling and blushing behind our text books, but we already knew where babies came from.
So now, sitting in the backseat of the car, I couldnâ€™t stop thinking that it was impossible for Jesus to have been born of a virgin, it just didnâ€™t make sense. But how could I be doubting such basic Bible story, one Iâ€™d been taught for my entire life, the one fact that was considered true in every church Iâ€™d ever attended? Iâ€™d known about sex for years, yet Iâ€™d never had a problem believing in this miracle before.
Inside my head I began chanting, â€œLord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!â€ Tears flowed down my face. I couldnâ€™t talk; my nose was completely stuffed up from crying.
I felt like Thomas, who needed to see Jesus after heâ€™d risen from the dead, to touch the wounds in his hands and his side, before he could believe in the resurrection. But God wanted us to believe without seeing. That was the whole point of faith, wasnâ€™t it? If I couldnâ€™t believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, if I couldnâ€™t believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a huge fish and then vomited up alive several days later, if I couldnâ€™t believe that God had created the earth in six twenty-four hour days just by speaking, how could I possibly believe that Jesus was raised from the dead and that he had the power to forgive me of my sins? How could I even be saved if I doubted something so fundamental? Maybe I was starting to slip away from the Lord, maybe I was going to backslide.
â€œI love you Lord.â€ I kept praying, trying to catch my breath and to stop the scenes of doubt from replaying in my head every few seconds, â€œPlease, please donâ€™t let me backslide.â€
After a few minutes the panic started to fade and the crisis passed; I stopped crying, pulled a tissue out of my purse, and blew my nose. I pushed the doubt and fear into the back of my mind. Somehow I would force myself to believe. I had to.
My words of teenage angst sound pretty shallow when compared to the distraught cries of a woman who gave her entire life to follow something that, in the end, she couldn’t find the faith to believe. I experienced this struggle with doubt as a teenager, and again several more times over the ensuing decade. Like Mother Theresa, I also buried my doubt in more prayers, more Bible reading, more work for the Church, more strictly enforced piety.
My story, however, had a happy ending because I finally decided that faith is not a virtue, so I stopped trying to stifle my doubt after 20 years. I stopped crying â€œLord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!â€ and I embraced my unbelief instead.
It makes me sad that so many people force themselves to follow paths that others have cleared before them, when their own hearts and minds are telling them to cut a new trail through the jungle of doubt.
For further thoughts on this subject, see the excellent Newsweek article, Teresa, Bright and Dark, by Christopher Hitchens.