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This is so sad

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, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.”

“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—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 — 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 sister’s turn to ride in the front seat, so I climbed into the back. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, but that wasn’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 “knowing a man.” I wasn’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 couldn’t think of even one kid in my class who didn’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 couldn’t stop thinking that it was impossible for Jesus to have been born of a virgin, it just didn’t make sense. But how could I be doubting such basic Bible story, one I’d been taught for my entire life, the one fact that was considered true in every church I’d ever attended? I’d known about sex for years, yet I’d never had a problem believing in this miracle before.

Inside my head I began chanting, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief!” Tears flowed down my face. I couldn’t talk; my nose was completely stuffed up from crying.

I felt like Thomas, who needed to see Jesus after he’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, wasn’t it? If I couldn’t believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, if I couldn’t believe that Jonah was actually swallowed by a huge fish and then vomited up alive several days later, if I couldn’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.

“I love you Lord.” I kept praying, trying to catch my breath and to stop the scenes of doubt from replaying in my head every few seconds, “Please, please don’t let me backslide.”

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 “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!” 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.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Well, most teenagers (in my opinion) ARE shallow in most ways. I certainly was. It's something only experience and learning can remedy.

    That is some pretty desolate stuff from Mother Teresa. At least she was honest enough to actually document her doubts about her faith.

    I applaud your courage in writing about your own religious experience. I started out an atheist, became a Christian in my late 20s, then about two years ago realized my personal faith had gradually become untenable. I had a lot of positive experiences as a Christian and very little of the fear you describe.

    I look forward to hearing more about your book.

  2. That's one of the things I always wonder(ed) about, even when I still believed somewhat:

    Those poor nuns, sacrificing their entire lives in the service of something which they can never confirm actually exists, and which may very well not exist. A life wasted in the service of the product of the imagination of some tribesmen from a couple thousand years ago. Giving up the happiness and enjoyment of certain things because of some arbitrary rule sombody decided to impose because they figured it was pious or honorable.

    The part abourt religion that's always bothered me most is obviously not the support some people may get from it, but the wacky restrictions it imposes on peoples lives. It may be a crutch in times of hardship, but it's definitely a burden when things are going fine. Almost as if it makes the hardship feel less severe by dragging the rest of your life down when things are going well.

    Sorry, slightly off topic as far as doubt goes, but those quotes from M.T. underscore my feelings towards "service to the church".

  3. Did you just compare yourself with Mother Theresa?!?! Are you really that full of yourself?

    Creating a web blog and a magazine, and participation on a Podcast, pales in comparison to Mother Theresa's works.

  4. Actually, Brooklyn, if you'd looked at who posted this entry you'd see that it was writerdd and not Rebecca. Rebecca is the creator of the blog/web magazine and podcast co-host. writerdd is one of several wonderful contributors to this blog, but is not the creator thereof.

    And yet, even without those additional 'qualifications', she's more than justified to compare herself to Mother Theresa in this or any other way she pleases. If her post had been proclaiming her own actions as wonderful or world-changing, I could understand your annoyance. However, the point of comparison in question here is questioning one's faith which BOTH writerdd and Mother Theresa have clearly done. That alone makes her comparison valid.

    I shall compare myself, unqualified as I am, to Mother Theresa as well. To whit: Sometimes after I eat things I have to go to the bathroom. In that, as a fellow human being, Mother Theresa surely occasionally suffered the same result. Therefore, Mother Theresa and I had something in common!

    Just because someone may or may not have spent their life doing charitable works does not exempt that person from comparison to anyone else. I hesitate to even call this 'iconoclastic', as it's such an elementarily reasonable point of view. Why on Earth ANYONE should take offense at such a parallel between any two human beings is beyond me.

  5. From what I've read here and elsewhere, writerdd comes off very well in any comparison with Mother Theresa. Unless writerdd has a side-line in separating the poor from their money and fighting against the availability of contraception I would think that Mother Theresa is, in fact, the one flattered by the association.

    Having been in a similar situation (without any attempt to equate myself with writerdd or Mother Theresa!), I would wholeheartedly agree that the process of doubting your religious convictions is full of pain and despair. However, for me at least, the eventual liberation and joy of unbelief made it all worthwhile.

  6. I am always surprised by the struggles of people who were brought up in a religious way and chose to abandon their faith. I mean, I was hardly aware how difficult it might be. Most people of my age I know are atheists or agnostics (or rather don’t even bother about such issues, as they seem to be really irrelevant).

    On the other hand I know some religious people. (probably most of them would not fit the term “religious ” in the US, since they do not tend to take part in mass or other organized stuff). Anyway, I do not know any of them, who would take the bible literally, thus I thought that it should not be that difficult to reconcile faith and science (at my case it is mostly physics). Perhaps some of them went through that painful process of recognizing that their holy book is not exactly true (mostly BS IMO), but as far as I know the overwhelming majority of them were never told that it would be an unchallengeable truth or whatever.

    On reconciling faith and science: none of my religious acquaintances have ever challenged evolution…. I thought: to be religious is a kind of cultural attitude of caring the traditions (involving some irrational thoughts on afterlife and god). How ignorant I was…..

  7. I agree completely with what you said Expatria. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding but, I don't see why brooklyn should be offended by that post.

    Anyway, I also sometimes think like you Exarch, about those poor nuns giving their life for some kind or mirage but, I also say to myself that, at the end of your life, the goal I think is that you must be proud and happy of the life you had. And I think that even if those nuns followed some beliefs that weren't real, at least, if they are happy with what they've done, it must be ok. Some of them traveled and helped people in the need so, I supposed their life has been fulfilled.

  8. I think Brooklyn just missed the most important point being made as well:

    That Mother Theresa's works were a direct result of her questioning her faith. That she overdid it in the doing good department to make up for her lack of faith, which she considered to be a bad thing, although most here would say that it's a very normal thing for a religious person to realize their beliefs conflict with reality, because, after all, they do.

  9. If you've never been a church insider, you can never know the feeling of hope that as you move more and more to the inside, higher and higher up the ranks, spend more and more time in various activities of piety and works of charity or evangelism, that you will grow closer and closer to God, and experience more and more of his presence. If I had been Catholic, I probably would have become a nun, but since I was Protestant, I took a different path that I thought would lead me more deeply into Gods presence.

    But it didn't happen for me, and if Mother Theresa, for pete's sake, couldn't find God, then it seems reasonable to conclude that he probably does not exist. That's why, I think, TV evangelists, mega-church pastors, and Catholic higher-ups are so cynical and hypocrical. They've discovered that there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and now what? How can you walk away from a lifetime of dedication to a God who is not to be found by those who search for him in every moment of their lives?

    That said, I really do not think that Mother Theresa was a saint or a particularly great role model. I find her attraction to pain and suffering quite disturbing and somewhat nauseating. Perhaps she was doing what she really thought was helpful, but I think like the rest of us (yes, I am comparing myself to her), she was trying to find peace and self fulfilment through her life and work. Unfortunately, it seems that she did not succeed.

  10. I find your own passage disturbing in another way. If my daughter was sitting in the back of the car muttering to herself and crying her heart out I'd bloody well want to know why. I'd want to help, to reassure and to correct any misunderstandings that had caused this upset.

    I doubt if your mother was entirely unaware of your distress so why didn't she help? Perhaps, as I suspect, she heard your mutterings of prayer and decided that her intervention was not required. Perhaps she thought that, by instilling these religious opinions into your immature mind, she was helping you to grow to maturity.

    I hope that my children do not have to struggle alone with their anxieties and I hope that I am never the cause of sadness in their lives. I've often thought it harsh that some Atheists equate raising a child to be religious with child abuse but your passage certainly nods in that direction.

  11. hoverfrog,

    My mother was a total fanatic at the time, and I was a teenager, in the full throes of major PMS every month. I'm sure my mother thought (and still does think) that religion was a positive force in my life. After all, I was not doing drugs, drinking, or having sex. So that's got to be good, right?

    One thing I'm writing about in my book that will distrub my mother is that I never talked to her about anything, even when I was in kindergarten. It wasn't her fault. That's the way I was. I never spoke about anything that was important to me with anyone at all.

    In fact, one of my very first memories is being about 3 or 4 years old (my sister was an infant in the memory making it easy to date.) I was in a car seat in the back of the car, and my mother was asking me a question and I pretended to be asleep because I didn't want to talk.

    I sort of blame my parents for the religious crap I went through, but they had their own problems — some of which were quite serious — and I'm sure they did the best they could under the circumstances.

    If your kids don't talk to you, it's not necessarily your fault or anything that you are doing wrong as a parent.

  12. I think you are probably being kind by only "sort of" blaming your parents for your troubles with religion. Our children (not ours obviously, we've never even met) are born helpless and rely on us for everything. For four or five years, until they start school, they have only sporadic contact with anyone other than their care giver. During this time routines are established and opinions begin to form. If I raise my children to be racist then they will probably grow into racist adults, if I raise them to fear hell then that's what will happen. You managed to escape that but there are so many people in the world who either cannot or will not break away from the experiences of their formative years.

    I was lucky that my mother badgered my brother and I constantly for our opinions of things. She didn't ever say that we were right or wrong but was always happy to offer alternate choices and let us make up our own mind. I think that this has a lot to do with why I have never had an experience like the one you describe. I had my own teenage traumas but nothing that ever shook the foundations of my life quite so terribly.

  13. writerdd said,

    After all, I was not doing drugs, drinking, or having sex. So that’s got to be good, right?

    Sounds like a wasted adolescence to me. (-:

  14. That is the first thing I think of when I see a Nun or a Priest. What a waste of a life. You could be enjoying your one life on this earth, but you all have a good idea in that this person probably has done some good in there life and will die thinking that they have lived a useful life. It just doesn't have the ending that they were planing on.

  15. Sounds like you had a pretty rough time. It's cool that you're writing about it . I'd be interested in reading more excerpts from it.

    Not to compete, but i had and am still having a rough time with my religious journey. I won't go into it here. I'll just say my parents disapprove. o_0'

    Have a nice day!

  16. No. You don't get to compare your privileged, spoiled background with that of Mother Theresa. GET OVER YOURSELF!

  17. Well, Brooklyn, people get to compare themselves to whomever they damn well please. One can argue 'til the cows come home whether a comparison is valid, relevent, useful, insulting, etc. But simply declaring that one is not *allowed* to make such a comparison in the first place is just silly.

    In any case, I compare myself to both Mother Theresa and writerdd because I've also experienced hours and hours of pain and fear in my transition from fundamentalist to atheist. In fact, I am more like Mother Theresa than writerdd in that I still have too much fear to come out as an atheist to my family and most of my friends. So thank you so much for this post, and the book you're working on, writerdd, for helping me (and hopefully others) to gather up the courage, increment by increment, to be open about my (lack of) beliefs!

  18. Brooklyn, can I ask why you defend Mother Teresa with such vehemence? I assume that you didn't know her personally so your understanding of her works and live must be second hand. Her life and works were ever in the public eye and as such are prone to public criticism. Her published letters give the public an opportunity to better understand the person within that public persona and to draw comparisons with their own lives. If the very idea of comparing oneself with her offends you then you really should read some of the things that other people have said about her.

    So far you have not contributed to this debate. Instead you seek to start an argument where there wasn't one. To my mind that makes you a troll. Now I'm going to stop feeding you.

  19. Blake Stacey wrote:


    After all, I was not doing drugs, drinking, or having sex. So that’s got to be good, right?

    Sounds like a wasted adolescence to me. (-:

    I feel the exact same way about my adolescence. My biggest regret is having nothing else to regret :(

  20. For those of you who are in the process of leaving or have recently left faith behind, here's an interesting blog and website that you might find helpful or interesting: — blog — website with related articles, forum, etc.

  21. As a skeptical Christian, I've come to accept that most of what the bible says is more like guidelines/metaphors than absolute fact. The concepts retained within the stories may be largely true, but the stories themselves are largely not. Even biblical scholars agree (by and large) that the bible is not an historical document. I'm not courageous enough to tell this to my parents (who are both pastors in their own right in the Baptist Church here in Aus) but it's certainly what I, and a number of people at my church believe.

  22. dcarm, that sounds like the pirate code to me! :-)

    To those of you who are struggling with unbelief and are still minors, I probably would not suggest that you necessarily come out to your parents. In such a case it might be best to think privately about these matters, and tow the line until you are 18. You know your parents best, but you don't want to end up in a situation where you end up getting sent to Jesus Camp or put into a Christian school anything like that, or even fighting with your parents. There's enough time as an adult to let your parents know what you do or do not believe.

    Just something to think about. I guess I'm not the best one to give advice to teens about talking to their parents, since I never really talked to my parents about anything. I guess what I'm saying, is that if you're worried that your parents may have a really bad reaction, the best decision might be to not disucss this with them until you are not under their legal authority any more. I know that there's always this big push to discuss everything important with your parents when you are a teen, but I never really bought into that. Maybe in a perfect world it would be nice if we were all friends with mom and dad during our teenage years, but that isn't very realistic.

    Now I'm sure someone will yell at me for giving such evil advice to kids. Oh well. But don't feel guilty about not "coming out" if you're still a minor. I guess that's my main point.

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