Saturday, September 01, 2007

Mother Teresa's Doubts: Loss of Faith or Clinical Depression?

A compilation of letters written by Mother Teresa is being published this month (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light), and a number of publications have featured articles about the book's contents. The longest one is in Time Magazine, which has the rights to the serialization of the book.

As an agnostic who has always struggled with the concept of faith (how can anyone be sure of this kind of thing?), I found it fascinating to learn that, for nearly the entire time she ministered to the poor in Calcutta, Mother Teresa did not feel the faith she professed.

According to the article, "The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, 'neither in her heart or in the eucharist.'"

According to her reports, the future Mother Teresa had a vision of Christ while on the road to Darjeeling for her annual retreat in 1946. In the vision she reported that Christ told her He wanted her to "abandon teaching and work instead in 'the slums' of the city, dealing directly with 'the poorest of the poor' — the sick, the dying, beggars and street children. 'Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor,' he told her. 'Come be My light.'

Two years later, in 1948, she received permission from the Church to start this ministry. And at that point, shortly after finding a space for her mission's headquarters, she suddenly lost the beacon of faith and was plunged into a spiritual darkness.

Acording to her letters, she sometimes doubted the existence of God or Jesus, and felt she was in a place of darkness and despair. As the article states:

"In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the 'dryness,' 'darkness,' 'loneliness' and 'torture' she is 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. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. 'The smile,' she writes, is 'a mask' or 'a cloak that covers everything.'"

For five weeks in 1959 the despair and darkness lifted, only to come down again. It lasted to the end of her life.

Everyone, even her detractors, admits that Mother Teresa was dedicated to her cause. She continued on the path she started, working directly with the poor until the end of her life at 87. She continued to project to the world the image of a faithful follower of Jesus. She advised others to belief in Him and to follow His path. And yet all along, she felt bereft and alone, without the feeling of joy and comfort her original belief had given her.

The question is, where did the joy go? Why did it leave her? The Time Magazine article explores a number of theories, none of which are completely convincing.

Of course, as an agnostic, I can easily say, as do many other critics of religion, that she lost that feeling because she realized, upon seeing the misery around her, that we are truly alone here and there is no God, but that having based her life on ber belief, she couldn't admit it.

Another theory is that her darkness was her trial, that she had to undergo the same agony as Christ on the cross, when He felt abandoned by God. I'm not quite buying that either. One would think the least God could do, after sending her on such a mission, is be there when she needed support. If Mother Teresa couldn't depend on God's help, who among us can?

One possibility that no one has suggested (that I am aware of) is that Mother Teresa suffered from clinical depression. There was no Prozac in 1948 when she arrived in the streets of Calcutta to administer to the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. Surrounded every day by death, despair and disease, surely she couldn't help but be affected by it. This would be a worthy trigger for depression in one who may have been predisposed to the condition.

Her descriptions of the darkness and the depths of her despair sound very much like the descriptions of the darkness that victims of depression describe; the feeling of hopelessness, the lack of any light at the end of the tunnel.

We will never know why Mother Teresa suffered as she did. But that does not take away from her efforts. Most of us, having lost the faith that initially led us to a Herculean task such as hers, would have asked for a transfer back to a nice, cozy convent post-haste. But she stuck it out. Perhaps that is the true definition of faith - following the path even when you don't know where it leads.


Anonymous said...

As someone who worked for years as a counselor and case manager with the "poorest of the poor," I can tell you from my experience, it simply burns you out.

It's like trying to clear the sand from a beach using a spoon.

I quite five years ago, and will never go back.

Mauigirl said...

I can imagine that would be the case. It must make you feel the situation is so hopeless.

Anonymous said...

When you see the human misery Mother Teresa saw day in and day out, how could it not affect your faith in anything?

India is a country where meanness to the poor is de rigeur. I cannot imagine having to deal with what that wonderful woman dealt with day in and day out, her entire life.

Kim said...

I agree that working with the underprivileged can take a lot out of you and I agree totally with Fairlane that burn out is definitely going to one is a Saint ...but obviously Mother Theresa's Faith kept her going......thanks for posting this Mauigirl :)

Mauigirl said...

I agree, Jollyroger, that is what I think must have happened; it can't just be a coincidence that her "darkness" descended not long after she began the work with the very poor.

Thanks, Kim, for your comment. And interestingly, the article said that the doubts she suffered would, if anything, increase her qualifications for official sainthood; probably because she did persevere despite everything she was feeling.

Fran said...

As the card carrying Catholic in these ranks (for those of you who don't know me please stop by before levying any judgments) I'd like to share some thoughts.

First of all- I was never a big MT fan for reasons too numerous to go into here.

Second, I think it may be a case of depression indeed. That said, I would like to refocus on the furor over her so-called "lack of faith".

As has been pointed out here by Mauigirl herself- she did keep at her task for whatever reason. She helped one and all without ever asking their own faith practice or demanding them to switch to hers. She also did not ever solicit one single donation- she did live by the premise of faith that says God will provide.

Before she was "famous" and finances were often at risk, she fought tooth and nail to not have any donation requests. Either help was given... or not.

However, (sorry longwinded) on the topic of faith and as a person of deep, albeit often irreverent faith, let me say this... Faith can not exist without doubt, as day cannot exist without night, yin without yang and so forth.

So I find that if I did not doubt and question- all the time thank you, how could I really have faith in anything?

It does my heart good to know that the old bat had her struggles. She is not alone in the company of other saints whose numerous writings about spiritual dryness and lack of faith fill many pages.

As to what Fairlane said- how profound.... Clear sand from the beach with a spoon.


Mauigirl said...

Fran, thanks so much for your perspective on Mother Teresa and her struggles. I feel better knowing that people of faith everywhere live with doubt.

I have often felt envious of what I perceived as the wholehearted belief in God/Jesus that I saw in others (at least those who are sincere about it!). I figured I was just too much of a skeptic to believe and that if there IS a God, I was going to be in deep trouble at the end of my life. If so, then I guess I'll be in good company.

Mary Ellen said...

Another theory is that her darkness was her trial, that she had to undergo the same agony as Christ on the cross, when He felt abandoned by God. I'm not quite buying that either. One would think the least God could do, after sending her on such a mission, is be there when she needed support. If Mother Teresa couldn't depend on God's help, who among us can?

To look into the mind of God is an impossibility. God is not human, He isn't limited to our human understanding and to try and second guess He allowed MT to feel abandon, is beyond our understanding. The fact is, this is not uncommon among many Saints. As JR and others pointed out, when you are working in the midst of despair and spending endless hours trying to help so many, it can become grueling to say the least. If you look at the Bible there are even instances where Jesus showed His frustration with having so much to do in so little time. If you recall when Mary Magdoline used the expensive perfumed oil to rub on the feet of Jesus, some of the Apostles complained that it could have been sold and the money given to help the poor. Jesus said there would always be poor in the world and He was only with them a short time. The lesson in that story is that caring for the downtrodden is grueling and will be a never ending task in this world. The human side of Jesus was exhausted on more than one occasion and there were times of despair, which was evident during the moments when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Mother Theresa, was human on this earth and she struggled with many emotions and exhaustion as all humans do. Also, you can look at forty pages of diary in her life, those forty pages do not compare to every other moment she may have experienced.

Speaking for myself, there are times that I also have doubts, but as quickly as those doubts appear, they can disappear. I could write in my diary that I didn't think God existed, put the pen down and five minutes later, those doubts are gone. How does anyone know the heart or soul of MT after she put that pen down?

Isn't the point of a diary to let go of our feelings to "bitch it out" so to speak,in order to relieve our stress? She couldn't have discussed this with her fellow sisters, she was their leader and to express doubts would have destroyed the order she founded.

Ok...sorry this is too long, hope I didn't offend the non believers with my examples of the Bible.

Have a great Sunday, everyone!

Great post, Mauigirl!

Liz Hinds said...

Faith wouldn't be faith if there wasn't doubt: it would be certainty.

I hadn't heard about this and was interested to read, thanks, Mauigirl. I suppose I also find it encouraging that someone like MT could feel like that. Peter is probably my favourite biblical character because he doubted, made a mess of things and got things wrong.

There's a poem sort of thing called Footsteps - do you know it? In it the writer talks about walking beside God throughout his life and seeing two sets of footsteps in the sand, but then he grumbles that, during his hardest times, there is only one set of footsteps and he asks why God deserted him. God replies, 'That is when I carried you.' Maybe that is the way it was for MT. She wasn't aware of God but he carried her and enabled her to go on. She surely had something that got her through?

Fran said...

I came back because I was nagged with my own doubt... that I sounded like a sanctimonious ass.

I am not sure if I did or not. I was quite heartened by your kind words Mauigirl and to read MaryEllen's thoughtful words, followed by liz's.

Peace to all.

Mauigirl said...

Thank you so much, Mary Ellen, Liz, and FranIam for your comments (don't worry, Fran, you weren't in the least bit sanctimonious). I actually find your posts all very encouraging. I have never called myself an atheist because I truly feel we cannot know for sure whether there is a God of some kind or not. It's something I think about a lot, and whatever the state of my faith or lack thereof, I definitely believe in the principles Jesus taught.

Liz, I have heard that story or poem about the Footsteps; in fact it came to my mind while I was reading about Mother Teresa's feelings of abandonment.

Mary Ellen, you make a very good point, that we cannot know what else Mother Teresa was thinking or feeling during all the times she wasn't writing these desperate letters. And of course, she was human, as we all are. Great examples from the Bible.

I think the important thing is for people to try to see each others' points of view on faith and be able to discuss them, so I welcome this conversation.

Odessa said...

i would have to say that i admire Mother Theresa even more knowing that she felt this way and just kept going. i too have worked with street children who were abandoned ans abused in the philippines and i was only able to stay for a year, it does burn you out. i felt like in order for you to keep on going you have to forget yourself and just focus on your mission and i didn't have that kind of commitment. that's why people like Mother Theresa are special because they just stayed with their mission even if all they really wanted is to do otherwise.

by the way, thank you for your kind words over at my blog. i'm very honored to be a part of your blogroll.


Mauigirl said...

Odessa, welcome, and thanks so much for your comment!

I agree, that is what makes Mother Teresa so special, that she did indeed stick it out despite everything.

Me said...

Excellent post.


The Future Was Yesterday said...

One would think the least God could do, after sending her on such a mission, is be there when she needed support.
I work as a counselor with practicing alcoholics. Usually we (I) never see them until all hope is lost. and their life is in ruins. As you might guess, this isn't a bunch that arrives full of faith, and belief in God.

To help get them around that, I encourage them to believe in a "Higher Power", simply a being or something, that can do things they can't, but it doesn't have to have a face, a name, and it hasn't written any "books" full of rules and laws; it's just something to cling to for hope, when all else fails.

I don't want to get into the whole "God" thing and what he does/doesn't do. I'll simply say that according to the KJV bible used by many, he's A)an angry God, B)a vengeful God, C)a very demanding God, D)a punishing God if you disobey, and finally, E)"He Loves You!"

I decided LONG ago, this character wasn't something I wanted anything to do with. Things smelled a little too fishy, too made up.

I have no idea the reasons for MT's loss or lack of faith. Some say she deserted God, he didn't desert her. To me, she had faith in herself, and she continued her great work.

As Fairlane noted, the profession he was in, and the one I still am, has a very high rate of failure, an extremely low rate of success, and an incredible burn out rate. If you don't believe in yourself, and what you are doing, then you better be heading for the door, and quickly, because otherwise, you're headed for trouble.

I certainly don't put myself in the class of MT; I'm just trying to say that faith starts and stops, "at home." Beyond there....? Pick your favorite subjective target and blame them/it/that.

I congratulate you on a very thoughtful post!

Mauigirl said...

Future, thanks for your comment. I've always felt the way you do, that the God in the Bible was rather schizophrenic, when you compare the persona depicted in the Old vs. the New Testament, in particular. And after reading a lot about the Bible and some of the texts that didn't make it into the final cut, etc., I feel the book itself is a compilation of ancient texts cobbled together, written by men. In fact, there are some very interesting texts that didn't make it into the Bible, which proposed different ways of looking at God (the Gnostics, for instance). So that probably can explain the variations in God's personality. And of course all of it has to be taken in context with the times these texts were written.

I've always felt it was interesting how the "higher power" concept is used in alcoholic treatment programs. I think your point that it is "something to cling to when all else fails" rather than a lot of rules and regulations, probably is a better description of God than most of today's organized religions provide.

And you are probably actually getting them to tap into their own hidden strength within, as you point out Mother Teresa probably did. Some theories about God include the one that everyone has God within them.

And who knows what "God" really is anyway? One of my favorite quotes from the Bible is from Corinthians, which pretty much sums it up - we don't know enough right now to know anything.

"For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

Of course "charity" is the Greek word "agape," which loosely interpreted means love of a very unselfish type, the kind Mother Teresa had in spades. And you and Fairlane and a lot of other people out there who are not necessarily religious people, have "agape" as well, choosing to work with the poor, the destitute and the miserable, and try to make their lives better. This is why I have never bought into the whole idea that only those who profess belief in Jesus Christ will get into "heaven." If there really is a God, I personally do not believe He would be leaving out so many people who are doing good in the world! And if someone like Pat Robertson or James Dobson or one of those hypocrites got in, I'd rather be in Hell!

Mauigirl said...

One further comment about the Bible - despite saying I believe the texts were written by men, I find a lot of value in many of the books of the Bible. And I do think someone named Jesus existed and that He did teach a very different way of living than what was believed at the time, a way that is worth following.

Mauigirl said...

Hill, thanks for your comment! I am always interested in people of faith and what they go through.

TomCat said...

Faith that is never questioned, but accepted lock-step without reason, scares me. That find of faith is what we see from the theocons, and frequently exists without love or mercy.

I think MT's struggles in her faith may be the greatest sign we have of its authenticity.

Mauigirl said...

Tomcat, well said. I agree.

Unknown said...

I just finished "Come be My Light". There is no doubt that Mother Teresa was an incredibly dedicated and effective person who accomplished a lot of good in her life. I agree with Mauigirl that her deep sadness, lonliness and sufferiing probably had more to do with a chronic state of depression than some spiritual lacking. As a person who has suffered with depression, I find in her writings all the symptoms and signs of this terrible disease. It wasn't as well known and there weren't the medications available in the 1940's to treat it. I think her Father confessors who knew of her deep pain would have served her well to recommend psychiatric evaluation. Nobody should suffer that long. My heart goes out to Mother Teresa. Her dedication and love for people in poverty is to be admired, but I don't recommend her as a model of suffering needlessly for God's sake. What kind of God whould require that? Not one I want to get close to.

lovejesus said...

Why weren't we there for our sister? The church is called to act as one body. I believe she wanted to return, but was not allowed. We all have things we can't do for ourselves, vulnerabilities, frailties. It's not just the old and obviously disabled.
Why will we always have the poor? Why will we always need each other?
Compassion, one of the very things she taught us. Where was our compassion for her? She had a counselor, that’s one example of how Christians need each other. We need to show the world we are one body and care for each other. God’s got our back, yes. And mysteriously our actions and His plan become one. “Lord, send me!”
What were we thinking? “Oh, she’s got God, she doesn’t need anyone else?” as if she wasn’t human? A sister, would you have let this happen to your sister? How about your mother? Especially if she was such a saint, you ‘d feel like she deserves more compassion and care than most. What if it were Jesus? He was human too.
Perhaps like Christ, she wanted out of God’s will, but wanted God’s will more.
I am not so certain most of the time if what I’m doing is what God would have me do.
It amazes me to see a homeless person who has nothing and yet all around him are people who have there needs met. How does the he do it?
In response to giving him some money, he said to me, “God has always taken care of me!”

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Unknown said...

When you walk in true obedience to God's spirit instead of what you think god desires you have the fruits of God's spirit and sense his presence every moment and there is true oneness with god as christ had. But the issue is with the word obedience, many think that this means they do what they think god said in the bible or what your church leader says to do and while not always off, it's not the same as being spirit led and following gods spirit in all works. Many people follow their bibles and their interpretations of their bibles and do what they think god wants but only walking in the spirit is true obedience and this yields the fruit of the spirit all the time every moment without ending. Mother Teresa was on a mission to do what she says god told her but sadly wasn't doing it in the spirit with god but on her own because God had other works for her to do also and she just did what she thought god told her one time and that is not what being spirit led is. Spirit led is to be following gods actual living spirit all the time and moving and doing what the spirit leads us to be doing and then we continue to reap the fruits of the spirit. Mother Teresa did alot of her works in her own strength not with God's spirit leading her or else she would radiate with the fruit of God's spirit every moment and feel gods love joy peace every second. This is what we are called to.

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