As I read the latest article in Time about Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith my head swirled with questions. Some about Mother Teresa herself, and others related to the general nature of faith. It was definitely interesting to gain insight into one of this century’s foremost humanitarians and see the spritual struggle and torment inside that was veiled on the outside. This also gives some insight into a few of the creedal differences Muslims and Christians have that we often overlook.
To quote from the article: “It raises questions about God and faith, the engine behind great achievement, and the persistence of love, divine and human.”
The article centers around Mother Teresa’s letters to her spiritual advisors have been made public in a book (against her wishes).
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.”
Ironically, these letters have been gathered as part of the process to formally give her the status of a Saint.
After reading through it the impression I get of Mother Teresa is someone who was motivated to work in the path of God, however, she was struggling to find the true means of approach to Him. It is a bit disheartening to see someone dedicate their life in such a way but not find Islam. Allah(swt) guides whom He wills. Reading this though, gives some insight into the underlying attitudes and intentions that some have.
What follows is a ‘cliffs note’ version of the Time’s article. I have pulled out some of the interesting and relevant excerpts and added some comments (going chronologically in order of the article).
Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
This is the opening quote in the article and perhaps the most striking. It reminded me immediately of the following ayaat:
“And We have put a barrier before them, and a barrier behind them, and We have covered them up, so that they cannot see” (36:9).
“Allah has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearings, (i.e. they are closed from accepting Allah’s Guidance), and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be a great torment” (2:7).
…in a letter to a spiritual confidant, the Rev. Michael van der Peet, that is only now being made public, she wrote with weary familiarity of a different Christ, an absent one. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she assured Van der Peet. “[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.”
Subhanallah I honestly cannot think of anything other than to say that this is precisely the description given to the Christians in Surah al-Fatihah. They are indeed worshipping without knowledge.
That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. 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.
This is the unfortunate reality of a heart that is not blessed with true emaan no matter how sweet things may appear on the exterior. It also reminds me of many Muslims who have sadly adopted the mantra of “Allah just wants us to be good to people,” and use it to justify their lack of actual religious practice. No matter what levels of worldly righteousness a person achieves, the heart will remain unfulfilled and unrewarded without true faith.
The article continues by detailing some conversations that Mother Teresa says she had with Christ,
Mother Teresa had visions, including one of herself conversing with Christ on the Cross. Her confessor, Father Celeste Van Exem, was convinced that her mystical experiences were genuine. “[Her] union with Our Lord has been continual and so deep and violent that rapture does not seem very far,” he commented. Teresa later wrote simply, “Jesus gave Himself to me.”
Contrast this with,
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
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 & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated
How can it be possible for someone to be at such a high state of ‘union’ with her Lord, about to experience rapture, but then on the flip side doubt the very existence of that Lord?
Some explanations given to reconcile her conflicting emotions are proffered,
…identification with Christ’s extended suffering on the Cross, undertaken to redeem humanity, is a key aspect of Catholic spirituality. Teresa told her nuns that physical poverty ensured empathy in “giving themselves” to the suffering poor and established a stronger bond with Christ’s redemptive agony. She wrote in 1951 that the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus’ life that she was interested in sharing: “I want to … drink ONLY [her emphasis] from His chalice of pain.”
…”And a strong personality needs stronger purification” as an antidote to pride….
…”Let’s say you’re married and you fall in love and you believe with all your heart that marriage is a sacrament. And your wife, God forbid, gets a stroke and she’s comatose. And you will never experience her love again. It’s like loving and caring for a person for 50 years and once in a while you complain to your spiritual director, but you know on the deepest level that she loves you even though she’s silent and that what you’re doing makes sense. Mother Teresa knew that what she was doing made sense.”…
While these are noble excuses, it seems they miss the more obvious explanation relating to her internal spiritual struggle. Islamically, we know that when we face difficulty inshallah it purifies us of our sins. However, we also believe in that having full emaan in our Rabb. We don’t put ourselves through pain on purpose, but know that if we face difficulty in the course of our lives then it is from Allah. This is a sharp contrast to someone seeking the ‘pain’ Jesus experienced hoping to reach the Lord, and then doubting your own faith as a result.
We can see from the Sahabah’s example as well that they doubted the sincerity of their own actions to Allah, but their actual faith in Allah never wavered. The story of Umar (ra) asking Hudhayfah if he was counted amongst the hypocrites comes to mind. Umar is someone that dedicated his life to Allah (swt) and working for the ummah, but we never find this kind of spiritual crisis taking place.
Part of the reason for this divide, I feel, comes from a fundamental creedal difference: How we believe in the Names and Attributes of Allah (swt). When a person feels that God came to earth in a human form, and experienced the same emotions and pain (and thus deficiency) that a human experiences, then it destroys any hope of having a real relationship with this Lord. By attributing to God that He felt pain, is to diminish His status and Majesty. This is why they make the excuse that she is like the ‘dedicated spouse’ caring for her husband. By taking away the very essence of the Oneness of Allah, how can they then learn the means of approach to Him? If they look upon God as a human, or someone with human qualities, then by the very nature of this attitude, they will never have the spiritual relationship they crave, only emptiness.
If they truly believed Allah(swt) was Al-Wadood (Loving), Al-Hakeem (Wise), that whatever He decreed was best for us and we submit to it, that only He harms or benefits, and that He will reward us or punish us, then their relationship with Allah would be stronger. But they do not. If they truly believed Allah was Al-Rahmaan (The Merciful) then they would not go to a priest to confess their sins to him! This is taking the rights due to Allah and giving them to the creation. This is the fundamental mistake they made, and you can see the effects that it has on the purity of one’s soul, and the relationship one has to Allah, As-Samad (The One everyone is need of, but He needs no one).
To counsel these emotions, Mother Teresa was advised,
The Rev. Joseph Neuner, whom she met in the late 1950s and confided in somewhat later, was already a well-known theologian, and when she turned to him with her “darkness,” he seems to have told her the three things she needed to hear: that there was no human remedy for it (that is, she should not feel responsible for affecting it); that feeling Jesus is not the only proof of his being there, and her very craving for God was a “sure sign” of his “hidden presence” in her life; and that the absence was in fact part of the “spiritual side” of her work for Jesus.
This reinforces the point from above. When one does not truly understand Allah to begin with, then they cannot establish a relationship with Him. We believe, for example, that Allah is above the Throne, above the heavens, and His Knowledge and His Mercy encompass the creation. We know that He is not in us with a ‘hidden presence’ that we chase after to uncover. Without this basic understanding of theology though, the pitfalls of this creed are manifest. When one thinks that God should have this type of presence in one’s life, and it is not found, the spiritual ramifications can be destructive.
This is not to say that God does not manage our affairs – but rather that we must learn the proper means of drawing near to Him, and praying to Him. “And your Lord says, ‘Call upon Me; I will respond to you’” (40:60).
“I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist].” She described her soul as like an “ice block.” Yet she recognized Neuner’s key distinction, writing, “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.” Although she still occasionally worried that she might “turn a Judas to Jesus in this painful darkness,” with the passage of years the absence morphed from a potential wrecking ball into a kind of ragged cornerstone.
The worship without knowledge comes into play more here. Because a person’s yearning for God is so strong, in the absence of something better, they are forced to reconcile this issues often in strange ways:
He contends that the letters reveal her as holier than anyone knew. However formidable her efforts on Christ’s behalf, it is even more astounding to realize that she achieved them when he was not available to her — a bit like a person who believes she can’t walk winning the Olympic 100 meters.
The article concludes with the following,
Please destroy any letters or anything I have written.
— to Picachy, April 1959
…Teresa’s rationale for suppressing her personal correspondence was “I want the work to remain only His.” If the letters became public, she explained to Picachy, “people will think more of me — less of Jesus.”
…Teresa considered the perceived absence of God in her life as her most shameful secret but eventually learned that it could be seen as a gift abetting her calling….
The part that bothers me most about this is that her lack of faith is being construed to be a part of her piety. To doubt the acceptance of your actions is one thing, but to actually doubt your very Lord whom you are working for is another.
There seems to also be an underlying attitude of blind acceptance of anything that is done by a ‘pious’ or holy person, and unfortunately we see this behavior amongst Muslims as well. How else could this be considered a ‘gift’ aiding her call?
This is why I feel Islam strikes the proper balance. We give respect to our scholars, our humanitarians, and our community members, but the ultimate judgment of someone’s righteousness (no matter how pious a scholar they may be) is reserved for Allah (swt) and we say simply that we hope Allah (swt) grants them Jannah.
I hope that from this we can draw a few important lessons. Firstly, regardless of what is said about Mother Teresa, she will still always be known as one of the foremost humanitarians of our times who helped an innumerable amount of people. Secondly, we should see that no matter what we are doing, the most fundamental aspect of our very existence is our relationship with Allah, and establishing that relationship through our worship of Him with the proper understanding and methodolgy.
Lastly, I cannot help but quote the following passage from Tafsir Ibn Kathir. I know that it is a tough message to be delivered, but given its pertinence to the issue at hand it is important to read (modified from islaam.com).
“Those who disbelieved – their deeds are like a mirage on a plain, in which a thirsty person thinks there is water; when he approaches it he finds nothing but he finds Allah before him and He repays him his account in full, as Allah is swift in taking account.” [al-Noor: 39] What comes of their hard labor is explained in the following passage from Tafsir Ibn Kathir (of Soorah al-Ghashiyah):
(Some faces that Day will be Khashi`ah) meaning, humiliated. This was said by Qatadah. Ibn `Abbas said, “They will be humble but this action will be of no benefit to them.” Then Allah says,
(Laboring, weary) meaning, they did many deeds and became weary in their performance, yet they will be cast into a blazing Fire on the Day of Judgement. Al-Hafiz Abu Bakr Al-Burqani narrated from Abu `Imran Al-Jawni that he said, ” `Umar bin Al-Khattab passed by the monastery of a monk and he said: `O monk!’ Then the monk came out, and `Umar looked at him and began to weep. Then it was said to him: `O Commander of the faithful! Why are you weeping’ He replied: `I remembered the statement of Allah, the Mighty and Majestic, in His Book,
(Laboring, weary. They will enter into Fire, Hamiyah.) So that is what has made me cry. ”’ Al-Bukhari recorded that Ibn `Abbas said,
(Laboring, weary) “The Christians.” It is narrated that `Ikrimah and As-Suddi both said, “Laboring in the worldly life with disobedience, and weariness in the Fire from torment and perdition.” Ibn `Abbas, Al-Hasan, and Qatadah all said,
(They will enter into Fire, Hamiyah) meaning, hot with intense heat.