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My view of Mother Teresa has evolved over the decades. When I first visited her Mission in (what was then) Calcutta, it wasn’t very glamorous and I can see how critics have argued that Teresa may have misappropriated donations by denying patients basic medical care.
On the other hand, when I walked upstairs onto the open roof and saw a small chapel, the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit hit me pretty hard, and this was decades before I would formally convert to Catholicism. At that time I hardly knew the difference between Catholic and Protestant, not being raised in a churchgoing family.
However, another difficult fact remains: Teresa most certainly did not provide patients with proper medical care – apparently believing they would grow closer to Christ through their suffering – but when she herself fell ill she was flown out of India for the very best medical treatment that money can buy.
Before we jump to conclusions let me also say that before visiting the Mission I had an encounter with some Missionaries of Charity nuns who were driving through the winding Kolkata streets in a white, easily recognizable minivan. I had been walking for some time wearing a heavy backpack full of earthly goods, looking for a cheap, Indian-style hotel room in the hot baking sun. Although a youth back then, I was tired.
When my eyes met with the sister’s who was sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicle, again I was hit by the Holy Spirit and elevated in such a way that it’s hard to describe. Suddenly my pace quickened and I continued on with renewed vigor and joy, like a weary mule suddenly transformed into a sprightly colt.
To me, that’s God in action.
So today I ask myself: If Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity were just a big fraud, why did these two personal incidents have such a pronounced effect on my soul? It’s not like I was brainwashed as a kid to react the way I did. As I say, I almost never went to any kind of church, except for the obligatory weddings and funerals.
Readers can decide for themselves.
What I like about Rabbi Maller’s article is how he gives the benefit of the doubt on this issue and chooses instead to focus on the human side of Teresa. In a word, her doubt.
How many of us in our pursuit of God have wondered if we’re on the right track or not? Even the Hindu Holy Man Sri Ramakrishna – who apparently had repeated visions of the goddess Kali – sometimes wondered if he was going mad.
Honesty is always the best policy and in religion and spirituality, it’s indispensable. As the old saying goes, you can fool yourself, you can fool others, but you cannot fool God.
The lesson of Mother Teresa: Becoming a Saint with hidden doubts
Mother Teresa was a Saint. Yet Mother Teresa was so doubtful of her own Christian faith that she feared she was being a hypocrite. In a 2006 book that compiled letters she wrote to friends, superiors and confessors, her doubts are obvious.
Shortly after beginning work in Calcutta’s giant slums, she wrote: “Where is my faith? Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. … If there be God — please forgive me.”
As her fame increased, her faith refused to return. Her smile, she said, was a mask.
“What do I labor for?” she asks. “If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then Jesus, you also are not true.”
“These are letters that were kept in the archbishop’s house,” says Brian Kolodiejchuk, the priest who made the case for Mother Teresa’s sainthood.
He said her obvious spiritual torment actually helped her cause. “Now we have this new understanding, this new window into her interior life, and for me this seems to be the most heroic,” says Rev. Kolodiejchuk.
Perhaps, if Mother Teresa had studied Midrash and Agadah she would have understood her spiritual situation better. Everyone who devotes his or her life to a great cause, often has feelings of futility and self-doubt.
The Torah tells us that after the sin of the golden calf, God told Moses to hew two new stone tablets and God would again engrave them with the ten commandments. (Exodus 34:1) But from where did Moses get the stone?
The Midrash relates that Rabbi Levi said; from under the heavenly throne of glory; and Rabbi Yohanan said; from inside his tent.
For Rabbi Levi the 10 commandments (both the content and the vessel) are from heaven. But for Rabbi Yohanan the content is from God; but the vessel is from human beings, indeed from within your own tent.
A modern agaddah relates that a man was sleeping one night when he heard God say there was holy work for him to do. The Lord showed him a large rock and told the man to push against the rock with all his might.
The man did this, day after day. For many years he toiled from sun up to sun down, his shoulders set squarely against the cold, massive surface of the unmoving rock, pushing with all of his might. Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling that his whole day had been spent in vain.
Discouraged he started thinking: “I have been pushing against that rock for a long, long time, and it hasn’t moved. The task is impossible. I am a failure. Why kill myself over this? I can just put in my time, give a minimum effort; and that will be enough.”
But then the man decided to study some Torah wisdom from the book Pirke Avot to counteract his troubled thoughts. “Lord,” he thought, “I have labored long and hard in your service, working with all my strength to accomplish your holy task. Yet, after all this time, I have not budged that rock even an inch. What is wrong? Why am I failing?
The Lord responded compassionately, “ I asked you to serve God in holiness and you accepted. I told you that your holy task was to push against the rock with all of your strength, which you have done. I did not say that I expected you to move it all at once by yourself. You are not going to complete the work by yourself, but you are not free to avoid your holy task of pushing. (Avot 2:20)
Now you come with your strength spent, thinking that you have failed. But, is that really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled, your back sinewy and brown; your hands are callused from constant pressure, your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much, and your abilities now surpass what you used to have.
True, you haven’t moved the rock. But your holy commitment was only to try to push as much as you can and to exercise your trust in Torah’s wisdom. “Be like the workers who serve loyally without seeking a prize.” (Avot 1:3)
That you have done, and you have become holy. If you keep pushing you may find that in some wholly unexpected way the rock will move. That is one result of holiness. Even if the rock doesn’t move in your lifetime, you will become holy by trying to move it.”
At times, when we do Mitsvot we expect to see the results we want, and think we have failed if we don’t get them.
But all that God wants from us is a holy commitment to study our Torah, try to live our lives by the Mitsvot, and persevere in trusting God. (Micah 6:8)
Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.
According to her letters, Mother Teresa died with her doubts undiminished. She had even stopped praying, she once said.
The church decided to keep her letters, even though one of her dying wishes was that they be destroyed. That was the right thing to do and now we know why.
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of “Tikunay Nefashot,” a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children’s short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, “God, Sex and Kabbalah.” His most recent books are “Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms’ and “Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari” both available on Amazon.
This article has been used with permission. It also appears at The Times of Israel.
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Edit – Minor style tweaks to my intro. No substantive changes.
5:09 pm ET – Fixed within doc hyperlink and typo. Seems the anchor must be manually rewritten after each edit at WordPress, which wipes the code. Either that or I messed it up inadvertently after seeing it work the first time around.