Mother Teresa might be the most famous, and most widely admired, Catholic personality of the 20th century. And on Sunday, she was canonized by Pope Francis.
The Catholic Church makes saints to hold up as examples to the faithful. Every Christian is supposed to imitate Jesus in their own life, but what does it mean to do so as, say, a soldier, a doctor, a rich man, a poor man, a woman, a husband, a wife, a son? The saints of the Catholic Church provide countless examples, an infinite and endlessly fractal portrait of what it means to live a life dedicated to what is true, good, and beautiful — something that should interest all of us.
So, what kind of example does Mother Teresa set? One of dedication of one’s entire life to what Jesus called “the least of these” — not just the poor in the financial sense, but all those marginalized, in every sense of the term. Controversy about her work with the poor is a bunch of political nonsense, as any cool-headed analysis of the facts shows.
But there’s another aspect of Mother Teresa’s life that is slowly coming into focus: her struggles with faith. She spent a long period of her life — decades, in fact — struggling with faith, losing the presence of God, and even believing that she didn’t believe in God, as she wrote in many pained, distressed, poignant letters that were only released after her death.
It’s easy to conclude that this makes her a hypocrite, and indeed Teresa reports sometimes feeling like one. But according to Catholic spirituality, this is all normal — indeed, to be expected. And it’s a store of wisdom, for those with eyes to see.
Although Mother Teresa’s experience was unusual in terms of its length, it was not at all unusual for the great saints in terms of its existence, or its depth. According to classical Catholic spirituality, the road to spiritual enlightenment includes what the great spiritual master Saint John of the Cross famously called “the dark night of the soul.” Yes, faith and the spiritual life can be exhilarating. Prayer can give us great experiences. But what are you after? Are you after God, or are you after how awesome it feels to be after God? The only way to answer that question is for God to strip us of the experience of his presence, of the feel-goody aspects of the spiritual life. Indeed, all of the great spiritual traditions — not just Catholic, not just Christian, not just Western — say enlightenment must be preceded by a process of purification, of stripping away of the unnecessary, and this process can be very painful.
There’s another aspect of the Catholic worldview — which has helped me personally so much over the years — that is worth considering when thinking about Mother Teresa’s faith struggles: a focus on objective reality as opposed to subjective feelings. The history of Catholic mysticism is full of incredible stories of visions and other strange mystical experiences. While the tradition allows that these can happen, all of the spiritual masters teach us to disregard them. The only criterion for whether your prayer life is successful, writes the contemporary spiritual master Sister Ruth Burrows, OCD, is whether it makes you a more charitable and loving person, not whether it feels good or bad. Someone whose prayer life feels empty and grinding, as it does for so many of us, but who is a loving person, has a better prayer life than someone who has lovely spiritual experiences but is a shrew. Mother Teresa showed us that in spades.
Christians talk a lot about “faith.” At points of her life, Mother Teresa did not believe that she believed in God. Does that mean she didn’t have faith? Well, she was an ordained sister in the Catholic Church, and she devoted her life to following the teachings of Jesus. Objectively, she was a Christian, no matter what she subjectively believed. She practiced what a friend of mine once called “the faith of the body” as opposed to the “faith of the mind,” a concept captured by the proverb “Act as though ye had faith, and faith shall be given to you.”
If people ever stop trying to match what they subjectively believe with what they objectively do, yes, they become hypocrites. But until then,they are exercising what Aristotle called the virtues: the idea that our moral and psychological faculties are muscles, and that you need to practice them. What makes you a kind person isn’t how kind you feel, it’s the kind acts you do. And doing kind things for those around you, even when you don’t feel like it, even though it’s work, makes you a more meritorious person than someone for whom it comes easily.
The Catholic Church has evolved in ways good and bad, but one unquestionably good development has been its (halting) progress toward transparency. The sorts of experiences that Mother Teresa went through, everyday believers go through. Saint Therese of Lisieux, also a great spiritual master whom Mother Teresa took her religious name after, went through similar experiences — but her religious order redacted those passages from her memoirs so as not to weaken the little people’s faith. The truth shall make you free, but lies shall make you pliant.
Mother Teresa’s incredible perseverance in the face of her spiritual hardships makes her an even greater saint than we already thought, not a “worse” one. She showed us how to persevere, in the dark night, in spite of everything, even one’s demons. That is not lack of faith, that is true faith. May we all have her faith. Yes, even dark faith, even the pain and abandonment of the Cross.
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.