Friday, August 24, 2007

On Faith & Its Loss

Some of you may have already heard about the letters revealing Mother Teresa's loss of faith in the later years of her life.

Shortly after beginning work in Calcutta's slums, the spirit left Mother Teresa.

"Where is my faith?" she wrote. "Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness... If there be God — please forgive me."

Eight years later, she was still looking to reclaim her lost faith.

"Such deep longing for God… Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal," she said.

It's not so surprising when atheists and believers of other faiths or spiritual traditions (especially those with a particularly anti-Christian chip on the shoulder) mention Mother Teresa's deep doubts about her religion with a kind of repressed triumph, as if they've managed to recruit one more morally superior non-believer into their ranks. Just one more example of how one doesn't need to be a "real Christian" to be a good person.

Yet I find myself wondering what exactly it means to be a "real" Christian, after all. In some ways, I feel as though I can relate to this sense of emptiness and lack of solid deistic ground. Recently re-reading a favorite book of mine (Radical Optimism, by Beatrice Bruteau) I discovered that, while much of her talk of creative freedom and self-giving love still rang true, the idea of the loving, protective parent-god seemed almost silly. For a moment, I wondered where my own faith had gone. Was this just a symptom of cynicism, pessimism masquerading as maturity and objectivity?

Several years ago, while working on my chapbook The Rosary Poems, I began to ask myself about the nature of the Christian spirituality in relationship to an absent God. In a journal I was keeping at the time, I wrote:

Word became flesh--Jesus was born--so that he would die, I know that much, it would seem. What I don’t understand is how I am supposed to be a religious person now. The Word became present so that we would be “saved” by its absence? But then, if it is eternal, not only is it not absent now, but it was never not-present to begin with... Jesus is the self-revelation of God in human form--but he is dead now, and now all we have are words, which is what we had to begin with. Am I supposed to believe that if Jesus had never been born, no amount of words would be enough? How are words enough now?
The metaphor of the empty grave began to dominate my contemplations, and towards the end of the short collection of poems based on the Mysteries of the Catholic rosary, I wrote a verse entitled "Resurrection," in which Mary Magdalene searches for her beloved:


       Tell me where you have laid him,
       and I will take him away. JOHN 20:15

I seek you in the garden--
small roses blossom like tombs
from the earth, dark scabs of flowers
that itch between thick layers
of clotted petal, and butterflies
alight, unroll them, opening
with angelic curiosity--but you
are nowhere. Pained and peeling,
I find nothing but the tightened,
milky scar of this new morning.

What does it mean to be a "real" Christian? Christ is, in some ways, an underworld god, a god of darkness and suffering, a god of death. He has the power (and the self-knowledge of this power) to raise Lazarus from the dead, yet he grieves deeply for his friend--he weeps for him. He weeps for himself, as well, on the night of his betrayal, with an anxiety so deep that his tears run red with blood. He must have known that he would be resurrected and glorified, that his death would be the active salvation for mankind--he is the Divine Son, isn't he? Even if he is just a mythic figure, of all mythic figures his faith must have been the most pristine, the most unshakable. And yet he suffers, deeply, almost beyond endurance.

It would be easy to shut down this paradox, to reduce it, to deny the Is-And-Is-Not nature of the story. Either Jesus' faith was strong and so he did not truly suffer, or he had no faith and he suffered because he was just another doubtful, ordinary man. But perhaps, there is another possibility. Perhaps there is a way in which faith and doubt coexist, and the experience of utter emptiness and the most poignant pain of longing are not symptoms of a lost faith, but a sign of its fruition, its completion in union with a Divine which, as macrocosm, suffers each pain and isolation and fear that shudders the frame of each microcosmic creature longing still to realize its own divinity.

The Christian path is to seek to become "Christ-like" ourselves, to "put on the mind of Christ," to seek Christ-consciousness. But what does this look like? Is it really the self-satisfied, warm-fuzzy glow of the ever-loving mother coddling us all our lives? Or is it, perhaps, what we see in Mother Teresa? A process by which inner doubt and suffering are transformed into loving action, not through faith but through the pure tenacity of the divine spark insisting that it manifest--a love that is truly selfless in having not even a God to justify it. That doubt can inspire faith, that suffering can be transformed into hope... Isn't this a glimpse of the Divine about its work?


       Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves
        and for your children. LUKE 23:28

Choked wailing, flung out with our
sweat-limp palms along the road,
and pulled back again, rushing gasp
of sand from beneath us--what good
is mercy now? No one can relieve him
of it, when even we are his--our rushing
forward to lift him, only his return
to himself--our cry beneath the weight
of it, his cry--we double over, unable
to tell for whose God we are weeping.


  1. Christian faith seems to be complicated by its near two-thousand year love affair with authority. When I study the gospel, what I see is a Christ encouraging, cajoling, and demanding that people love one another and take care of each other -- regardless of circumstances or worth. But people have been using Christ's name to conquer ever since Constantine.

    Faith in God is often couched in terms of subservience to God, which easily translates into subservience to the clergy, pastor -- whoever "speaks for God."

    The problem is that subservience rests depends on a social contract, just as such bargains always did in the mundane world: serve me, and I will keep you safe. It's no wonder that people lose faith when God appears not to "follow through."

    I'm not sure what Christian faith would look like minus the two thousand years of theology designed to justify earthly authoritarian power structures would be, but I think it probably starts with faith in Christ's message: through compassion we can make the world a better place, and compassion ultimately makes persecution irrelevant.

  2. I have very little patience with those who might want to point to Mother Theresa's feelings of longing and doubt as any kind of failing of faith. I know that I have been so lucky--I'd say "blessed" or "favored" if it weren't for the implications of complacency I fear those words would have in context here--with a year of seemingly endless wellings up of Spirit. Almost every time I enter meeting for worship I feel close to God, in relationship with God, and deeply joyful.

    But I also know that many of the Friends I love and admire most deeply, not least because of the Light of God I see shining in their eyes, describe never or seldom feeling what I feel. I'm human enough to want to believe that there's something "special" in me that somehow explains my recent wealth, but the presence of these Friends in my life reminds me that it may be, far from a sign of my spiritual strength or special holiness, simply that the Spirit knows I need a lot of hand-holding to get anywhere at all... and the Friends (or Mother Theresa) who are so much more faithful than I can manage are getting a tougher journey, for the same reason that big kids don't have training wheels on their bikes.

    I'm grateful to be illuminated by Spirit so often this year. But I'm aware that, if I'm wise, I'll remember that I don't own the Light, and I didn't summon it through some act of will. Not sensing it will not mean I've been abandoned.

    I have the evidence of the Light in the eyes of Friends who have experienced drought and kept walking to remind me of this.

    Damn. I know I sound snarky. There's just no way to talk about spiritual things that matter without using language that hasn't been polluted by glib over-use. But one thing about those spiritual dry spells, is they are not glib. They take a lot of integrity to face openly, as Jesus did before his death, and as Mother Theresa appears to have done.

    Like Miguel de Unamuno said: "Una fe sin duda es una fe muerto"--faith without doubt is faith that has died. That doubt may be the sign of faith far more deeply alive than I can know from outside the relationship of that one Seeker and their God.

    Again, sorry if I'm sounding snarky, here. It's not what I'm feeling.

  3. Thud, I agree with you that faith is complicated. It's strange that I never considered faith (or its related concept, grace) to be a key aspect of my spiritual life until I began to let go of my formal ties to the Christian religion. The more I've explored Paganism, the more I realize that these are two aspects that do, indeed, have an important function beyond simply subjugating the believer.

    Perhaps it's strange that I've only begun to understand "faith" outside of a Christian context, but as you said, there is a long and complicated history of suppression-by-association. Of course you can have faith without subservience, just as you can have faith in a lover, a best friend, or a child. In the end, the idea of faith really begins to resemble the idea of unconditional love--expressing itself in acts of compassion and the movement to make the world better, even when it seems fruitless or impossible. True faith is even empowering, in some ways, because to some extent you must have faith in yourself as capable of doing good, acting compassionately and making a difference, even when these things seem unlikely or God seems to have abandoned you in the attempt.

  4. Cat, You don't sound snarky at all. :) And I know what you mean, as I've had my moments of up-welling Spirit, too, especially in connection with my work as a poet. On the other hand, I've had my fair share of droughts, some longer than others. These days, it seems that my soul has learned to hold both states of being at once, so that there's a thrumming always in me, the kind made when two notes are just slightly out of tune--it's the daily rhythm of my life, to feel at once so close to Spirit and yet so emptied of it. Maybe this is a good thing, though, as I'm the type of person who always seems to think the present state will go on forever, whether for better or worse!

    I wish there was more of an active discussion of the idea of "faith" in the Pagan community, to be honest. I think the possibility of faith is often overlooked by Pagans more focused on a direct, experiential relationship to Spirit. As vital as such connection is to one's spiritual life, it's unrealistic to expect to always be walking around with a god- or goddess-buzz. Sometimes I wonder if the "fad" or "window-shopping" aspect of Paganism isn't at least partly related to the desire to always feel great about one's religion. Even the best set of practices and beliefs won't always be fun or easy, though they may still be fruitful (or, in the case of belief, an aspect of truth).

    Personally, I'm always comforted to think that there are at least a few valuable things we can learn from Christianity (and, of course, I have always admired Quakers as getting it "more right," perhaps, than other forms that Christianity has taken over the years :).

  5. Wow, that was a good post.

    Check out some of the apophatic theology of eastern Christianity - the darkness of God, i.e. what we cannot say about God, because all qualities are negated in the supreme source. See also the Kabbalistic concept of the Ain Sof Aur, the limitless sea of light. Then look at the Buddhist notion of the Void, and the Hindu concept of "Tat tvam asi" (Thou art that). And the Gnostic concept of the Pleroma is quite useful, too. And the Tao Te Ching.

    Then consider, what the Christos is meant to be embodying is this Void - he emptied himself that he might become full of God. It's the same with the Buddha and all such figures - they empty themselves in order to be filled with the Divine Love, to be made the true icon of a human. And yes, there will be doubt and despair as part of the process, the descent to the underworld (very important in the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the death & resurrection).

    And regarding the compassionate outpouring of the Divine Love - we are the ones we have been waiting for. As Teresa of Avila said: "Christ has no hands but you."

    I also agree with you & Cat that religion isn't always about getting high on experiences - sometimes it's about hanging in there when life throws something painful at you. Now that I have heard that about Mother Theresa of Calcutta, I am full of admiration for her carrying on with her faith even though she had doubts. JRR Tolkien had doubts too (so do we all if we're honest) but as you say, it's about holding doubt and faith in creative tension.

  6. I just found a wonderful quote from Alan Watts:

    "Faith is a state of openness or trust. To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float. And the attitude of faith is the very opposite of clinging to belief, of holding on. In other words, a person who is fanatic in matters of religion, and clings to certain ideas about the nature of God and the universe, becomes a person who has no faith at all. Instead they are holding tight. But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be."

  7. I found your brilliant blog through Lyn, It's a Woman's World. You think very deeply. And I find myself having similar thoughts.