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.