Sunday, August 26, 2007

Faith and Doubt - Mother Teresa and NBC Nightly News

“One of the twelve disciples, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin), was not with the others when Jesus came. 25 They told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.”

John 20:24-25 (New Living Translation)

A few days ago Nancy and I watched NBC Nightly News, which was a departure from our normal routine. At about ten till six, anchorman Brian Williams introduced a segment about Mother Teresa’s “dark side.” He said that it just might change the way we’ve come to think of this woman.

The segment, which was about six minutes long, focused on a series of letters that Mother Teresa had written years ago. In some of them she expressed deep doubt, even to the point of doubting the existence of the God she prayed to and served so tirelessly.

By the time it was all over I found it difficult to think of what the point of the piece was. Could it have been that Mother Teresa was a fraud, a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing? Could it have been that any expression of theological or philosophical doubt casts doubt on the veracity of the message she proclaimed in public? Could it have been that Christians who doubt are schizophrenic lemmings, flitting from ecstatic religious highs one moment to chasms of deep despair the next?

When the segment was completed, Brian Williams bid America good night. My guess is that his next step was to find his way to some upper crust Manhattan restaurant to order a steak tar tare and a glass of good vintage wine, something as raw and intoxicating as the high tech hatchet job he’d just finished.

I doubt that the piece had much impact on what people think of Mother Teresa. In death, as in life, she was either loved or hated. There was no neutral ground. She worked tirelessly on behalf of the poor and forgotten and she spoke out forcefully against social injustice, especially abortion on demand. She didn’t fear the powerful. She once even called the President of the United States to task for his support of abortion. Given that, it’s easy to understand why the powerful didn’t like her message. Perhaps in exposing her doubts NBC Nightly News was trying to cast her causes in a greyer light – doubt is tantamount to unbelief and unbelief invalidates the message as well as the messenger.

I read the entire piece Brian Williams cited, titled “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” published in Time magazine’s on line edition. The conclusion David van Biema, the author, came to was, surprisingly, far different than that of NBC Nightly News:

“But for most people, Teresa's ranking among Catholic saints may be less important than a more general implication of Come Be My Light: that if she could carry on for a half-century without God in her head or heart, then perhaps people not quite as saintly can cope with less extreme versions of the same problem.”

I interpret that to mean that Mother Teresa’s doubts are the same doubts all of us who follow Jesus experience. The significant difference between Mother Teresa and most of us, however, was that her doubts were much more intense, magnified because of the great task she’d been given. As the Book says, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Calcutta’s slums, teeming with the dying, neglected, and forgotten was a far more difficult a forging place for faith than most of us will ever endure in life. Giving a few last meals to a maggot infested street beggar must have sometimes seemed a futile gesture in the face of all the neglect, abuse, and violence she saw played out in the world. She must surely have felt the sting of the apathy of the world. Under those circumstances, the doubts seem not only reasonable, but also inevitable. I’d be willing to wager that Brian Williams would seriously doubt NBC’s ability to “take care of him” if he were resigned to eating chitins’ every day instead of steak tar tare.

The power of this woman’s life lay in the fact that she pressed beyond her doubts and served the poorest of the poor. Having her doubts revealed only makes my admiration for her grow.

Brian Kolodiejchuk, author of Come Be My Light, saw Mother Teresa in that same type of light:

“The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude toward love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” he says. “And so to us the totality of love is what we feel. But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn't ‘feeling’ Christ's love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4:30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘Your happiness is all I want.’ That's a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”

In a world where the superficial too often reigns, Mother Teresa, doubts and all, stands head and shoulders above her detractors and critics. Her face, worn, chiseled, and wrinkled by the burdens she bore, stands as a great testimony against the straight teeth and crooked smiles of those who attempt to cut her down to a size they can manage. When all is said and done, when the last trumpet sounds, I’m certain that she will hear the words she longed to hear in life – “well done, good and faithful servant.”

I wish I could say the same for her critics and detractors, but I don’t have that much faith. I find it difficult to press past my doubts about them. While I hope it isn’t so, I fear that the message they hear at the last trumpet – “Depart from me, into the eternal fire!” – will be far different than the message Mother Teresa will hear.


Jim Baxter said...

When Jesus died on the cross and said, "It is finished," the veil of the temple between the Holy of Holies and the congregation was rent in two, from the top down.

No lnger was an intermediary, a High Priest, entering the Holy of Holies once a year, necessary for a personal relation between each individual and God.

Believing as Mother Teresa did, that the Roman Catholic Church was THE church, may have played a serious part in her personal experience of loss. Maintenance of an intermediary priesthood lacking God's validation, and emphasizing ritual and tradition, may well have been the unrecognized basis of her doubt.

Her personal love of the Lord and her servant-heart faithful example more than sufficed for a failed substitute.

Yea my sister Teresa! Joel 3:14 kjv

semper fidelis
vincit veritas

Pastor Mike said...

Right on, Phil!