The publication of Mother Teresa's letters reveals that she was not quite the model of total faith that she seemed. The late nun of Calcutta, whose canonisation is thought likely to begin this year, had an ongoing crisis of faith in which she struggled to believe in God. This is not a case of occasional moments of doubt - her periods of doubt lasted for decades, and they tormented her.
Shortly before receiving the Nobel peace prize, in 1979, she told her spiritual confidant of the painful barrenness of her religious life: "The spiritual emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, that I listen and do not hear. The tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak," she said. She also speaks of wrestling with a deep sense of "darkness", and of doubting the existence of God and heaven.
In a particularly interesting passage, she almost accuses herself of hypocrisy: "The smile is a mask or a cloak that covers everything. I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God, a tender personal love. If you were there, you would have said, 'What hypocrisy!'"
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Though sainthood has fuelled popular Catholicism for centuries, it has also brought problems. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Protestantism was provoked by the cult of saints. The new theology strongly rejected the concept of sainthood. It insisted that there is no special class of human being who is closer to God than the rest of us: we are all sinful, and we are all capable of being saved. Luther saw sainthood as a way of the church cementing its power: it keeps us so in awe of these perfect servants of the church that we never dare to criticise it. For to criticise the church would be to insult the saints who serve it.
And Luther also insisted that these caricatures of piety obscured the true nature of faith. In real life, faith is not a matter of achieving a pure heart, and total and constant communion with God: it is an endless struggle. We are constantly besieged by doubts and by selfish impulses. The idea that "good Christians" are pure and holy is a lie that devalues the ordinary experience of the Christian.
Unless further letters emerge in which Mother Teresa attacks the papacy and rubbishes the doctrine of transubstantiation, her imminent canonisation looks certain. And these letters suggest that she will be more interesting than most saints. On one level she will be a classic Catholic paragon of selfless charity and total loyalty to the institutional church. But on another level, she will be seen as a more nuanced paragon who has waged an existential struggle with doubt and depression.
From a Protestant perspective, it is the latter that makes her an exemplary Christian. Few of us are called to work in the slums of Calcutta; all are called to struggle with the darkness within, with the slums of our hearts.
Read it all here.