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Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light
by Mother Teresa, edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.
Doubleday, 2007

review by Jon M. Sweeney

Most of the biggest bestsellers today are written by critics of religion, rather than by devotees. An entire industry has popped up around people like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (Why God Is Not Great), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation). The anti-religion book has become the hottest sub-genre in the Religion section at your local bookstore. I wonder... will the spinoff products be coming soon—replacement kitsch for those who were once religious but are no longer? Huggable Darwin plush toys (I’ve actually seen these), human brains on silver pendants, icon cards of Nietszche or maybe even of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris?

These authors are the new champions of the newest round of religion debunking. Or, perhaps better put, faith debunking. According to their thinking, if you still have some sort of faith in God, you are supposed to feel somehow foolish, or even, dangerous, to the rest of the world. Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris believe that faith is what caused 9/11; faith is what has caused wars, conflict, and prejudice throughout history. And of course, they are right, but only in part. They only tell part of the story of faith and its effects.

The crowd who eats up this anti-religion stuff is all excited, too, about revelations that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had serious doubts in her faith over the last 50 years of her life. This story hit the cover of Time magazine in late August, just before the publication of the book under review here. A couple of weeks later, in Newsweek, Hitchens reviewed Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light and, in his final sentence, concluded,

The Church should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself long ceased to believe.

But not so fast. This book of Mother Teresa’s personal letters to her confessors is now atop the bestseller lists. Believe me, she does not advocate a loss of faith, or the foolishness of faith. Quite the contrary. So, why are so many people—including those who want to debunk the purpose of faith in God—reading these letters of a dead saint?

We want to know what her “darkness” was all about, and how someone who for years on end said to her confessors that she did not feel God’s presence, and even doubted that God loved her, could do what she did with her life day after day. How is that possible?!

Which of course, returns us to faith. Like it or not—and the following statement is, I realize, an example of what makes Dawkins and Hitchens most infuriated—this is where the world divides between those who have a relationship with God and those who do not. Ask a person of faith, with a commitment to faith, “How often do you have doubts?” and I suppose you will be surprised by the answer. “All of the time!”

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light may get the critics of religion excited—as if it demonstrates that the saint of Calcutta’s faith was pretended—but in so thinking, they demonstrate how they misunderstand religion and spiritual people altogether, at least of the Christian variety.
Faith and doubt are flipsides of the same coin. The credulous “Christian” who is characterized in a book by Richard Dawkins rarely exists in real life.

More common is the person of faith who is still able to juggle the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes in her worldview; you don’t find a lot of faith in there. More common is the person of faith who also understands how some of the disciples, the very closest friends of Jesus, doubted his existence as the risen Lord after the crucifixion and resurrection. Matthew 28 says “some doubted” or “some hesitated,” depending on the translation. This is normal stuff, and doubt and darkness are parts of faith, even at moments that, for others, seem to be so clear.

Mother Teresa’s doubting began long before she became “Mother” anything, and even before she established the Missionaries of Charity in India. Early on, she recognized how her union with God in Christ would often be dark. “Do not think that my spiritual life is strewn with roses—that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion, ‘darkness.’ And when the night becomes very thick—and it seems to me as if I will end up in hell—then I simply offer myself to Jesus,” she wrote to her confessor back home, as a young woman. And, she says over and over in other letters to her confessors, she rarely heard an answer from Jesus when she would offer herself and ask for guidance in these matters.

Doesn’t that sound familiar to you, person of faith? For so many of us, and for so many reasons, faith is a dark road. That doesn’t make it wrong, or foolish. But it can be dry and without much in the way of clear consolation.

Years later, while she was in the midst of her darkness, Mother Teresa wrote to another confessor, “For the first time in this 11 years—I have come to love the darkness.—For I believe now that it is a part, a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth.”

And then comes the passage from one of her letters that this reviewer appreciates more than any other. This is, in fact, a passage that highlights how Mother Teresa never wanted these letters to see the light of day. For decades, she begged her confessors to either burn them, or return them to her, so that she could do the same. “I do not believe…in that continual digging into one’s spiritual life—by long & frequent visits & talks,” she writes to her confessor, whose job it is to listen to her spiritual troubles. She continues, illuminating how her spiritual darkness became the environment for her work among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta: “The help you have given me—will carry me for a long time.—Our spiritual life must remain simple—so as to be able to understand the mind of our poor.”

We never really knew that Mother Teresa was a mystic, until now, with the publication of these letters. They were gathered by the editor of this volume, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, in the process of preparing briefs for Mother Teresa’s beatification, and soon to come, canonization.

Kolodiejchuk is a Canadian, and the postulator for Mother Teresa’s Cause of Beatification and Canonization. In the end, I believe that these letters and this book will probably lead to a declaration of Mother Teresa as a theological “Doctor” of the Church, a rare honor, especially for a woman in the Roman Catholic Church.

But most relevant today is the way in which this entire discussion illuminates how there are aspects of faith that will never make sense to people like Dawkins and Hitchens. Mystics describe personal faith in terms that can never work in discussions of what is logical and illogical, true and false, verifiable or not. The faith of Mother Teresa was in the ground of her being; it was a mystical union. This being and this union take place in ways that are beyond good explanation, and sometimes only metaphors will suffice; it is like a river running quietly below the surface of the earth—churches drink from this river, and so do people of faith of all kinds, but mystics travel it intimately, and sometimes do so, in darkness.

Copyright ©2007 Jon M. Sweeney

Jon M. Sweeney is the author of several books including Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple, and Advocate, and Light in the Dark Ages; The Friendship of Francis and Clare of Assisi, which was just published and is a selection of History Book Club and Book-of-the-Month Club. He writes regularly for explorefaith, and lives in Vermont.

Just Peace: A Message of HopeTo purchase a copy of MOTHER TERESA: COME BE MY LIGHT, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users. Explorefaith.org participates in Amazon.com's Associates program. By following a link from explorefaith.org to Amazon.com, any and all purchases made during that Amazon visit result in a contribution from Amazon to explorefaith.org at no additional cost to you.


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