Doubting Teresa

(CBS)
Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Forget law, politics, diplomacy and war. Forget about creepy astronaut lovers and vicious athletes. Is there a more poignant and thought-provoking story this year than the one that emerged finally into such rich detail late last week about Mother Teresa's self-professed doubts about the existence of God in her life?

I am rarely thunderstruck by news and religious news rarely interests me (even though my editor here at Couric and Co. is a Catholic Deacon whom I affectionately and respectfully call the "Rabbi"). And I profess I didn't catch this story when it first emerged in foggy relief back in 2003. But reading David Van Biema's fascinating piece about Mother Teresa for Time magazine this past week both dropped my jaw and raised my curiosity. It turns out that the greatest religious icon of my lifetime was moonlighting as a Doubting Thomas—"Lord, my God, whom am I that You should forsake me?," she wrote, "… I have no Faith… I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart- & make me suffer untold agony.'"

I do not pretend to have any answers. Only questions. How will the faithful react to this news? How will atheists and agnostics react to it? To what extent will the publication of Mother Teresa's private letters change the conversation about religion in the 21st Century? How long will it be before semester-long courses are devoted to this development alone? And, the granddaddy of them all: If God indeed abandoned Mother Teresa, for decade after decade while she was doing her miracle work, what chance do the rest of us have?

(Getty Images)
It is stunning to me to read that Mother Teresa, in Van Biema's words, was "acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. Quoting from a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), Van Biema offers this: "`The smile, [Mother Teresa] writes, is 'a mask' or 'a cloak that covers everything.' Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. 'If you were [there], you would have said "What hypocrisy."' Indeed, it now is left to theologians and historians to cull true meaning from these mixed messages and to render judgment upon this remarkable person.

Not surprisingly, I guess, different people with different attitudes about religion are already using Mother Teresa's words to support their own views. On the one hand are those who believe that the purported absence of God and Jesus in Mother Teresa's life is a welcome lesson that even those who question their faith from time to time can both accomplish His good work on Earth and find solace beyond death. Just because Mother Teresa didn't feel His presence, these folks contend, doesn't mean He wasn't there.

On the other hand are those who, like provocative author Christopher Hitchens, see in Mother Teresa's persistent doubts proof that "she was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself."

If she had these doubts, these folks suggest, why didn't she share them with those she ministered? Why did she encourage the conversation while she was alive and try to keep it hidden following her death (according to Van Biema, Mother Teresa asked that these letters be destroyed but her request was rejected by the Church).

Like I said, I don't have answers. And despite his training and experience Deacon Kandra probably doesn't, either. But I believe it is worth discussing, online and at home, in churches, mosques, synagogues and anywhere else religious people meet to reasonably discuss the meaning of religion and its role in the human drama. It is another gift, perhaps, from Mother Teresa; one she clearly did not want to offer but which in the end may prove the most powerful.



  • Andrew Cohen

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