Time magazine this month has a rather amazing story about a decades-long crisis of faith in the life of Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa. A newly released biography, Come Be My Light, consists of numerous letters Teresa exchanged with her church superiors. These letters reveal that for the last fifty years of her life, she felt as if God had withdrawn his presence from her and would not respond to her prayers. Unable to feel any hint of God’s existence – “neither in her heart or in the eucharist”, according to Brian Kolodiejchuk, the book’s editor – she lived in a permanent state of silent misery and despair. Some excerpts from Teresa’s letters reveal just how tormented she was:
I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
This crisis of faith began in 1946, the same year that she began her evangelistic work among the poor in Kolkata, and continued unabated, except for a few weeks in 1958, until her death in 1997. The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.
Despite her intense inner turmoil, Teresa always kept up a facade of cheerful piety in public, professing religious sentiments which she did not truly feel. Her letters reveal that this was a fully conscious act of deception. She called her smile “a mask”, and wrote privately to a confidant about one public appearance: “I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love… If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy.’”
The inability to feel God’s presence is a common element of deconversion stories, but as Teresa’s letters show, it happens in people who remain believers as well. Of course, atheists should not be at all surprised by this, since we are well aware that there is no god there to feel. In the initial ecstasy of conversion, a new believer may convince themselves that they have felt God’s presence, but after the exhilaration fades, the sense of presence often goes with it. If this can happen to a believer as famed as Mother Teresa, it undoubtedly happens to others as well. It’s an open question just how many other theists may be going through similar emotional agony, struggling in vain to convince themselves that they feel the presence of God. Almost certainly, these struggles are severely underreported, because believers are loath to admit them – each one concealing their own torment because they are convinced they are the only one experiencing it, and thus contributing to the same misconception among all the others who are feeling the same thing.
Although her letters show she considered atheism on more than one occasion, Teresa never publicly admitted the truth about how she felt. (She asked the church to destroy her letters, but that request was not granted.) It seems that, like many believers, she became so locked into her religion that she never even considered leaving it to be a live option. Sadly, she is not the first and will not be the last person to put themselves through this unnecessary suffering by vainly clinging to false dogma. This is yet another of the ways in which unfounded faith ends up causing real pain and suffering to real people.
Teresa’s inner suffering was not helped by the Catholic church. If anything, its masochistic, pain-glorifying teachings only exacerbated her problem, by encouraging her to stay and suffer rather than seek a different path where she might have found happiness. Some of Teresa’s confessors told her that her darkness was “reparative” – in other words, a blessing granted by God that let her experience some of what Jesus felt while being crucified. As one advisor put it, “It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus’ passion.”
Not only did these teachings prolong Teresa’s suffering, they further demonstrate the unfalsifiable nature of religious belief. When God’s presence is felt, that is evidence of God’s existence; when God’s presence is not felt, that is also considered evidence of God’s existence. These beliefs are formulated to be perfectly circular, immune to logic.