Deal W. Hudson
September 10, 2007
The attacks began on August 23, the day Time magazine published an article by David Van Biema, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” quoting her letters to confessors and superiors from over 66 years.
In those letters, recently published under the title Mother Teresa: Come to Be My Light(Doubleday), Mother Teresa reveals the sufferings of experiencing God’s absence that persisted throughout her five decades of missionary work with the poor.
She wrote, “The silence and the emptiness are so great, that I look and do not see . . .”
Her only relief from this “dark night of the soul” was during a five-week period in 1959. For the remainder of her life, Mother Teresa suffered. As Van Biema put it, “The Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain.”
In a matter of hours after the Time article was posted on the Internet, howls went up from well-known atheist Christopher Hitchens, who has been leading an anti-Mother Teresa crusade for over a decade.
In 1995, Hitchens published The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which was a sequel to his British television “documentary” entitled Hell’s Angel.
Hitchens interpreted the letters as Mother Teresa’s loss of faith: “She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that she attempted cure was more and more professions of faith.”
Another public atheist, Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, went further, saying Mother Teresa “was forced to go through the motions and admitted her own hypocrisy.”
“People of faith understand the cry uttered by Mother Teresa – people of no faith find it to be a stumbling cross. They cannot get their minds around the fact that Christ suffered and felt abandoned by the Father.”
These are the words of Jim Towey, a man who worked closely with Mother Teresa for twelve years as her legal counsel. Towey is now president of St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, PA, having previously served as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
He thinks that Hitchens is nothing but a publicity seeker.
“He’s a provocateur. He uses Mother Teresa to get attention, to feed off her celebrity. Hitchens has to conclude she was a hypocrite, or he has to retract his book and his atheism.”
When Hitchens published his 1995 book attacking Mother Teresa as a fake, Towey went to Mother to offer his sympathy, but she cut him off saying, “We must pray for him.” Hitchens’s name never came up again.
Towey told me that we should be grateful that these letters have been published – this change in the perception of Mother Teresa will make her “accessible” to more people.
“I think she has been up on a pedestal, the saintly person who worked with the poorest of the poor. She was really out of reach of most people. Now that we know that she had long trials of darkness and doubt, she will be within the reach of more people, especially those who have suffered terrible loses, like the death of children and terminal illness. She will be an inspiration to them.”
In all the years that Towey worked with Mother Teresa and knew her, the intense spiritual struggle told through these letters was never expressed.
“There was no hint of this, absolutely none. We always thought she got the spiritual consolations that we didn’t get.”
In her lifestyle, Mother Teresa was obviously no stranger to hardship. She had malaria dozens of times, rarely slept, and “her room in Calcutta didn’t even have a fan.”
Towey sounded angry for a moment after I repeated to him the charge made by Barker and others that Mother was insincere. He stopped and drew a deep breath before finishing his answer:
“Mother Teresa was the most authentic human person I have ever known; she was deeply in love with God and her neighbor. Her faith was as pure and sincere as it gets. The fact that the Lord withdrew his presence after speaking with her so clearly decades earlier just heightens her faith.”
When I asked Towey how she managed her magnetic smile, he said something very remarkable:
“She willed it,” he said.
I interrupted him to say that smiling isn’t something we usually associate with willpower.
“People understand that. Take the mother whose 10-year-old child is tragically killed. She feels like she will never smile again. One day she realizes that life must go on, and you will have to smile again; it’s an act of the will.”
That’s a lesson we can all benefit from.