I read a biography of Mother Teresa about ten years ago, just a few years after her death in 1997. I was deeply impressed by her dedication and service to so many of India’s poor, but I admit I was not inspired by her story. This living saint was always, to me, somewhat like the untouchables she served—so perfect that I couldn’t relate to her. The book, while an impressive record of her faith, didn’t make her more human to me, only serving to reinforce that I could never hope to achieve even a tiny fraction of the amazing things she accomplished with her life. All of that changed for me with a story on the front page of my newspaper in 2007, ten years after her death.
In a stunning revelation, a book based on years of letters to friends and colleagues showed that Mother Teresa appears to have suffered from a complete absence of the presence of God for nearly the last half of her life. While she was serving the lowest of the low and publicly extolling the importance and virtues of faith, she herself was suffering from a deep crisis of that same faith. As one of the most recognizable people of the 20th century, and arguably the most famous religious figure, she was not even sure that she believed in the God she so publicly served. It was an astonishing story, but one which quickly faded from public view.
I didn’t forget. Unexpectedly, the world’s most famous believer was revealed to be an imposter. Some wondered if her legacy would be tarnished. It wasn’t for me. After years of admiring this great woman, I could suddenly relate to her. Mother Teresa did nearly all of her great work after losing her spiritual connection. All those years, I had assumed she had some unusual relationship with God; how easy it must be to do great things with such an advantage. But I was wrong. That meant hope for those like me, perhaps the vast majority of us, who have a fragile, uncertain faith. If Mother Teresa could do so much good with essentially no relationship with God, what are the rest of us capable of accomplishing? Of course, we see the answer every day in countless small ways, in the many small acts of kindness and love that occur unheralded in our world around us. But more significant to me personally, Mother Teresa’s lack of faith encouraged my own. If God could move mountains through a tiny Albanian woman who lacked faith, then perhaps there was hope that He could make a difference through my own faith-challenged life.
Many were inspired by the faith Mother Teresa demonstrated through decades of service to others, in spite of the irony that it appears she felt little of that faith herself. But the most amazing thing to me is that now, years after her death, others like me can be inspired anew by that very lack of faith. Perhaps that is her reward for those years of spiritual desert.
“God doesn’t require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.” –Mother Teresa