The recent publication of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., with its frank avowals of the struggles with darkness of someone widely regarded as a saint (and not just by Catholics), has raised once more the question of the role of doubt in the life of faith. Are faith and doubt inherently incompatible, or are they necessary components in a single act of trust in God? Are they inevitably paired, like day and night; or is doubt a temptation that indicates, at best, a lack of vigor in the act of faith? If one doubts, is one already on the road toward unbelief?
This question has long occupied theologians, one that is obviously too complicated to analyze fully here. (For Avery Cardinal Dulles’ history of the debate, see here.) But one way of gauging the contours and implications of this age-old debate would be to cite two reputable authorities who take (or seem to take) opposite positions, in this case the two cardinals John Henry Newman and Joseph Ratzinger.
I think it would be no exaggeration to say that for Newman it is quite literally nonsensical to speak of the compatibility of doubt and faith. For him these two terms denote entirely opposite stances on the part of the human seeker. In a sermon during his Catholic days specifically devoted to this theme, “Faith and Doubt,” printed in the collection Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, he speaks almost as a logical positivist in his exclusion of doubt from the act of faith:
I must insist upon this: faith implies a confidence in a man’s mind, that the thing believed is really true; but, if it is once true it never can be false. If it is true that God became man, what is the meaning of my anticipating a time when perhaps I shall not believe that God became man? This is nothing short of anticipating a time when I shall disbelieve a truth. And if I bargain to be allowed in time to come not to believe, or to doubt, that God became man, I am but asking to be allowed to doubt or disbelieve what I hold to be an eternal truth. I do not see the privilege in such a permission at all, or the meaning of wishing to secure it. If at present I have no doubt whatever about it, then I am but asking leave to fall into error; if at present I have doubts about it, then I do not believe it at present, that is, I have not faith. . . . I may love by halves, I may obey by halves; I cannot believe by halves: either I have faith, or I have it not.
At least at first hearing, Joseph Ratzinger sounds so different. In his influential Introduction to Christianity (a set of very erudite reflections on the Apostles Creed), the future pope boldly insists that “the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him.”
For an illustration of his point he uses the example of a shipwrecked Jesuit missionary in Paul Claudel’s play The Satin Slipper, who at curtain’s rise speaks these dying words while clinging to a piece of lumber, tossed about on a turbulent sea: “I really am fastened to the cross, but the cross on which I hang is not fastened to anything else but drifts on the sea.” To which Ratzinger appends this interpretation:
Fastened to the cross—with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. The situation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively described. Only a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescapably, and in the last analysis he knows that this wood is stronger than the void that seethes beneath him and that still remains the really threatening force in his day-to-day life.
As it happens, this Jesuit has a worldling brother who at the end of the play has been captured on a slave ship and must beg alms from an old nun, a plot twist that leads Ratzinger to this conclusion:
If, on the one hand, the believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt, if he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible one for his faith, on the other, the unbeliever is not to be understood undialectically as a mere man without faith. Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off, self-sufficient life either. . . . Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. . . . [He too] remains threatened by the question of whether belief is not after all the reality it claims to be. . . . Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident. (emphasis added)
The question that animates this posting is simply this: Can Newman and Ratzinger be reconciled? When the medieval theologians were confronted with conflicting opinions from two unimpeachably orthodox authorities, they set them over against each other and tried to reconcile them by drawing distinctions. In this case, we may ask: Are Newman and Ratzinger defining, however implicitly, faith and doubt differently?
It would certainly seem that way. Clearly Newman is speaking, at least to some extent, of faith as the subscription of the mind to certain propositional truths, like the Incarnation or the existence of God. In that case, he must surely be right that no one can simultaneously agree that, say, Jesus Christ is the Son of God while holding that such a truth might not be true. Ratzinger, however, is defining faith more broadly and very much wants to include its sacerdotal and representative role, whereby the believer seeks to live for the sake of unbelievers in their despair, the way Claudel’s Jesuit prays for his errant brother by taking on his unbelief.
So far, so medieval. But what accounts for their different definitions of faith? Might there, perhaps, be a shift of perspective, a sea change, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that can explain their different assertions? The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, in his book Eclipse of God, uses the analogue of a solar eclipse to explain contemporary unbelief: for the believer, God the “sun” must radiate his light if the earth is to continue to exist, but something has intervened to block that light and make the darkness of unbelief plausible. (For Buber, the eclipsing “moon” was the atheist project implicit in the presuppositions of German Idealism.)
Taking that astronomical analogue as our clue, and prescinding from the question of what intellectual rock serves as the moon blocking the light of the sun, we can at least say that—for believer and unbeliever alike—the world is darker now than it was when Newman was alive. A long tradition of Christian theology speaks of “the eyes of faith,” but eyes need light to see.
I cannot here discuss all the converging factors that have made our times so much darker than Newman’s, but if we admit Buber’s point, perhaps we can see the meaning of what Mother Teresa of Calcutta endured.
From reading Fr. Kolodiejchuk’s riveting account of Mother Teresa’s experience of the darkness of faith, what becomes apparent (at least to those aware of the difference between darkness and doubt) is her sheer bafflement at the meaning of what she was called upon to endure: a kind of nagging, persistent pain in her soul.
That pain never seems to have abated, but eventually she did attain a certain breakthrough, when one of her spiritual directors, a Jesuit missionary from Austria, suggested that her suffering was a partaking in what Christ endured on the cross. Previously, most of the advice from her spiritual directors had suggested she was following the track of St. John of the Cross and other mystics in the Carmelite tradition, where darkness is usually interpreted as only a preparatory, purgative stage, one that would eventually yield to the light of consoling union as the soul progressed in the spiritual life.
What made Teresa’s experiences so baffling, both to her and to her directors, was the chronic nature of her darkness, and therefore apparently not directly correlated to her progress in virtue. But she made a real breakthrough when this Austrian priest suggested that she had indeed attained the final unitive stage, only it was union with Christ’s own darkness on the cross. From this point on, Mother Teresa seemed more at peace (despite her schedule as peripatetic world traveler, which she found extremely burdensome). For now, however dimly, she could see her connection with the redemption won by Jesus on the cross.
This breakthrough becomes most evident not only in the change of tone in her later letters and retreat notes, but above all in this address she gave to her fellow Missionaries of Charity in India on April 1, 1981, where—quite untutored in the intricacies of Pauline soteriology—she spoke in these accents to her sisters:
At the Incarnation Jesus became like us in all things except sin; but at the time of the Passion, He became sin. He took on our sins and that was why He was rejected by the Father. I think that this was the greatest of all the sufferings that He had to endure and the thing He dreaded most in the agony in the Garden. Those words of His on the Cross were the expression of the depth of His loneliness and Passion—that even His own Father didn’t claim Him as His Son. That, despite all His suffering and anguish, His Father did not claim Him as His beloved Son, as He did at the Baptism by St. John the Baptist and at the Transfiguration. You ask “Why?” Because God cannot accept sin and Jesus had taken on sin—He had become sin. Do you connect your vows with this Passion of Jesus? Do you realize that when you accept the vows you accept the same fate of Jesus?
According to Fr. Kolodiejchuk’s interpretation (a point often missed even among the most vocal defenders of his book, and certainly entirely missed by atheist kibitzers), Mother Teresa’s darkness was a direct result of the actions of Jesus on her soul. She first felt the call to leave her original order, the Sisters of Loreto, and establish a new order, the Missionaries of Charity, when she heard the voice of Jesus say, “I thirst.” That is, he thirsted in the poor; and when in obedience to him, she turned to the destitute to slake that thirst, she became Christ’s own chosen instrument, living out the same reparative suffering that had already brought redemption to the world—but which now has to be continued by the members of his Body, the Church.
In other words, to understand the reality of her experience of darkness, one must turn, yet again, to St. Paul, who said: “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his Body” (Col. 1:24). Thus, far from representing a temptation to infidelity, Mother Teresa’s darkness was the truest indication of her fidelity to Christ and to his ongoing work of redeeming the world, mediated through the suffering members of his Church. No wonder, then, that, except for a few captious and frightened atheists, the world—and not just Catholics—has so quickly and readily recognized her as a saint. Because she is one.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago in Mundelein, Illinois.