Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Doubting Faith of Mother Teresa

On a discussion board filled with conservative religious people, I was having a discussion about faith and doubt, especially as it relates to the revelation that Mother Teresa felt emptiness and doubt for the entire 50 years of her ministry to the poor. So, I wrote, agreeing with Andrew Sullivan, that faith and doubt go hand in hand. That you can't have faith until you have doubt. Doubt is when you humbly say, "I don't KNOW, but this is what I believe..."

In response, someone asked me, "So doubt is faith?"

And this is how I responded:

Faith is a subject I've been wrestling with for a very long time and I don't think it helps to discuss something like this in snarky, sarcastic posts as we do here (not that I don't love snarky, sarcastic posts).

But it seems to me that Mother Teresa is a perfect example of true faith in that, for 50 years when she prayed, she felt absolutely nothing coming back from heaven. Utter silence. It also seems to me that that's exactly what everyone hears when they pray. The difference between Mother Teresa and everyone else is that she's admitting it. But even she couldn't bear to say this unsayable thing out loud. And even in her death, she asked that these letters be destroyed. I can only thank whomever it was who made the decision to not destroy them.

Too often, religion becomes this emotional masturbation where people work themselves up into a chemical frenzy so that they can tell themselves that they "felt" something -- and therefore God is real.

During my wanderings in the land of pure atheism, it was this silence from above (coupled with theological claims that made no sense to me) that left me angry and bitter -- a state many devout people never forgive you for.

What happened to me is that I began writing songs about living with AIDS. And these songs began to have a healing effect not just on me, but on everyone I played them for. They were LITERALLY changing body chemistries and bringing people into a deeper sense of themselves, their role in the lives of others and their love for life.

When a minister in upstate New York heard them, he asked me to sing in his church. I told him I hadn't been in a church in 25 years and that I didn't "believe" in God. He said, "Yes, you do. Now come sing in my church."

And that was the beginning of my long road back to "faith." And it began with someone believing in ME. That also became a crystal clear moment for me about what "belief" might actually mean, that belief in "God" is really belief in each other. If I tell someone I really believe in them and that I have total faith in them as a human being, it changes them. They rise to the occasion. It's a gift that transcends theology, church, our notions of the "personhood" of God, all that mumbo jumbo.

When I began to restudy the Bible, it hit me like a ton of bricks that Jesus' ministry (which, as was pointed out to me last night, was very much in line with Jewish faith) was touching people one at a time, believing in them, seeing past the skin diseases and the poverty and the hunger and the sense of loss and weakness, to empower them with belief in themselves to overcome great strife by realizing that the true Kingdom of God is within their own selves. That they BECOME the hands, eyes and feet of God.

And that was what Mother Teresa did. She couldn't relate to all the praying "up" and waiting for some kind of sign or voice or signal. Instead, she went to the most poverty stricken place on earth and she dug her fingers into the dirt and began a lifelong service to the people who were the most outcast, the most unloved, the most forgotten, the left behind, the nameless. A friend of mine tells me of dropping everything he had and following her into those hospices where he, a man of wealth, would be on his hands and knees cleaning up shit and vomit and blood. He said the smell alone in her hospice was enough to make you sick for a lifetime.

Though I don't call it that, I have discovered my place of "ministry." I see what happens when I sing my songs and tell my story on a stage. Last night after the show, the people were hugging me, telling me stories, crying, thanking me for providing a voice that they thought they had lost, telling me how inspired they now felt -- and three of those people were Catholic priests who had come because they had heard about our show.

But if you were to ask me if I "believe" in "God," who the hell knows? I know, though, what the power of ministry is to people who need help. I'm certainly not trying to compare what I've done with the self-sacrificial ministry of Mother Teresa, but when I heard about this series of letters, it hit me hard.

Doubt is not faith. But doubt is what keeps our faith humble. I don't have to start a religion or hold myself up as some religious figure. I don't have to start a TV ministry and start asking for donations. I don't tell people to follow me or even care one whit about what I have to say on the subject of God.

But I can sing a song that touches their hearts and heals something inside. I can sing my songs in hospices (which I have) to caregivers to remind them of the importance of their work. I can sing to people who are dying (which I have) to give them some comfort in their pain. I can hug someone after my show who is standing there with tears streaming down their face.

I doubt everything. I doubt God. I doubt church. I doubt my talent. I doubt my own ability to be remotely compassionate. But I continue doing what I do because I've seen the results. That is my faith. That is what I hear from the pen of Mother Teresa. Faith is when you push ahead THROUGH the doubt and simply do your work.

Faith is not belief. Faith is what you have when belief is out of reach.



Tom Sims said...

"Faith is not belief. Faith is what you have when belief is out of reach."

This is a powerful an memorable quote - one that I will ponder for some time. Thank you.

- Tom Sims

Anonymous said...


I agree. I do not trust religious people who say that they have never doubted, never questioned their faith. I have questioned my faith first as a gay man and then as one who is HIV+. Job questioned God, why can't I? Questioning helps us to grow. I do not beleive that God talks to us directly, but through other people that we meet or live with.
Thanks for sharing your journey and your music.

Rebel Yankee said...


Elizabeth Pax said...

I don't see why people feel that they have to have GOD tell them to do nice things for each other. Why not just do it because... it's good?

I'm with you Steve.