The headline of the September 3, 2007, issue of Time magazine made me hold my breath for a moment: “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa.” In this day and age, scandal among leading figures of faith is nothing new—but Mother Teresa?
As it turns out, her “secret” was not a gambling addiction or other similarly shocking behavior, as such a headline might imply. Rather, Mother Teresa’s secret was that she struggled—mightily, at times—to experience God’s presence in her life. I suppose in a culture where Mother Teresa is more of a cultural archetype than an actual human being, the fact that she suffered a crisis of faith would be a shocking “secret” worthy of an exposé. But for anyone who has devoted his or her life to the least among us and lived in the kind of squalor and brokenness most of us will never see, it would be almost impossible not to experience doubt.
The inner torment Mother Teresa describes through her correspondence with confessors and theologians lasted many years. Her dark night of the soul did not quickly pass and only rarely abated. Mother Teresa’s words are deeply moving—clearly, she was a woman of incredible depth and reflection. The pain, emptiness and grief she endured would have been enough to tear most people apart. And yet, I find her struggles strangely reassuring—that Mother Teresa was a real human being, with very real questions, doubts and difficulties with experiencing God’s presence in her everyday life. It gives me hope that, even with my doubt and failure, I can become the person God intends me to be. As Eugene Cho, lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, said, “While I have joy in my convictions as a believer of God and follower of Christ, I am not afraid to call Mystery and Doubt my friends and acquaintances. They have accompanied my journey for some time … and have actually strengthened my walk with Christ.”
It is almost human nature to love the idea of a person more than the physical human being in front of us. So, when we think of Mother Teresa, we imagine a vague saintly glow who did not walk so much as hover through the streets of Calcutta—not an individual who, like us, desperately wanted to know and experience the love of Christ every day. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that is a large part of why many relationships fail. We develop an idealized version of our beloved that can only lead to disappointment and failure.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his seminal work on Christian community, Life Together, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
If you have been around the Church for long enough, it might seem at times like a Halloween … or, uhhh … Harvest festival masquerade. We look around and think, There must be someone else who does not have it all together—or, am I the only one? At times, it might feel like we are willfully misleading people in order to maintain the dream of the community, as opposed to entering the messy reality of one another’s lives. It is safer and simpler to keep each other at arm’s length. As Mike Yaconelli writes in Messy Spirituality, “Practically, pretending is efficient, uncomplicated, and quick … Honesty requires a huge investment of time and energy … Pretending perpetuates the illusion of relationships by connecting us on the basis of who we aren’t.” In such a setting, it is not love that covers over a multitude of sins, but a holy façade.
What would happen if we acknowledged, and entered into, the mess of one another’s lives? True, we might have to fight our inner Homer Simpson shouting, “Too much infor-mation!” and deal with the awkwardness of actually getting to know each other, but isn’t it worth it? The mess could become beautiful if we lived in it together.