by The Rev. Elizabeth Zarelli Turner

Earlier this month, I read Elizabeth Hemmerdinger’s reflection on the recent Time Magazine cover story “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa,” which included two primary observations about the release of Mother Teresa’s letters.

In the first instance, she could identify with feelings of “faking it” on occasion. Her other observation had to do with gender issues: that Mother Teresa’s request that her letters be destroyed was not honored by those men to whom they had been written and entrusted.

The post prompted me to read the article. I suspect that one day I will destroy my own journals rather than tempting a family member to read them instead of tossing them, per my request. I am, however, thankful that we have been given the opportunity to see something of the inner life of this remarkable woman whose public life was marked by compassion for the wounded and dying.

Mother Teresa was a saint from my perspective long before her death and beatification. Her life and ministry were similar to those of Saint Francis and Saint Clare: she lived among the poorest of the poor with the intention of showing them something of the compassion of her Lord. Her desire was to love those whom her Lord had a particular affection for: the wounded, the orphaned, the poor and the dying.

I am a 54-year-old Episcopal priest and consider myself to be a woman of faith. But as a woman of faith, I am not troubled by revelations of Mother Teresa’s doubt; I have never thought faith and doubt were mutually exclusive of one another. I cannot imagine believing without also questioning. Nor can I imagine living on the streets of Calcutta for more than 50 years without asking questions about God’s presence.

Mother Teresa apparently doubted the Lord’s love for her and felt an acute sense of his absence, but she seems never to have doubted the need for her to reflect God’s presence to those in need. She seems never to have wavered in her commitment to provide some safety and some security for those without either.

Mother Teresa, like the other saints, is not a paragon of perfection. Rather, she is a model of faithfulness. She heard her Lord call her to live among the poorest of the poor, to take up her cross, and to give up her possessions. And that is, quite simply, what she did.

Mother Teresa has always been an example for me of faithful living, even though her life of faithfulness was very different from my own. Now that I know that doubt and despair were part of her faith she is a model both of faithfulness and of faith.

The life of faith is very much like marriage or like being a parent. There are certain vows and commitments we make to our spouses and to our children that require our fidelity even when we don’t feel particularly loving. We aren’t faking the love we have for them but we do, on occasion, have to stay in the relationship despite what we might be feeling at any given moment.

There have been times when my faith has sustained me while at the same time I was questioning where God was or why God could/would allow such a thing. There have been other times when I have been carried through my periods of doubt and despair by the love, compassion, and faith of others in the faith community.

Soren Kiekegaard wrote that faith is believing by virtue of the absurd. Faith is, at times, absurd but it is also at the center of my life.

The Rev. Elizabeth Zarelli Turner is acting rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas. She previously served churches in Cincinnati and New York City. She has a M.A.R. from Yale Divinity School and a M.Div. from the General Theological Seminary.

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  • Elizabeth Hemmerdinger September 19, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    Rev. Turner does us all an invaluable service by bringing illumination to faith – her own, Mother Theresa’s and the faith of those of us who wander in the wilderness, searching for what these two have experienced so deeply. I am grateful for the Reverend’s attention to my ruminations but want to emphasize that I do not question Mother Theresa’s – or in fact – anyone’s faith. I found it significant that Mother Theresa questioned her own faith. While it is a profound opportunity for those of us who wish to read her journals and correspondence, I find it of great interest and mystery that those who honor her faith and accomplishments, temporal and spiritual, would not have honored her wishes.