Mother Teresa: Silence and Paradox


I have been in a state of awe and incomprehension since last week when I read the article of # 1 interest to readers on Time magazine’s website, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” by David Van Biema (it’s here:,8599,1655415,00.html). Halfway down the first of six pages I said out loud, “this is ridiculous.” I felt Van Biema was another media skeptic all carried away with himself. But as I continued reading about Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light the forthcoming book of Mother Teresa’s letters — which I have ordered for its September 4th publication – I realized that the shock was not with Van Biema’s treatment but with Mother Teresa herself.

The book contains sixty-six letters that Mother Teresa wrote to her spiritual counselors and superiors over many years (one such counselor is the book’s editor). The letters speak of decades of profound paradox or contradiction. As Van Biema puts it: “Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain.” Not just pain, but terrific and abiding emptiness. It wasn’t always so. After 17 years as a teaching nun, Teresa’s life was changed when she heard the voice of Jesus himself, calling her to work among the most destitute. But as she began that ministry in 1948, she also began a period she described as “empty” and “arid,” doubting her faith, even her God. And that emptiness lasted her entire life. (There was one brief period about ten years into her Calcutta ministry when the silence seemed understandable, but the painful silence never left her.)

What in the world is the leadership lesson in this mind-bender, this Zen koan of Roman Catholic spirituality? The person who most famously spoke of Jesus, acted like Jesus with the poor, inspired others toward Jesus, could not in her own heart, feel Jesus’ presence.

I will have Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit editor of America magazine on my show this evening at 6:00 to share some of his thoughts. For me, for now, the silence of the saint certainly invites my own reflective and prayerful silence. Mother Teresa has always been an awesome leader to me, and these revelations strike a new awe. We live in noisy times, when we can all have a voice, but this is such a story of silence.

Maybe there’s a time to just be still to

Lead with your best self,


Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light

By: Brian Kolodiejchuk

  • FYI – the link in your article did not take me to the article, which I did find on the Time site. You might want to re-link.

    I’m looking forward to reading and pondering – we so often tend to think that leaders, whether spiritual, political or business, are naturaly who they portray. History, I think, shows that they are often conflicted and struggling on the inside, but masterfully able to live as they believe they are called to live – especially when that differs from how they feel at any given moment.

    Thanks for making the link between spiritual living and leadership – a link that’s too often avoided these days!

  • Perhaps this woman of faith was just more honest and self-aware in this area than we are accustomed to. Her search for faith would seem to be on a scale that I can barely imagine.

  • Thank you very much. Today is her Christening Day. She was born on 8/26 and Christened on 8/27. To understand what was going on there, strengthened my faith. Taking credit for anything is false. He made you. It’s all His. Do it all for Him, no matter what. Sometimes one may wonder if one is doing the right thing, and need validating, but the “Footsteps” prayer comes to mind and even though she did not feel Him there, all of the things that were going on around her, to me showed me that He was there. If you know you’re following His commandment, and keep the Prayer of St. Francis in your heart while you’re doing it, you can’t go wrong. She surrendered the doubt and knew in her heart she was doing as He asked her. What a wonderful gift we’ve all been given.

  • I look forward to your show tonight. Mother Theresa’s struggle seems to be repeated in the lives of all the deeply realized souls no matter what the spiritual orientation. Her comments made me think at once of “Dark Night of the Soul” and the reflections of Zen master Hakuin, of Thomas Merton and of Bodhidharma who taught that we must bring three conditions to Zen practice if we are to discover the Buddha within; great faith, great doubt, and great determination.

  • The closer we get to the realization that we are one and not of this world the more the ego goes into fear and sends out doubt. Jesus was telling us how not to fall into the trap of the ego, and not see that we are the Son of God (One With God)

    The “Course in Miracles” is a step by step way to see the truth in us all and to awaken to seeing through the eyes of Christ.

    Mother Teresa was a power house because, She did not let this fear and doubt stop her from doing the work of helping others to see the truth

    I am reminded of the true meaning of fear


    When you find your self in fear and doubt, ask for help from above and it will be taken from you. This is the true meaning of forgive. For Giving To Holy Spirit.

  • Have you ever been ashamed of where you work? When people denigrate your employer are you able to speak up and say that is not the case? Or is the culture so poor you can only wish people did not know the source of your paycheck. When that is the case a smart, good person looks for a new and better employer. Mother Theresa fought the culture to live like Christ and received enough support to effect change, albeit only locally. Sometimes we cannot effect a culture change in a big company but those in a ‘good’ company should be seeking these people like Mother Theresa who do what is right regardless of the consequences. The power of goodness should never be understimated, only misunderstood most of the time.

    • Kevin,

      I find your comment intriguing. I was curious about your own working environment? Are you working withing your talents?

      It’s too bad the link in the e-mail to read the story was behind a lock and key.

  • I too was stunned by this article, I put it down and again picked it up and read to the conclusion. It was in away comforting to know that someone who was such a great leader also had doubts and shares the same strugges that many of us face.

  • I’ve always heard that when undertaking a new project to “act as if” you already have the skills, confidence, etc. Apparently it was Mother Teresa’s ability to “act as if” she had unshakeable faith in God that inspired the loyalty of her followers.

    Which makes her life all the more remarkable. She lived with the poorest of the poor without any monetary expectation, and, it seems now, without any spiritual gratification as well.

    How can you relate to someone who’s on the “fast track” to sainthood? It’s these struggles with faith, and the pain, suffering and sense of emptiness that make her more human. She knew she must silence her doubts and appear cheerful and complete in order to inspire others to give up their comforts and dedicate themselves to a life devoid of worldly pleasures.

    Who would follow someone who questioned her beliefs, appeared sullen, empty and detached? Perhaps her leadership lesson is this: to know in your heart that you are on the right path and lead others, regardless of personal struggles or private demons. To inspire, with the hope that your followers find peace, faith and fulfillment in their work, even when it that evades their leader.

  • It is my understanding that many of the most saintly people investigated by the Catholic Church before canonization have been found to profoundly question their faith and to express anger at God for what they have seen and that God has “allowed.” Such doubt and emotion, rather than being a detrminent to sainthood, can be actually bolster it because such things demonstrate the crucial and personal nature of the relationship between the sinner/saint and his/her God.

    Mother Teresa certainly had a nose with which to smell the decaying flesh of dying people she carried to the hospice – and tears to shed for the “unfairness” and inhumanity of it all. Nonetheless, she carried them. If that is not leadership, if that is not saintly, what is.

  • Dan,
    To find joy and love and peace in the world is as it is meant to be. To deal day-in and day-out with the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the abandoned, and those for whom no one seems to reach out is to live in the midst on the antithesis of joy, love, and peace. Gentleness is the greatest peace. Doing what is right because it is right is an approach not from someone who is driven to be on a winning team. It is the approach of a person who understands what is right. We take a stand to make the world better, not because we have assurances of winning the battle(it is the only course we should take). That a human being can be an instrument of peace and trapped in the belly of an existential beast is not a contradiction… …it is an acknowledgment that we need to continue and to find peace where we can. It is a reminder for us to say “I love You” through our actions regardless of the response that is forthcoming. Teresa was/is a gift. The gift’s wrapping and the lack or presence of cracks in the clay (of which a gift is crafted) in no way reduces the importance of the gift. Our peace grows through our small acts of kindness. Mother Teresa entering our shared realm and her being human is not a contradiction. It is a victory of goodness in spite of doubt.
    May gentleness and peace and all goodness fortify our courage as we doubt and as we rejoyce each day. God is good.

    • I am struck with the wholeness of this incredible women. It seems there is an unrealistic and idealistic belief that highly evolved spiritual masters are beyond the human experience of pain and suffering. The idea that a woman of her courage, faith and commitment could also live in deep doubt,despair and emptiness is a testament to her amazing capacity to hold the paradox of dark and light that is a universal human experience. Her vulnerability and transparency in revealing this to her trusted teachers and confidants, further speaks to a quality that embodies true leadership – authenticity. I believe that it is through embracing our own shadows/dark side that we can be truly compassionate. To me these revelations only deepen my respect and awe of her. Mother Theresa’s courage to stay in the shadow of her own doubt while relentlessly caring for others was a herculean act of faith.

  • Dan…Someone once said that “courage is acting in the face of fear.” To emulate Jesus through action even when there is a personal crisis of faith is in itself faith. A crisis of faith is many times the nature of leadership because what you see and feel, most times no one else sees or feels.

    I thought I would share some things that I repeat to myself when dealing with my job. This comes from practicing yoga for the last 9 years and gaining some great personal insights from Taoist philosophy.

    There are four agreements that are part of the yogic tradition that is based on right action not results. The action is in your control, the result is based on your reality and the other person’s reality and therefore out of your control:

    1. BE IMPECCABLE WITH YOUR WORD. If you keep your word, you are true to yourself and others.
    2. DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING PERSONALLY. How someone else reacts is part of their world and experience and has nothing to do with you. How you react is part of your world and your experience.
    3. DO NOT ASSUME. You cannot assume why someone else is responding the way they do. They see and perceive the world differently than you do. Everyone else speaks a different emotional language than you do. You cannot assume what is driving their behavior without asking.
    4. ALWAYS DO YOUR BEST. If you have done your best, that’s all the Universe asks of you and all that you can ask of yourself.

    So, in summary, it is right action that counts, not the result. Mother Theresa lived right action and the results of her behavior are changing the world. Her right action is even more impressive, given the angst she experienced.

    Leadership starts within,
    Dottie Deremo

  • Jesus, when the woman in need of healing brushed him in the crowd, knew that power had gone out of him in the contact. Persons who care for others with empathy and compassion know what it is to be “drained.” I admire Mother Theresa even more for her struggles and this reflection of her humanity as she carried out her profound ministry of compassion with others.

    Faith grows and is cultivated not only in the sunshine of answered prayer and great miracle but especially in the pits of doubt and battling demons and coming to terms with our emotions.

    Another of my favorite stories in the scripture is that of Jacob who wrestled with God on the night before he encountered his twin brother Esau. Jacob presumed that Esau, jealous and veangeful was coming to kill him. The wrestling match with God crippled Jacob for life and inspired a name change to “Israel” which means literally, “One who has wrestled with God.” This life changing wrestling match is an important piece of the life of faith.

    A wise boss of mine began interviews for employment at a hospital with, “Tell me where you are hurting in your life.” People unable to share their vulnerabilities were politely excused. Jim shared his reasoning, “Pain can create in us capacities for empathy and compassion that are necessary ingredients in caregiving in a hospital setting.”

    The Mother Theresa revelations post mortem make me a greater admirer of the woman.

  • Running (best) on Empty
    In my own life as one who aspires to Christianity in the church that Mother Teresa served, I find her, as Jesus, pointing not to herself but the source of love, as the object of hope and gratitude. It seems to me that it is only when I am over my head that I am open to this source of love, compassion, wisdom; it is only when I am empty that I lead with my BEST self, that love that is beyond my feeble attempts, that flows freely through me when I don’t impede it.

    • I so agree with this! It’s when we’re empty that we have to rely on a Source larger than ourselves, and that Source is endless with power, endlessly reliable. Some might call it a leap of faith.

      In some traditions, it’s called “channeling:” energy out draws energy in. That’s my experience, too. I don’t get energy til I give it. Whenever I give it, I get some. It’s cool, the way this works. Seems like an idea in a book I once read: _The Wounded Healer_. Like, being wounded is a condition of serving as a healer. A paradox, but we are not called to understand; we are called to love.

  • I must admit I am stunned by Mother Teresa’s letters. Perhaps they were better left buried with her, I am not sure. I only know that I feel troubled by her admissions of doubt. I am in awe of the comments of all of you who are encouraged by Mother Teresa’s honesty and courage as she struggled with her faith. I hope I can find the same feelings of comfort that right now escape me. Thank you all for your inspirational words.

  • Mother Teresa was blessed in that she once heard the voice of Jesus calling her. Not all listen, so not all are so blessed.

    I’m reminded of the joke about the wife who complained to the marriage counselor that her husband never told her that he loved her. When the marriage counselor asked him why, he answered the question with a question: “Didn’t I tell you that I loved you when we were first married years ago?” “Yes,” she admitted. “Well,” he retorted, “if anything changed, I would tell you!”

    Mother Teresa got her marching orders from the Godhead and she responded. Her ability to follow that directive and serve the poorest of the poor allowed her to smile, gave her genuine joy. Her efforts to believe what she had been taught about God brought her doubt and psychic pain. Perhaps she would have been able to let go of the pain if she had let go of the beliefs that she had. “By their fruits, you shall know…” said Jesus, whom she said she followed. Her fruits were undeniably good. What else matters?

    Any God worth worshipping would certainly understand and accept that limited human beings often have doubt and sometimes are incapable of sincere belief, based on their experience of the world. How can a limited human being understand a God who created the heavens! What a tiny God that would be, to fit into a human brain!

    So if one doubts, there may be value in proceeding to doubt honestly. Accept the doubt! Let it be! Maybe the doubt was God speaking to her, saying, “I’m not over there, where you thought I was. I’m bigger than that, different from that. Give up that belief and walk in faith. Then you will find me.”

    All the saints, perhaps all of us, have a dark night of the soul when God seems very far away. This is illusion. God doesn’t move. We need only turn toward the light, toward what gives us joy and fulfillment. The plan, as described in the Garden of Eden story, is for abundance. The plan hasn’t changed. I’m told that the Aramaic word for “forever” is the same as “abundance.” So every time Jesus promised life everlasting, another translation could interpret it as abundant life. In one place, most translaters agree, he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” Who wants eternal life anyway, unless it’s abundant with joy and peace and love? 🙂

    Mother Teresa chose a life of very strict deprivation, sleeping on the hard floor, fasting, etc. Perhaps her austerity contributed to her difficulty in understanding a God who wants all of us to thrive, as the head of any body wants the entire body to be well. (See the first letter to the Corinthians in Christian scriptures, chapter 12.) By ministering to the poorest of the poor, she brought healing to a part of God’s body.

    …or so I’m inclined to believe. Thanks for letting me say so, and for introducing this topic to RFL. Vision is key to leadership, as Marcus Buckingham explicates in _The One Thing You Need to Know About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success_. He also points out that we should notice things we don’t like to do and stop doing it. Mother Teresa hated to doubt, hated to struggle, hated to think that maybe she didn’t believe. Apparently, she didn’t know she could stop doing that. She could have accepted that she didn’t believe as she thought she ought to, and let it go at that. She could have decided that a God worth worshipping wouldn’t want her to experience all that pain. Her struggle was with the “ought.” Let it be! Accept what is! We are not called to judge that it’s “good” to believe one way and “bad” to doubt. We are not called to judge at all, and in her heart of hearts, Mother Teresa knew this because she taught that we cannot love a person if we are judging him, for we are not utterly just and utterly merciful like God. We ARE called to love, for God IS love (as pointed out in 1 John 4:8, again from Christian scriptures). To the extent that Mother Teresa loved, and she loved powerfully, she experienced God every day even though she yearned for a different way of experiencing God.

    If we love as completely and thoroughly and unconditionally and nonjudgmentally as Mother Teresa, we will truly experience God deeply and also lead with our best selves.

  • If you read the Saints, especially the mystics (in any tradition) they all experienced a “dark night of the soul” — some were longer than others, and it sounds like Mother Teresa’s was one of the lengthy ones.

    My oldest nephew, not yet 21, recently announced his engagement. Chatting with his equally-young bride-to-be, I said, “Remember, honey: God honors commitment, even on the days you don’t like each other.” Of course, this means nothing to her now . . .

    However, I do think that perhaps the sign of a deep faith is those times of darkness. If it was all joy and feel-good, everyone would sign on, wouldn’t they. Whatever this book “reveals,” I will continue to think of Mother Teresa as “a good and faithful servant,” surely a sign of true leadership!

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