Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Spiritual Struggle of Mother Teresa

Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

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Sermon delivered September 9, 2007

I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day when a headline article on one of the check-stand magazines caught my eye. It read in bold letters, "The Dark Side of Mother Teresa." Wow, I thought, has another one of the people we looked up to been tainted by scandal? Or was this another attempt by secular America to discredit a pious Catholic nun?" I guess the magazine achieved its goal, I bought the magazine and read the article.

It seems that a collection of the late-Mother Teresa's letters has been published and that her writings reveal that in her life, she suffered through crises of faith, which are referred to as "dark nights of the soul." As I read the heading to the article, I immediately questioned its objectivity, as the author of the article is a self confessed leading critic of the late Catholic nun. In his opening paragraph, he poses the question: "Which is more striking: that the faithful should bravely confront the fact that one of their heroines all but lost her own faith, or that the Church should have gone on deploying, as an icon of favorable publicity, a confused old lady whom it knew had for all practical purposes ceased to believe?" And as I finished the article, and finding myself in total disagreement with its thesis, I pose a question: "Which is more striking: that a man who wrote a book entitled 'God is not great' finds himself qualified to comment on the life of Mother Teresa, or that a popular news magazine would print such a piece taking obvious swipes at a major religious figure in its religion section? (Newsweek magazine, "The Dogmatic Doubter" by Christopher Hitchens, September 10, 2007)

What causes spiritual despair? First, relentless attacks from the devil. The devil attacks the one struggling to grow in Christ. The devil doesn't bother with the casual Christian or the habitually immoral person -- they do not need the devil to attack and destroy them, they are self-destructive. The devil attacks the committed Christian.

A priest once shared this story with me:

It seems that a certain monk in a monastery had an ability to see demons attacking people. And so one day, the abbot of his monastery sent him to the nearby city to see how many demons were there. So, the monk ventured down the road from the monastery towards the city. It was a large city, filled with all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. And as he journeyed through the city, he looked and he looked and he saw no demons. He was very puzzled by this. All these people, and yet no demons attacking them. Finally, he saw one demon laying under the shade of a tree, and the demon was sleeping. The monk headed back towards the monastery. And as he approached the monastery, he saw legions and legions of demons, climbing up the monastery walls, tearing at the gates, sitting in the bell tower of the church, and going in and out of the windows of the cells where the monks lived. The monk reported to the Abbot, "I went to the city where there are many people and I saw only one demon and he was sleeping. Why at this monastery, where we are but a few monks, why are there so many demons all around us?" The Abbot answered, "My son, you see in the city, people are so busy, there lives are filled with things, they succumb to temptations constantly, they have squeezed God out of their lives, there is no work for the demons to do. So they leave the people alone. But here in the monastery, where we try to pray constantly, where we try to rejoice in the things of God constantly, this is where they are at work constantly!"

The devil tempted Christ Himself, we read in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. And Christ was hungry and in His own agony -- He wasn't surrounded by throngs of people, or by a circle of His disciples and close friends. He was alone in the desert, praying and fasting for forty days, and this is where the devil made his attack. So, if the devil can attack the Lord Himself, then it is no surprise that the devil can attack someone like Mother Teresa, or you and me.

That's why when we strive to pray, sometimes it is a struggle-it doesn't bring great serenity each time we bow our head in prayer, or even each time we come to the Liturgy. Sometimes there are weeks and even months of spiritual struggle, spiritual despair, even spiritual sadness and despondency, when God feels like He is absent. This is not so much a test from God, as it is a temptation from the devil, to attack our spiritual joy and turn it into despondency and doubt.

So, it is not a surprise when we hear that Mother Teresa struggled in her faith, at times wondering even at the existence of God in the face of what seemed like prolonged absence of God, because she was in the throes of spiritual warfare. Rather than showing insincerity or cynicism, as the author of the article would suggest, I find this kind of honesty refreshing. If Mother Teresa struggled with her faith, then I need not become despondent when I struggle in mine. If she could be honest and write about her spiritual struggles, I can be honest about mine.

At the summer camp I direct, one of the exercises we use in staff training and also with the campers is called a trust walk. It involves people walking in pairs where one person is blindfolded. The person who can see leads the person who cannot on a walk through various obstacles and after a period of time, the two switch roles. In the camp setting, this facilitates building trust between two staff people who will work together during the week. It demonstrates also the role that the camp counselor plays in guiding the activities of the week. But from a theological perspective, is illustrates the journey of the Orthodox Christian. In debriefing this activity, there are many participants who feel a little unnerved when they can't see, especially people who have never been to the camp who walk a considerable distance having no idea where they are going. I ask people, did anyone become frustrated in this activity? The answer is always yes, especially from people who have a hard time trusting others, who always want to be the leader, and who aren't patient. I ask, if we did this activity for an hour, instead of for twenty minutes, who would have begun to lose patience? And nearly everyone said they would have. And I ask, was there anyone who was worried that they wouldn't eventually reach our destination safely, even though you didn't know where it was? And on careful examination, it seems that everyone, even those who had their reservations and frustrations, agreed that they knew they would eventually reach the end point of the journey, so long as they put one foot in front of the other and put faith in their leader.

Now, in our lives, as in this activity, we will each be in the role of the follower. The journey to salvation is long, at times it will be frustrating, and at times that path will not be clearly visible. We will have to trust the leader. And who is the leader in this journey? Obviously, God, and the church, the scriptures, the clergy, even our fellow Christians. And believe it or not, we will all take a turn not only as a follower, but as a leader. We will each have an opportunity to lead someone else in their journey of faith-perhaps as a parent, as a teacher, as a friend, as a camp counselor, or even as someone just setting a good example. And in the role of leader, we need to encourage, set a good example, guide, help and pray for our followers. And in the role of the follower, which we will all play throughout our lives, we need to trust and most importantly, we need to put one foot in front of the other.

There are a few ways that the trust walk is not done successfully-careless leadership, and unwillingness of the follower to follow. The leadership of our faith-God, the scriptures, Orthodoxy theology, is rock solid. It is not careless. The leadership of the church, mine included, is not always as rock solid as it could be. That's because while in the role of leader, I am also in the role of follower, and sometimes in my own spiritual journey, I become lost or discouraged, just as Mother Teresa reveals that she did in hers. And the church itself, is an institution that is led by human beings, each of us in a sinful state. Realizing that, the occasional scandal or cynicism or disappointment doesn't shake my faith. It makes me realize just how much more we need to pray for our church, especially its priests and hierarchs.

The followers of the faith are each different. Some are enthusiastic and trust easily. Some are cynical and question everything. Some are impatient and sit down and stop. And others are disobedient-they hear the instruction and decide to take another path. Obviously, these are the ones that get lost, and never find their way to God. The essence of life's journey of faith mirrors the essence of the trust walk I described-placing our trust in the leader and then following by putting one foot in front of the other, even when the journey gets long, even when we become discouraged.

I find Mother Teresa's struggles encouraging. They don't make me cynical, rather they are inspiring. Here is someone who struggled in her faith, as everyone does who is sincere in their journey to Christ. But here is someone who continued to put one foot in front of the other in her journey. Here is someone who could be honest with herself that the journey to salvation isn't all that easy. If Mother Teresa were indeed insincere about her faith, why continue living in the slums of Calcutta, living an austere existence? I believe the answer is that a deep seeded and abiding faith allowed her and helped her to put one foot in front of the other so to speak, to continue to her ministry as a servant of God, even when she could not actively feel His presence, even in her times of self described spiritual darkness.

The Spiritual life is a struggle. Indeed, if a person has no struggle in their spiritual life, then there might be a question of how sincere that struggle is. For just as in the busy city where only one demon was found sleeping, no demon will attack you if you aren't sincere or trying to grow in your faith. Here is the great irony, however-the more one tries to pray and to follow Christ, the harder the journey gets. That's why Mother Teresa wrote about such profound struggle in her life. That's why Christ Himself, when He was about to go forth to His Holy Passion, was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and His sweat became as drops of blood, that's the kind of spiritual agony He was in. And this is where the hope comes in-Christ didn't abandon the Cross and Mother Teresa didn't abandon the poor, even in the darkest of hours. And so, when God seems absent because life's circumstances are cruel, or because we find ourselves surrounded by temptation rather than encouragement, take a message of hope that if we continue to follow the leader and put one foot in front of the other, eventually, we will come out of the darkness because just being able to continue and not quitting, with God's help, will provide the joy and the inspiration to carry on. In a war, one doesn't win every battle. In the spiritual war, not every day will bring us a victory. The victory in battle often goes to the side with the strongest will, with the greatest endurance. And so the spiritual war is won by the Christian who has patience, endurance, and never stops putting one foot in front of the other, never stops praying or worshipping, even when it gets hard, even when God seems like He is far away, because he realizes that God holds the hand of every one of His children, even when we sometimes think He isn't.

Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis is the priest of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL and is the director of St. Stephen's Summer Camp for the Metropolis of Atlanta.

Posted: 21-Sep-07

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