Doubting God but still doing good

Last week's posthumous publication of Mother Teresa's private letters has sparked a debate on the nature of saintliness and, by extension, what it means to be good. The letters, which she had asked to be destroyed, reveal a complex woman who was tormented by her faith and suffered long periods of religious doubt and spiritual emptiness.

Two years after her death in 1997, a Gallup poll asked Americans to name the people they most admired from the 20th century. Not surprisingly, Mother Teresa, who dedicated her life to serving the poorest of the poor, topped the list. But that's before anyone except her confessors knew of her inner turmoil. In public, she betrayed no signs of her affliction. Her many admirers no doubt revered her, not only for her selflessness but for the unquestioning faith they believed inspired her. Will they now consider her a hypocrite?

The brilliant, self-described "anti-theist" Christopher Hitchens, who wrote a book critical of Mother Teresa, has seized on the newly published letters as proof that the celebrated nun knew -- but could not admit -- that there is no God. For his part the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, told Time magazine that he thought the letters would only broaden Mother Teresa's appeal as a religious figure because millions would be able to identify with her feelings that God had abandoned her. "And who would have thought that the one thought to be the most ardent of believers could be a saint to the skeptics?" he asked.

In a time when the notion of goodness has been thoroughly watered down, as politeness is mistaken for kindness, certainty passes for faith, ethics for spirituality and middle-class mores for saintliness, it's good to be reminded that those whom many consider saints are complex human beings who more often than not defy convention.

A decade ago, I met a 74-year-old nun in Romania who taught me the difference between manners and social goodness -- and the real thing. Sister Mary Rose Christy was the closest thing to a saint I have ever met. But it's not because she was particularly kind to me. Nor did she play the role of the docile holy woman content to radiate light from the corner of the room.

"Sister Mary Rose was purposeful, committed and directed," a friend reminded me the other day, "and she would walk all over someone if she thought they were keeping her from getting something done."

In 1990, while living in Arizona, Sister Mary Rose was watching CNN when a story on orphanages appeared on the screen. The conditions she saw were so awful that she started screaming at the television. Not long after that she decided to move to the 12th century Transylvanian town of Sibiu, where she worked at an orphanage for severely handicapped children for four years, and then set up a nonprofit organization called the Romanian-American Assn. for the Promotion of Health, Education and Human Services to help strengthen families so parents could better care for their children.

Brusque, opinionated, hard-headed and not the best listener I've ever met, Sister Mary Rose had an agenda, and I think she viewed mere mortals like myself who crossed her path as either people who could help or hinder her mission. Of course, she figured that I could help her get the word out about the plight of children and families in her adopted country and town. She put me up for a few days in a spare apartment and let me talk to her at length. But it wasn't until her driver took us to Riul Vadalui, the orphanage she had worked at, did I begin to understand Sister Mary Rose's amazing gift.

As soon as we parked, our car was surrounded by children wanting to touch Sister Mary Rose. Some chanted her name, and all appeared terribly pleased to see her. She smiled, touched and kissed them. Inside the facility, there were other children whom she tended to; many were confined to their beds, and some had unspeakable deformities the sight of which -- I'm ashamed to say -- instantly made me recoil. Sister Mary Rose had the opposite reaction. She would sit down and hold them, sometimes kissing them on the lips.

Sister Mary Rose never told me that it was her faith in God that gave her the capacity to love these children so fully. For all I know, she may have shared Mother Teresa's doubts. And considering the tragedies these women saw daily, who could blame them? But I do suspect that whether they sensed God's presence or not, it was both women's will to believe, no matter how difficult, in the existence of an ultimate source of goodness that drove them to love so deeply those whom others had abandoned.

This week, I tried to call Sister Mary Rose at the Sisters of Mercy residence in Burlingame, Calif., where she lives. I wondered what she would make of the Mother Teresa story. But I was told that she was too frail to talk. The truth is, I'm pretty sure I know the answer: The dark night of the soul is no reason not to act as if the good can outweigh the bad. By the way, her organization in Romania still flourishes.

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