Editors Note: I’ve always had a warm spot for Mother Teresa. Besides the obvious fact that she spent most of life working with the destitute in India, the first full-length op-ed I ever had published dealt, in part, with her life and her death. Now that she’s being considered for sainthood, I want to put in my vote for her early — not that the Catholics really want my two cents on the subject.

A Saint for the Rest of Us

What can you say about a future Roman Catholic saint who may not have even believed in God? Maybe that saintliness is more important than sainthood.

Such is the case with Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa. As part of the sanctification process, Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk — who’s handling her sainthood petition — compiled her letters for the past 66 years. They reveal a woman who, for most of her life, practiced a religion in which she had little or no belief.

The correspondence Kolodiejchuk edited for the book “Come Be My Light” shows Teresa didn’t just experience isolated moments of doubt — her letters reveal decades of despair over her lost faith. Her lapsed Catholicism pre-dated the inception of her mission to the poor in Calcutta, and her feelings of spiritual emptiness continued throughout her life:

“When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven … nothing touches my soul.” “If there is no God, then Jesus, you also are not true.” “God is absent.” Where is my faith? I have no faith.” “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no One to answer.” “I feel that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” “I no longer pray.”

Catholic officials and Christian apologists are now performing mental contortions to twist Teresa’s lack of belief into some sort of paradoxical evidence of her piety. For example, Jesuit author, Rev. James Martin, has praised “her extraordinary faith in the face of overwhelming silence.” Such assertions are as ludicrous as they are painful to read. (One can only imagine what the sectarian spin doctors would be saying if she’d claimed never to have had any doubts at all.)

Meanwhile, militant atheists are reveling in her revelations. Author Christopher Hitchens, who was no admirer of the little nun to begin with, cites Teresa’s letters as proof she was a hypocrite, asking others to follow a religion she’d already forsaken. Hitchens concludes, quite rationally, that her sense of God’s absence showed “she was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person.”

“Time Magazine” has compared Teresa to “a woman who holds a torch for her husband 30 years after he left for a pack of cigarettes … and never returned.” And yet, despite her intense feelings of abandonment, she never abandoned her altruistic work.

In Philosophy 101 courses, college freshmen debate whether altruism exists, or if ostensibly good deeds merely represent enlightened self-interest. In Christian theology, the deity is like a brutish husband who demands his wife’s love or he’ll give her a beating — in Jehovah’s case, the threat is eternity in hell. In such a universe, how much of religious folks’ love of God goes beyond self-interest and self-preservation?

The biblical God is a jealous deity who permits only those who worship him properly (i.e., choose the correct religion) entrance into heaven. As any televangelist will tell you, the rest of us — Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics, Unitarians, etc. — will be tormented eternally in hell. For many believers, reverence for God is a mixture of pragmatism and fear.

But Teresa, spurned by God, dedicated her life to caring for the poor anyway. There could be no pragmatism or self-interest in this, because she’d effectively lost faith in the prospect of heavenly rewards. She did it for a far-more altruistic and admirable reason — because it was the good and decent thing to do. How much more of a saint is she than someone who ministers to others to obtain a ticket to heaven or avoid punishment in hell.

Apologists for religion often argue that there can be no morality without religion, as if it’s impossible for doubters and atheists to have values. Fantasy writer C.S. Lewis even used the existence of morality as a proof of the existence of God. (And recently, while pandering to the Religious Right, Mitt Romney made the nonsensical and unfounded statement that “freedom requires religion.”) Yet Teresa, feeling abandoned by God, freely devoted her life to selfless good works.

Gandhi once said that the best thing about Christianity is Jesus Christ, and the worst thing about it is Christians. Teresa remained Christlike even as she became less and less a Christian. Whether she’s actually declared a saint or not isn’t nearly as significant as the fact that she lived like one, even after her religious convictions had evaporated.

At this time of the year, you often hear people lament the lack of “the Christmas spirit.” In Mother Teresa you have the pure spirit of the season, with or without the trappings of religion. The woman who wrote “I just have the joy of having nothing, not even the reality of the presence of God in the Eucharist” was probably closer to a secular humanist than a Catholic, which makes her sacrifices for humanity all the more selfless.

I hope the Catholic church will recognize her dedication and grant sanctification, despite her apostasy. She could be the saint of those of us who lack piety — the lapsed Baptists, doubters, skeptics, atheists, agnostics and recovering Christians — and those of us who don’t care what doctrines our saints accept.

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