In late August the Vatican released copies of letters that revealed that Mother Theresa, the diminutive nun who founded the Sisters of Charity, had spent much of her adult life feeling distant and alienated from God. These letters, written by Mother Theresa to priests and friends who served as her confidants and confessors, were never intended to be made public. However, as part of the Roman Catholic canonization process these documents are being reviewed and for unspecified reasons have now been made public. When the news outlets first announced the story, they presented it with a mixture of surprise and sadness. How could this woman who had served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, had inspired thousands to pursue a life of service, and had challenged millions with her example and her message,… how could SHE feel distant from God? As David Van Biema stated in a Time magazine (9/3/07) article on the announcement, her “remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God,” yet she confessed at many times “the silence and emptiness is so great.” Mother Theresa, whom many had put on a spiritual pedestal, turned out to be a struggling and spiritual barren human being who for nearly 50 years went through life feeling the absence and distance of God, rather than God’s intimacy. How could such a person be considered for sainthood?

I must admit that even though I too was surprised, I found great comfort when I heard the reports. Like many evangelical Protestant Christians, I was taught to believe that God “had a wonderful plan for my life” and that I could have “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I believed that if I read my Bible regularly, prayed daily, worshipped faithfully, and sought to live out the principles of my faith, I would have a clear sense of God’s presence in my life. As a Baptist pastor I regularly repeated such sentiments in my preaching and teaching. Certainly there might be some periods of spiritual dryness, but over time I would grow in my sense of intimacy with God. That was how Christian faith was supposed to work, or so I thought.

However, when I left the pastorate, stepped back and looked at my spiritual life, I began to question the veracity and validity of that perspective. I began to wonder if I had simply participated in a sophisticated self-delusion, and if in fact I could even call myself a Christian. I never lost my fascination and deep respect for Jesus of Nazareth, but I felt increasingly alienated from the tradition that sprang from him. Like Mother Theresa, when I meditated and prayed, the only thing I heard was my own hollow inner voice.

That emptiness has continued for 10 years with two exceptions. First, when I attend worship at the West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship where I am a member, I regularly come away thinking that maybe this God and Jesus stuff could be true. This reminder is not prompted by anything in the worship per se (i.e. the music, the sermon, the prayers, communion, etc), but rather simply in the gathering of like-minded people on a similar hungry quest. At WPMF we talk openly about our questions and doubts while recommitting ourselves to continue to live according the dictates of our faith. Somehow being surrounded by folks on a similar journey keeps me from feeling so spiritually alienated.

The second place where the sense of isolation lifts is when I find myself in service with and to other people. In a way I can’t fully comprehend, I often sense something of Jesus in other people. As a college professor, I am fortunate to have regular opportunities to interact with adults and young people who are seeking to expand their minds and deepen their understanding of life. My work regularly brings me in contact with folks old and young, educated and functionally illiterate, who are seeking to serve others in the midst of their own struggle and brokenness. I also volunteer as a tutor helping a young woman learn how to read, and am in awe of her desire to master the written word. In these folks I see the life and truth and Jesus.

I believe it was Mother Theresa who said that we see meet Jesus in the lives of the poor. While she may not have heard the voice or sensed the presence of God in her inner life, by her own testimony she met Jesus daily in her service to the broken beggars of Calcutta. I have come to accept that I will never have a deep sense of inner intimacy with God in my life. Yet, Mother Theresa’s example encourages me to believe that as I seek to become more of a servant to others, I have the hope of touching the Transcendent through the lives of people I meet.

Atheists like Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice) will venture that this faith business is all a dangerous and socially destructive self-delusion. He draws this conclusion based on the the wealth of examples of religion gone bad from Pat Robertson to Jim Jones to Osama Bin Laden. However, for me faith is validated in the quiet lives of faithfulness of people who despite their faults live according to their deeply held values. No doubt we Christians get it wrong much, if not most, of the time. However we get it right when our actions demonstrate our faith, even when our faith, like Mother Theresa’s, limps along with doubts and questions. As we serve, Jesus can and does surprise us in the lives of the people we encounter.