I grew up in a home with clear beliefs about the purpose of life, God, sin, heaven, and hell. But the scary state of the world has me questioning all the religious answers I learned as a child about God, life after death, and the meaning of everything. This feels like a spiritually debilitating way to live, but I can’t find my way back to certainty. I’ve tried discussing this with my therapist, but she just tries to shore up my old beliefs. Do you have any suggestions about how I can go forward from here?
KEVIN: The first person I thought of when I read your email, Beth, was Mother Teresa. Considered by many to be a living saint before her death in 1997, she privately suffered unrelenting inner darkness, doubt, and spiritual emptiness. Brian Kolodiejchuk, who comments on her private writings in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, wrote that her life of service despite this persistent dark night of the soul made her a “witness to the primacy of love.”
As I thought more about your email, I decided to let a few other figures join Mother Teresa on a panel of seven, giving each a turn to respond to what you wrote. The other six are Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel (1928–2016), American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842–1910), Saint Paul (5–64), philosopher of religion Alan Watts (1915–1973), and poets Mary Oliver (1935–2019) and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926).
MOTHER TERESA: What I most want to say to you Beth is: The divine light is always present in you and all other human beings! As much as we can come to know and trust that light, we can also trust that our spiritual darkness is not just a failure of faith. It may be dark because we’re searching in places that no longer give us light. If I had known experiencing God in myself and those I served was enough, I wouldn’t have lived with such a painful sense of God’s absence in my formal prayer life!
ELIE WIESEL: I celebrate your questions and your doubts, Beth. Welcome to the human family! So many people try to find security in an insecure world by searching for absolute certainty. But the drive for certainty invites darkness because we want to defend our religious answers against others who have equal fervor about their answers. Our answers divide us, but our questions unite us.
RAINER MARIA RILKE: Beth, I want to share with you something I wrote in Letters to a Young Poet over a century ago:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and … try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
I think courageously living your questions is anything but debilitating!
MARY OLIVER: I hope a piece of my poem “In Blackwater Woods” might be of some use to you as well, Beth: To live in this world / you must be able / to do three things: / to love what is mortal; / to hold it / against your bones knowing / your own life depends on it; / and, when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.
Death is our big letting go moment, but we can practice for it throughout life. It seems you’re getting practice letting go of religious certainty. As Rainer suggested, that takes courage! I hope you can also let go of any sense of shame or failure for letting go!
SAINT PAUL: I think we’re all, like Mother Teresa, called to be witnesses to the primacy of love, Beth. I tried to express this to the citizens of Corinth two millennia ago:
If I speak in tongues … but have not love, I am a ringing gong or clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have absolute faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
I laugh when I reread the “ringing gong or clanging cymbal” language I used! I wanted to be as clear as I could be: Love supersedes everything! Jesus modeled this when he healed on the sabbath over the objections of religious leaders. He took a clear stand that love is more important than religious beliefs or laws.
ALAN WATTS: In Behold the Spirit, I wrote that conventional religion gives us a childhood or adolescent introduction to spirituality. Most people don’t progress beyond this early training to experiencing the divine presence in themselves and others. Agape—Greek for soul love—is God in us. Experiencing God in this way requires letting go of ideas about God and religion that block us from flowing with selfless love. I don’t know about you, Beth, but I’d rather be a bright light of love uncertain of my beliefs than a dark, unplugged bulb defending absolute answers I hope will protect me from existential angst!
WILLIAM JAMES: Beth, the questions you and all human beings ask about life, meaning, God, purpose, and death are not answerable with absolute certainty. Intelligent people of good will arrive at different answers to these questions. In my essay “The Will to Believe,” I argued that we are free to choose answers to the ultimate questions that help us live our best life. We can let go of thinking we must find absolute truth and choose answers to the biggest questions that lead to our best life. What is our best life? That’s another question without an absolute answer, but I and others on this panel would say it involves, as Mother Teresa once said, doing small things with great love.
MOTHER TERESA (laughing): Wow, where were all of you when I needed your wisdom during my spiritual struggle? Alan, maybe if I’d been named Teresa Watts I would have had an easier time remembering that being a filament for divine light was enough! Best wishes to you, Beth, as you continue becoming a unique filament of love!