Baker Academic

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Mother Teresa (and Jules Winnfield): A Reflection on God's Silence

Unlike some of my colleagues in biblical studies, I do not experience miracles. Or at least I don't perceive most things that I witness in my day-to-day experience as God's intervention. I'm usually the guy sitting across the table from Jules, eating filthy pig meat and challenging the claim that God came down from heaven and stopped the bullets. John 12:29 says, "So the crowd of people who stood by and heard it were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, 'An angel has spoken to Him.'" Had I been there, I would have probably heard thunder.

I readily acknowledge that the limits of my own perception and my presuppositions color my experience. I'm no authority on what can and cannot happen in the universe. Even so, I am much more inclined to experience God in small things: beauty; unlikely spiritual transformation; a pennant race. But I just don't encounter the supernatural or I don't interpret it as such if I do. This I call my experience of "God's silence" and am convinced that many, many Christians experience this silence more often than not. . . . even if they don't talk about it. This topic is one of the major motivating factors behind my new book: Near Christianity.

Today on NPR I learned that Pope Francis will declare Mother Teresa a saint. This short podcast is worth a listen: "How The Catholic Church Documented Mother Teresa's 2 Miracles." This, of course, means that the Church must verify at least two miraculous encounters associated with Teresa. I am not the sort of person that rejects the experience of others out-of-hand as fraud, fiction, or foolishness just because I do not understand it. And so I find this story intellectually fascinating rather than intellectually repulsive. This story is even more fascinating to me because Teresa's journals reveal that she (for almost 50 years) experienced God's silence.
[James] Martin, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, notes that in a posthumously published collection of her private journals and letters, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the nun so widely revered for her spiritual purity acknowledged that she did not personally feel God's presence. "In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss," . . . . Martin says Mother Teresa dealt with such pain by telling God, "Even though I don't feel you, I believe in you."
The NPR story then goes on to describe Teresa's sense of numbness as "doubt." But I think that we ought to differentiate a lack of feeling of God's presence (what I am calling "silence") from doubt. The two can be related. I imagine that doubt can lead to a lack of experience and vice versa. But God's silence and doubt of God are not the same in my experience.

I talk more about this in the book, but allow me to make three points. (1) I used to think that my experience of God's silence was a deficit in me, as if I required fixing. I now see this as a valuable difference among people of faith—one that contributes to a necessary diversity. (2) We do Teresa a disservice in collapsing doubt and God's silence into a single "problem." I see St. Teresa as an exemplar of faith. She is someone who could experience (even if uncomfortably) God's silence for 50 years and remain faithful to her mission. (3) What a tragedy that Teresa had to keep her experience of God a secret for all of those years. Surely there is a place for God's silence in the Psalms. Even Jesus experienced God's silence. Why are Christians so reluctant to discuss this openly? What a loss to others who might have benefited from Teresa's witness.

I admire the Jules Winnfields of the world—folks who encounter the Divine differently than I do. Who am I to begrudge such a transformational and powerful experience? But I also admire saints who remain faithful because there is something bigger at stake than one's own experience.

Anthony Le Donne, PhD is the author of 
Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.


  1. For me, science and the Bible both warn that some people's experiences are simply "illusion" and "delusion." So it's hard for me not to assess other's experiences.

  2. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    How on earth does one "feel God?" If one claimed to feel God, such an experience would by definition be misleading and mislabeling. Is the need for justice any less real because the second coming hasn't been seen. It also isn't less real if God hasn't been felt, and her life proved that. I've had a number of life- changing moments and couldn't say of any of them that I "felt" God. Is this something in the RC tradition of which I'm unaware. Would be interested if any one could provide insight into the experience of "feeling God."

  3. Anthony,
    I look forward to reading your book. I am not quite sure, from this brief post, how you would fully explain your understanding of God's silence. However, I agree with your thoughts as related to silence and doubt. Can they be related, of course. Must one lead to the other, no!
    I am ordering 'Near Christianity" today!


  4. Nice post, Anthony! I think Come Be My Light is one of the most important books about Christian faith. And, I agree wholeheartedly with your preference for "silence" (of God) over doubt (about God). The silence of God is an integral element of faith - from the silence of Jesus in John 9:8-34, to God's silence in Job 2:7-37:24. It's so clearly a part of our Judeo-Christian faith tradition, and so strangely a topic avoided or to be embarrassed about.