Even the great modern saints endured times of doubt and disbelief

Missionaries of Charity with an image of their founder, Mother Teresa (CNS)

The great strength of CTS booklets is that they pack a great deal of Catholic wisdom within a small compass; they can be carried around, read, assimilated and then passed on for the benefit of others very quickly. They are one simple but effective way to learn and share the Faith.

I have just been reading Finding God in Doubt & Disbelief, by the Rev Nick Donnelly. Only £2.50, it is well worth reading. I find that “doubt and disbelief” are more common among my Catholic friends than one would think. This is especially true when you are suffering from depression. I don’t mean the clinical kind that requires professional intervention; I mean that low-level state of unhappiness, when the days are monochrome and the daily round of duties irksome and dreary. A friend phoned me the other day with just this malady: she is struggling to take pleasure in anything and tells me that praying seems meaningless and gives her no consolation.

Having read Donnelly’s book, I will now pass it on to my friend. He is very honest about the times in his own life when, as he puts it, “My faith has barely survived the toxicity of the soil of my life”, admitting that it is only through the grace of God that he has “battled to keep hold of the faith during these deadly times.” These included the miscarriage of two babies after twenty years of waiting and hoping for parenthood. He writes from his own heartfelt experience that at such times, we simply have to hang on in hope and trust, not giving up on prayer and the sacraments, believing that God has not abandoned us, even though he appears absent or silent.

Donnelly relates that at night he has sometimes been plagued by the fear “that death was the end of human existence and marked the complete annihilation of the self”. Why is it usually at night that one’s worst fears and anxieties rise to the surface, so that one can come to dread the small hours? For me, the only remedy during those occasions is the Rosary.

Donnelly mentions modern saints who have endured times of doubt and disbelief, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Edith Stein (St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). It is only since her death that we have learnt of Mother’s Teresa’s 40-year experience of the silence of God; yet, as Donnelly explains, she continued resolutely to pray “for the grace to share in the Passion of Christ” even during this unbelievably long darkness.

For Edith Stein, a convert from atheism, it was only after she had received the light of faith that she could understand her past torment of mind: “When I look back…I always see, lurking in the background, my desperate state of mind, that incredible confusion and darkness.” She acknowledges honestly that the state of her soul before conversion “was the sin of radical unbelief.”

Donnelly concludes with an anecdote about Pope Benedict XVI. Asked by the journalist Peter Seewald if he had ever doubted his faith, Benedict admitted that the question “comes to one again and again.” But he added that he had had “so many concrete experiences of faith, experiences of the presence of God, that I am ready for those moments and they cannot crush me.”

This is a most heartening conclusion to a faith-filled little booklet. I hope my friend will find it so.