Giles Fraser: A real faith leads deep into the desert

29 August 2007

Across the desert and deep in the mountains of Yemen is the industrial city of Ta’izz. Few visitors pass that way. Men sit idle in the streets, swish flies, and chew qat. The markets sell cheap machine guns and dodgy hand grenades from Eastern Europe. My driver lost his eye fighting the Israelis.

Some years ago, I lived there for a summer, one of a handful of Westerners. With little oil to exploit and fierce tribes to worry about, there was nothing to draw the businessman or curious tourist. I loved it, but it was the back of beyond.

It was a while before I discovered the leper colony on the outskirts. Many people in Ta’izz did not know it existed. Hidden from view, men and women with mangled features and stumpy digits would play chess or lie quietly in the shade, looked after by diminutive Indian nuns from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.

Small they may have been, and often surprisingly young, but these nuns, like Mother Teresa herself, were giants of the faith. The Ta’izz leper colony was a place of silent desperation and abandonment — a rubbish tip beyond the city wall. It was a hidden Golgotha. A few years after I left, three sisters were murdered. But the community voted unanimously to stay.

Mother Teresa’s inner life has recently fallen into the spotlight after the publication of some of her letters, which reveal a faith that was tortured and doubt-ridden for almost 50 years. From the time she started her ministry to the poor in the gutters of Calcutta, her spiritual life all but dried up. “As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear,” she wrote.

Some have pounced upon these letters as evidence that she was a fraud. What rubbish: these letters are evidence that she was the real thing — in my book, evidence that she was indeed a saint. “Dryness”, “darkness”, and “loneliness” (her words) are the psychological realities of a life spent fighting for breath under an avalanche of human misery. Her sort of faith is all the more profound, precisely because it is not premised upon how she “feels”.

For Mother Teresa, faith was more like commitment. Here I stand. And nothing, not even her own “spiritual condition”, could lead her away from the poor. When well-meaning atheists naïvely say “I envy you your faith,” they presume faith to be something that makes us happy, enriched, and fulfilled. No: much of the time, faith leads deep into the desert.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney. His most recent book is Christianity with Attitude (Canterbury Press, £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-1-85311-782-4).

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