Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mother Teresa: Part Two

I started to post a very long comment so I thought I'd just put up a new entry to discuss this further.

Dave said: It demonstrates to me at least that "faith" as practiced and understood by many Christians (and others) is not based on evidence or anything demonstrable, but is rather a choice of affiliations that we make for a variety of complex and individually diverse reasons.

I liked how you put this. The reason I raised the issue "what is faith?" is that that very term is critical to this discussion. Are we willing to overlook the persistent, unending doubt and lack of experience in Mother Teresa because she was "Mother Teresa?"

When I expressed doubt online several years ago (the extent of my doubts at the time had to do with not seeing Scripture as the inerrant word of God and wondering what the Son of God actually meant), I was asked to "re-sign" a statement of faith before I was allowed to be a camp counselor for a homeschool group. Never mind that I had already signed it years before. Never mind that I was expressing doubt, yet had not "settled" anywhere in my beliefs at that point in time.

The response I received from those in charge was that doubts assail us all, but we are not to express them publicly (only privately) and that if I could no longer sign the statement of faith at that moment in time, I no longer believed. Belief had to be asserted, not doubted. Had I been Teresa, apparently, I would have signed as an act of faith. Yet in my tradition, scrupulous honesty was valued. The woman who "outed me" to the leadership made it clear in a phone call that she was "counting on the fact that I'm an honest heart" (and therefore would not sign) and would not force her hand by "making her" send the "incriminating" writings to the leadership team.

In other words, had I signed the SoF, I would have had to endure the humiliation of being seen as someone who was lying about my faith in addition to doubting aspects of it.

So that brings me back to Teresa. She knew she could not express this doubt publicly and did not. She kept it private and in writing, asking for these testimonies of doubt to be destroyed.

So here's the first question: Why? Why did she know that doubt is incompatible with profession of faith? What consequence did she fear?

If not experiencing God and doubting God, yet working for God anyway is what constitutes admirable faith (and we all know that supposedly), why aren't more leaders and lay Christians openly expressing doubts on a regular basis, yet going to church and doing Christian work anyway? Why is there such emphasis on conforming to beliefs? How does doubt fit in with belief?

Carrie: I see Teresa's perseverance as proof of her faith, not evidence of lack of it.

Well, let's look at that for a minute.

In the article, it states:
She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. "The smile," she writes, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love," she remarks to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"
Is Teresa admitting to lying? Sounds like it. Hypocrisy is a strong word to use to describe self. Avoiding hypocrisy has been the guiding principle of my re-evaluation of faith. I have attempted "with God, without God and before God" (as Bonhoeffer might put it) to openly describe my spiritual state as truthfully as I knew how because I saw a close link between truth (Jesus is supposed to have said he is the way, the TRUTH, and the life) and spiritual health. Why didn't Teresa?

I suggest it's because she had the expectation that her condition was abnormal. She believed herself to be hated by God and couldn't understand why. That means at some point in time, she received teaching that did not suggest faith was the persistence in good works while filled with doubt and a lack of experiences in God.

When someone complains that they have never experienced God (or don't), what advice do you give? What helpful comments have you received? Most of the time, the suffering soul is asked to pray more, to confess sin, to receive the gift of tongues, to enter soaking prayer, to attend more powerful worship, to trust that some day that experience will reach him or her.

How do I know this? It's what I've heard taught - over and over and over again. Testimonials of how God warmed Wesley's heart (even Bonhoeffer's heart) are shared in church as evidence of God as personal, not remote, distant and hidden. Catholics have told me that if I received Eucharist again, I'd become faith-filled and find the Real Presence.

Teresa's story should be a shockwave heard around the world of faith. If not her (she was not to receive comfort or God's presence), then why me or anyone else? But even more, why not confess these feelings publicly?

For instance: would it have been more "faith-filled" for a person like me to pretend belief during doubt, to wear a mask, to act as though I believed while I doubted? Is that the model Teresa might be giving us?

Teresa writes:
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
We get a glimpse here. Blasphemy! The horrid word. Yes - exactly. That is why we hide doubt and belief is meant to be confessed publicly. But at what cost? What does that do to many who don't know the extent to which doubt is harbored even in the most holy of Christian examples?

Teresa persevered in her work (which could be described as faith, though that has not been the definition I've run into in most Christian contexts - confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, belief in the true doctrines of the RCC). She hid her doubts, learned to live with them, she acted as though God was real and with her despite a lack of experience to correspond with it (assuming the article is a fair representation of the book).

But there is a problem here that I think should be addressed theologically. When someone cries out to God (who purportedly knows all about us and could reach us as unique individuals) and eventually finds solace and comfort and another never does... what does that say about the responsiveness of God?

I wish we wouldn't run from the crisis for faith this ought to create, because theology could get a lot more robust and creative if we faced the disappointment it is to find out that we can’t know that we’ve ever apprehended God, that we can’t tell if he’s apprehended us, that our devotion and prayers don’t necessarily create “relationship” (the most popular way evangelical Christians, for instance, describe religion).

So I ask again: What is faith? If faith is the dogged persistence to hide doubts and live out precepts without any corresponding sense of their being true… well, wow. That's brand new news to me.

Is it good news? Is that the Gospel? Is that relationship and not religion? Is that what it means to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Is that what it means to receive the Real Presence?

I think these questions deserve more than a passing apologetic.


Cheryl said...

You so well articulate our shared questions about so many issues of faith. Mine just bounce around in my head; you put yours so eloquently on paper.

To sum it up simply, most of my wranglings and the answers I've arrived at, is that there is no "personal" God with whom to have a relationship. If there is, then I've missed the boat, because He's never seemed personal and intimate to me, despite my longing pleas for revelation.

There may or may not be a God out there. God might be external... we might be moving in/through God. But for me, the "personal" part has always been an issue, and in the last few years, I've come to the point where I can be comfortable with this: "I don't know if there's a Father or not, I believe Jesus taught us all a good way to live if we are to share this planet, but the Holy Spirit eludes me, because in fact, I don't think It exists."

Simple, I know. Wrong? Perhaps. But the questioning you're experiencing just wore me out, and what I've come to is resignation to the fact that I'll never know some things, but I'm not going to BEG for anyone, even God, to show love to me.

I know, I know, people will go "God's gift of life and provision is showing love to you, and so on and so on." Well, when God expresses more personal relationship for me than a mother cat does for her kittens, then maybe I'll start to pay attention.)

carrie said...

I suggest it's because she had the expectation that her condition was abnormal. She believed herself to be hated by God and couldn't understand why. That means at some point in time, she received teaching that did not suggest faith was the persistence in good works while filled with doubt and a lack of experiences in God.

I think you've made a big leap..a big assumption here. From the little I've read, or what you've quoted, I don't see this statement as representative. Especially the part about being "hated" by God. Estranged, yes, but hated?

Teresa's story should be a shockwave heard around the world of faith. If not her (she was not to receive comfort or God's presence), then why me or anyone else?

But why the "if not her" statement? Teresa was someone who did great and selfless things. If she hadn't believed in God *ever*, perhaps she still would have done the same selfless things in a different context. No matter how she felt, she lived the life of Christ. I don't think we should lose sight of that.

The fact is, whether or not Teresa felt God's presence has little to do with whether I do, or you do, or anyone else does. She said she did feel it for a short period of time. Was that presence valid? Are we questioning whether she really felt God then?

In my 30 years as a Christian, I've probably have a few weeks experience of the presence of God. Those was the weeks following Isaac's death. God couldn't have been any more real, or provided any greater comfort if he'd been there in the flesh. That encounter with God was personal and profound and directs my life. I may never feel him again. I will continue to recite the prayers of the church because I refuse to try to break through the prayer barrier, refuse to try to "feel" God. I know God is there. My day-to-day circumstances have nothing to do with that. For me, God opened a window and gave me a glimpse. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know what I know.

Perhaps Mother Teresa lived in fear of what people would say. Perhaps she stayed quiet for other reasons. It's really mostly speculation, although the book may give more details. She may have kept quiet not from pressure, but from a desire not to cause anyone else to stumble, to be an encourager instead of sowing doubts. I'm sorry she felt she couldn't talk about it, whatever the reason, and I am glad the church is allowing the documents to be published.

I think most people will go through life without the introspection or analysis about what their faith is based on or how it should look. Theologians will not doubt discuss this for decades, and that's great. But for the average person of faith, I doubt it will change much, except help them see how truly human Mother Teresa was.

julieunplugged said...

Sorry, I should have included the quote about feeling hated by God:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ...

Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

This came from the article by Time.

It may be that she wished to prevent people from stumbling. That's the issue I have with the whole thing. Why has Christianity worked so hard to suppress the expression of doubt if it is constitutive of faith?

julieunplugged said...

Btw, I've had loads of experiences I've attributed to God. I have entire journals filled with them. I don't consider myself a person who suffered a dark night of the soul.

(My particular doubts were described that way by others, but I didn't feel that they were ever in that genre as I read about it.)

So my interest in this topic is not because she confirms for me what I've not experienced or that God doesn't exist. It has much more to do with how we describe faith (how do we define it?), what doubt means (does expressed doubt disqualify someone from leading, serving, pastoring, participating?) and why there is an attempt to control the expression of doubt.

I'm also curious about the meaning behind terms like "relationship with God" when there is persistent silence and lack of experiences to support that relationship.

carrie said...

Here is another blog entry on the subject that might be of interest. Scroll down a few spots for the Mother Teresa entry. I thought this was interesting:
Where do I look for the presence of God? I have learned that looking for such signs in a spirituality of isolation is pointless. For me, the presence of God meets me in community. In worship. In narrative. In story. In communal prayer. In the imitation of Jesus in serving others. At times, it arrives with surprise, and departs abruptly. The wind blows where it will, and we are pilgrims in the life of prayer and faith. We are not called to be pretenders of certainties that do not exist in our experience.

Dancingirl365 said...

I read an article in the paper yesterday about this, so thanks for posting the link to the longer article in Time. I haven't read the whole article yet, and probably won't have time today since we have some Chinese students coming for supper. But I do have a few first thoughts. And you ask some good questions.

My first thought is that I am reassured (for lack of a better word) that she had this spiritual struggle. I don't see how she could not. She was serving God in a dark place and I think tht the more we sacrifice, the more we do step out in faith, the deeper will be our struggle. She has good company. Jesus felt abandoned, too.

I don't think her fear of blasphemy was fear of others accusing her of blasphemy, but rather her own internal fear of it. That's just how I see what she said. I can see how you might interpret it otherwise given your own history.

I don't think faith is a feeling. Faith is keeping on keeping on even when all seems dark and senseless.

Why didn't God who loves her not intervene and comfort her? I'm not sure that's a question we'll be able to answer here. He's God. He's King. It's up to him to chose to intervene or not. I can come up with suppositions, but inevitably that's what they are, my own suppositions.

He showed his love clearly when He came to earth - gave up what must have been the ultimate in fellowship and oneness to experience the inevitable loneliness and isolation that come from being human. And then He experienced aloneness in a way none of us will ever have to, when He died. So I'd say his love for each of us has been displayed... no matter how I might feel at any given time.

God has not always intervened or shown relationship with those he loves. There are large periods of time in history when people have felt that God was gone. Many people of faith continued to follow him in their doubt and aloneness and suffering.

My heart goes out to Mother Teresa. I actually admire her more now than ever before.

I may revisit all this on LP... good topic.

Kansas Bob said...

I love the way that you deal with the whole issue of doubt Julie. I so agree ... I wish that we could all be honest with each other about our doubts. Really, if you say that you have never had a doubt then I think that you are either not very honest or not very old.

For me, this is the whole question of life - how will you ultimately respond during tests and trials ... will you let your pains and doubts subdue you or will you wrestle with them in honesty (as you have and are doing Julie) and come to peace with them? Each day I seem to be more enjoying the mystery of God and being a at peace with not having answers.

And if you want to experience God ... try sharing in someone's pain ... try crying with them ... try letting compassion flow from your heart to theirs ... you may not "feel God" but you will feel alive.

R. Michael said...

I have not read the article but I can't help but ask what was Mother Teresa looking for? Did she think she was promised more than what was delivered? Perhaps it was not a failure of faith so much as some emotional need that was unfulfilled....I don't know. We are complex beings. I sometimes think we acquiesce to a two dimentional theology and live in a three dimentional world.

Getting to your question "what is faith?". I am pretty sure that it is not keeping a smile that hides deep-seated doubt. Yet in many ways I think MT showed us what it means to live a life of faith...I just wish she had felt the freedom to publicly express it. What would have happened?

I am really tired of hearing about what I should expect to feel or experience as a result of surrendering my life to Jesus. The truth is my relationship to God is little like what the Bible says. I don't feel inhabited by God's Spirit. What if we just admitted that?

Today I taught a Sunday School of 80 adults about post-modernism and the Emerging Church. Needless to say the reception was somewhat less than "embracing"...however (more importantly) I wish I felt the freedom to express some of the doubts that I have within that context of a Sunday School or some other religious venue...I understand why MT wore her smile.

I think the problem is that we fail to have a theology that is that I mean that one that acknowledges God (as he can be understood) and how he is actually experienced in our daily lives.

sorry Julie for the edginess of this post..but is how I am feeling today :<{

I realize I REALLY need to start my own blog...

julieunplugged said...

r. michael, I share your "edginess." In fact, I think I spent about five years there (if you were to ask my online friends).

The word "admitted" is fascinating. We're encouraged to confess sin, but to conceal (not admit) doubt. A very interesting thing to consider.

Howard said...

These posts are precious reminders that we are pilgrims here, and making sense of faith in this world--when we are people of another one--is always going to be complicated.

I've gone through an 8 month ordeal, beginning with a physical illness in the winter that became a spiritual fight. I finally, carefully, confessed some of my doubt and struggle over faith to a trusted pastor. The problem was that I was the teaching lay pastor over a large adult group in our congregation. I was ultimately forced out of ministry, required to re-confess my belief in the authority of the bible (whatever that means) and the atoning work of Christ's death. I wasn't even allowed to complete my physical recovery from surgery before being forced to meet with a pastor for questioning.

Flashing forward to shorten the story: Jesus and my wife stuck by me, along with a terrific urologist, psychiatrist, and pastoral counselor (who understands the difference in Church and church). Through the love of Jesus and friends (and great pills), I'm getting my kidney function back, getting past the depression, and I've given up my little faith to embrace faith that sees the difference in Hope and hoping.

I find great encouragement in this passage from C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters": "Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys." Jesus asked why the Father had forsaken Him; I find great peace in confidently asking why, and choosing to obey anyway.

mariam said...

I have been away from the computer for a bit (generally a good thing!) and have just now been reading over this discussion on Mother Teresa. As to doubts expressed by some (on other blogs) that because of her doubts (too weak a word, really) and her sense of separation from God that St. Therese couldn't have realled been "saved", well, that's just an incredibly ungenerous and mean-spirited thought, and typical of the so-called Christian thinking that sets my blood boiling. I wonder what Jesus, who gave us the story of the Samaritan and told us, specifically how we were to show our love for him and God, would say.

On Mother Teresa's feeling of spiritual emptiness and doubts: to continue to do what Jesus instructs us to do in the absense of belief or, certainly any surety is, to me, the ultimate expression of faith. I have accepted more or less the dichotomy between what my head tells me and what my heart wants to believe - and I attend a Church where it is possible to do that. Like Cheryl, these questions wear me out but I have a lot of admiration for someone who is not content to sit back and say, like me, "Oh well, I'll never really know or understand so why waste my emotional energies struggling." To continue to seek and long for that experience of God, to wrestle with your unbelief, to call God out and ask him why he is silent - this is a courageous undertaking and another form of worship. Especially when the example of your life lived remains so seemingly unselfish and Christlike.

As to why she doubted, the most comfortable among us, who live cossetted lives, with every good fortune have doubts of God's existence or at the very least of his benificence. If every day, you faced a world of suffering and the evidence of God's indifference to that suffering, if it seemed that at times that responsibility for showing God through your actions was for millions the only glimpse of Christ that they would see, wouldn't God's silence and the burden of your responsibilities seem at times to overwhelm you? Didn't Christ say "My yoke is easy". How easy, exactly was the yoke Mother Teresa took upon herself, even though it seems to be exactly what Christ asks of us?

Finally, why did she feel as if she must keep her true feelings and doubts private? I think that this is just another example of her trying to live as Christ asks. I am obviously a very liberal Christian with a fairly unorthodox theology. However, I know that an orthodox, even conservative theology provides comfort to others. If a conservative insists on a debate I will explain my beliefs - although I am not interested in arguing. However, I would never try and tear down someone else's faith or even express my doubts to someone who feels happy and secure in whatever their beliefs are - unless they are harming someone else. Jesus tells us not to be a "stumbling block" to someone else's faith. This can be done in many ways - by not allowing for doubt and forcing someone to live a lie - as happened to you Julie, in the description you gave; by hypocrisy; but also by throwing the cold water of doubt on a faith that has either just caught fire or has never burned very brightly. I have friends of many faiths - various flavours of Christian, Muslim, Bhuddist, and when we discuss our beliefs I always concentrate on those things we have in common. Mother Teresa was RC and I don't think Protestants always a complete understanding of what this means. Like being Jewish it is not just a set of beliefs, it is part of your identity and often culture. The beliefs are only a part of what it means to be Catholic but they are there, part of the glue holding your spiritual family together. For the sake of family harmony we often keeping our mouths shut. There is always a time and place for the blunt truth. For Mother Teresa is was in her journals and her confessions.

thechurchgeek said...

thanks julie for these helpful, as usual, comments. We are going to try to deal with this tomorrow in our adult sunday school class.

thechurchgeek said...

Well we did try to tackle this in my sunday school class this morning. It was interesting to see a range of responses from:

1.) Did she truly 'accept' Christ? (Whatever that means for a catholic! I tried to stress how much she stressed that she and her postulates remain connected and dependent on Christ through the sacrament of the eucharist.)

2.) Why did they publish journals and letters against her wish, that only will fuel the fire of those like Christopher Hitchens and others who are already attacking the faith and lead those who are struggling away from the faith.

3.) And a more reasoned response of: yes her persistence in the faith beside her lack of experience is evidence of even greater faith.

I'm not sure why we're so dependent on the 'experience' of God, but people in my class picked up pretty quickly on that need for some sort of inner 'confirmation' by experience for the depth of their faith.