Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mother Teresa's "Come Be My Light"

Remember how I've said repeatedly that a theology that doesn't take into account Christian's lack of experiences with God as part of its description of what it means to be Christian is not a robust theology? I never would have thought Mother Teresa would be exhibit A for that statement. A new book featuring 40 correspondences by Mother Teresa to her superiors over a 66 year period portrays a very different Teresa than the public face so many of us came to know and love.

Time magazine has posted a lengthy article that discusses what might be made of this lengthy dark night of the soul that lasted even longer than the 45 year one endured by St. John of the Cross.
The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."

That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. 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.'" Says the Rev. James Martin, an editor at the Jesuit magazine America and the author of My Life with the Saints, a book that dealt with far briefer reports in 2003 of Teresa's doubts: "I've never read a saint's life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness. No one knew she was that tormented." Recalls Kolodiejchuk, Come Be My Light's editor: "I read one letter to the Sisters [of Teresa's Missionaries of Charity], and their mouths just dropped open. It will give a whole new dimension to the way people understand her."

Postscript: This morning I clicked around on other blogs looking at the ways in which Christians are interpreting the revelations about Teresa. One blog sums it up saying we can't guarantee spiritual experiences, but must cling to Christ's promises and God's character. He goes on to say that we have the "hope of mercies that are new every morning amidst a long dark night."

I couldn't help but ask: What new mercies? A 66 year dark night doesn't really include daily morning new mercies, does it?

Another blog (by Ruth Tucker - author of Walking Away from Faith which I've read) said, "There were times when Mother Teresa was tormented. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can come to terms with the belief and unbelief that coexists in our lives and know that we are not alone. Our prayer is simple: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief."

What? I'm astounded at the idea that from the excerpts we read, someone could say that "it doesn't have to be that way." The reports so far (we'll read more when we have context and the book) is that it was that way for Teresa... unabated (except for a five week hiatus) in 66 years. I didn't have the impression that unbelief was the chief characteristic of her crisis. It was more existential in nature: how can a Christian devoted to God's service reconcile the absence of God's presence when companionship, new mercies, Real Presence (in the Eucharist) have been promised to the faithful yet denied to her?

And how useful is the prayer, "Lord I believe, help my unbelief" if you've never experienced his help in decades? What does that even mean?

I do consider Teresa heroic. Jon said this morning that it makes him admire Teresa for her courage to continue helping people which overcame her personal need to disclose her despair (and possibly end her work). She kept her despair well-concealed and confessed it only to those who were spiritually responsible for her.

Still, I'm sure more reminders that we are not to abandon hope that God will make "himself" known to us will flow in, utterly missing the point - Teresa didn't experience God for most of her life, felt despair because of it, yet kept at her mission anyway.


Dave said...

I had thought about bringing this up for discussion on PoMoXian and still may once I read more of this material myself - I haven't gotten much past the headlines yet. It is interesting but in some ways not entirely surprising to me. I was never "in awe" of Mother Teresa the way many people were over the years, seeing her as almost the perfect embodiment of Christian humility, service, etc. Some of her rhetoric and overt piety turned me off, to be honest. So I'm kind of intrigued by these revelations. Given the nature of her mission, among the poorest of the poor, it kind of seems natural to me that she would have these kinds of questions about God's presence, reality, etc. I find it unfortunate that she was never able to risk going public with this struggle of hers but of course if she had I imagine a lot of the philanthropic support for her work would have dried up. And though I have a lot of disagreements with the RCC hierarchy, I'm impressed that these letters were preserved and made public - this is the kind of potential scandal that I would think practically "demands" a cover-up by the Powers That Be, but almost amazingly, that does not appear to be the case here.

I think Mother Teresa speaks for a lot more people now than she did just a few days ago.

julieunplugged said...

Part of what I found fascinating in the longer article is how the Church hopes to use Teresa's doubt to fuel the idea that we can live without an experience of God or Christ's love or presence for our entire lives and it should not dissuade us from the truth of who Christ is or the duty we have to serve him.

This, I find, is a bit disconcerting in that I wonder about the psychological implications of living with such cognitive dissonance longterm.

I have more thoughts about this topic. I'm considering the possibility that faith is not experience, intellectual assent nor attachment to a specific platform of "beliefs." Rather, it may simply be the outward working of devoted compassion.... I'm hoping that that life can be lived honestly (the truth should set us free, not be hidden from view for fear of shame and chastisement) and in community (not shunned and coerced back into matching experiences and faith statements).

NoVA Dad said...

This really is an amazing story, and I hope that Dave does bring it up on Pomo -- it would certainly generate a lot of discussion. It's no secret that a lot of people struggle with the presence of God in their lives, but we put people like Mother Teresa on a pedestal of sorts that we never really take much stock of the internal spiritual struggles that they may be having. Regardless of how the debate goes in the months ahead on these letters, I think that it most certainly paving the way for what I think will be a very valuable -- and very important -- discussion.

Elleann said...

This, I find, is a bit disconcerting in that I wonder about the psychological implications of living with such cognitive dissonance longterm.

My first thought too, Julie! I found the comments by the psychiatrist in the article regarding her psychology even more thought-provoking than those regarding her spirituality.

After I read the article, I realized I knew very little about her except that she worked with the poor and the dying in Calcutta. So in an effort to understand her personality and her mission in life better, I googled her. There was a lot of stuff out there, and the surprising thing is that it wasn't all good. :-( This is a link to an article regarding a book written by journalist Christopher Hitchens in which he discusses many aspects of her life and work, the almost inhumane nature of the care given to the dying, the huge amounts of money donated and seemingly not used in her homes, etc etc etc.

Considering the pedestal she has been placed on by society at large, and how she has become an icon for selfless love and giving, and now, possibly, for faith in the face of prolonged 'doubt', it makes me wish I knew who the REAL Mother Theresa was and what drove her.

my15minutes said...

I knew this about her. Is it "new news" because Time did an article on it?
In my reading, her experience isn't an anomaly among the saints: maybe hers was an exceptionallly dark night of the soul, but that experience is common among the saints' lives I've studied. Terese of Liseaux also contemplated suicide even, because of her sense of spiritual darkness. I see it as being sort of part and parcel of having a deep soul...much like the 'tortured' artist; to feel so deeply means not only that the highs are high, but that the lows are almost unbearably low. I think her persistence in her call despite interior evidence of God's presence is a testament to sincere faith and hope. And of course, her love is legendary.

julieunplugged said...

It's news because despite reports of her feeling periods of desolation, these letters had never been released and the depths of her despair had not been known before. It's one thing to say she sometimes suffered doubt and a loss of God's presence. It's another to say she didn't experience God for 66 years. I think that combined with the release of the book is what makes it news.

I'm still left asking what is faith and on what basis people have it.

Dave said...

The clear effort of Mother Teresa's orthodox supporters to turn this potentially discrediting testimony into a reinforcer of their traditional dogmatic theology is both predictable and somewhat exasperating. 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'm not saying that Mother Teresa's crisis "disproves" Christianity or that believers are all faking it or anything crude, simplistic or insulting as that. I'm mainly just lamenting the burdens that she and others (including myself) often have to labor under in the religious circles we travel in. The inability to be simply candid and even theologically creative without unleashing a major backlash from orthodox guardians seems to me to be a symptom of an overextended "childhood" that religious institutions should be ready to move beyond (and in some cases, they have.) I think what is grating at me is that it seems like even as we're getting a more candid look at Mother Teresa the human being, her story is being hurriedly squeezed back into the standard formula that the church has been trying to prop up for the sake of its own convenience.

carrie said...

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

Teresa knew that God was real, even without the presence of God continually reminding her. She lived and acted on that truth. Instead of spending time trying to force God or herself into some mold, she acted as her knew God had called her to. She was the virgin who kept her wick trimmed and her lamp filled with oil awaiting the bridegrooms return. She was the servant who is called "blessed" because she was still working when her master returned. If she felt no presence of God for almost 66 years, then she truly is a model of walking by faith, of following through, of perseverance.

This only makes me admire her more! this is a person I can identify with, whose bravery and selflessness is truly a marvel.

Laurie said...

How can you look in the face of a dying soul, suffering, starving, and not wonder if there really is a God? There must have been a great fight for her soul. In the end, St. Michael was there to rescue her. The fight is over. Her reward must have been illuminating. In her darkness, she thought her smile was a mask, it must be ear to ear now. She has been a guide on my journey to God, she is still guiding me.

Mark said...

I find it unfortunate that she was never able to risk going public with this struggle of hers but of course if she had I imagine a lot of the philanthropic support for her work would have dried up.

This assumes that she wanted to go public but judged the risk to great to her work. In fact, as Christopher Hitchen's has written, her organization had more money than it used (the number, I think, was something like $25 million in the bank, just sitting there, untouched).

I doubt she worried about financial support disappearing. As the Time article made clear, she lived amongst the poor and did without in order to identify with them. You don't need mounds of support to do that.

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

Uh... you thought it was something else? "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add my own two cents.

Rambling Rector said...

Found my way to this blog in the course of thinking abt a sermon for All saints... thinking abt the way popular culture "canonizes" people like Princess Diana & Mother Teresa.Like some of the other commentators, I have been put off by the latter's conventional piety and submissiveness... but more drawn to her since the revelation re her doubt and interior bleakness.
How can God be anything but "absent"? I mean, Jesus was present with the disciples in Galilee, but only for a few years. His real accomplishments only began when he absented himself from the world and left the over-dependent disciples to finally grow up. I'm sure his absence was difficult for them, since they were used to being able to come whining to him over every little thing. But the odd thing about Christianity is the way that "absence" became a new sort of "presence", still vulnerable, still incarnate, and still strangely authoritative.
Maybe Teresa was too close to God. Maybe the God she experienced was so wounded, so crucified, that it precluded any joy, any experience of resurrection. Maybe she was really pissed off about all the suffering she saw in the world, but was too constrained by conventional piety to ventilate. I wonder of her spiritual directors ever urged her to dwell upon psalms such as 44 & others that criticize God in some graphic ways. She might have found some spiritual solidarity with Sudanese Christian women described by Marc Nikkel in WHY HAVN'T YOU LEFT YET?, women who , in effect, stage protest rallies against (and, paradoxically, alongside) God. The "protest rallies" are prayer services, but they freely express people's anger about watching their children starve in refugee camps. Mother Teresa might have benefited from knowing some women like that.
Maybe she was so close to God she couldn't see God, like trying to see your own eyeball. Maybe she was too busy "being Christ" to see Christ. Anyway, it's too bad she didn't have more fun.
If religion is never fun, it gets depressing. Did she ever see , or enjoy, the irony in her own situation? Maybe that is something we can do for her. Maybe from her present vantage-point she will appreciate it and pray for us, or at least not get too pissed off.

Joyce8159 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joyce8159 said...

Only a person who have gone through or experienced such ordeal the " dark night " would understand fully Mother Teresa. " Her work" as referred by many is not hers as Mother Teresa repeatedly said" It is "God's work". Contrary to what referred by the article that a lot of the philanthropic support for her work would have dried up if she will go public with her experience, Mother Teresa always relied on Divine Providence and never on people.She even discouraged people to take pictures to be used for soliciting money but rather encouraged persons to give charity out from their own conscience. If she experienced this " dark night" , it is totally a gift where she is totally united to the "Suffering Christ" as she mirrored it with those whom she took care "the unwanted and outcasts of society"