August 24, 2007

"Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."

Wrote Mother Teresa in letters to her confessor.
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."
Via Metafilter, where the comments include:
My view: Mother Teresa saw the reality of life more intimately than nearly anyone who has ever lived; she saw no kind and benevolent God because it doesn't exist. Kindness and benevolence comes from us, not an invisible superhero in the sky, and there wasn't much of it to be found toward her chosen charges....

[Another commenter:] In the hospital she ran, patients dying of cancer were offered aspirin instead of morphine and were told to offer up the pain to God. Dying patients were baptized regardless of what their religion was. Mother Teresa got a donation from one of the men involved in the Lloyd's of London mess and would not return it despite knowing that it was stolen money. Instead she told the victims to forgive the people responsible for the theft. She was fanatically opposed to birth control. She turned every donation her hospital got over to the Vatican - meanwhile, her hospital was criminally undersupplied. If Mother Teresa didn't believe in God anymore, what was her excuse for maintaining the Catholic line?...

[Another:] [A]s Hitchens documents, she didn't work selflessly for mankind. She was a sick, twisted suffering fetishist who raised millions of dollars that were split between building more places to die (and that's literal- the "shelters" she built are horrible hellholes) and the Vatican coffers and cavorted with dictators. She was a horrible individual, and her veneration is a symbol of all that's wrong with the Church and all that's wrong with modern humanity.
IN THE COMMENTS: Paddy O:
She didn't see God. But she saw God in others. And those others knew it.
Original Mike:
That she did what she did with all those inner doubts makes her all the more saintly.

52 comments:

hdhouse said...

Hitchens is who he is. Mother Teresa is who she is. One is and for all times shameless. One isn't. Pardon the present tense...

Susan said...

She ... cavorted with dictators. She was a horrible individual, and her veneration is a symbol of all that's wrong with the Church and all that's wrong with modern humanity.

Making her the perfect Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

MadisonMan said...

Who was her publicist? They did a great job.

Liam said...

[sigh]

The wonders of our modern age. We cannot accept on the balance someone's good works. We have to deconstruct their actions and show the the person's weakness and reveal the context of their motivations.

There can be no good works - only obsessions that manifest themselves in the physical world. We are all weak - all is dreck,

Congrats guys! Lets drag it all down to the lowest level - make yourselves feel better!

Paddy O. said...

Better that the poor die in the streets uncared for, untouched. I know people who worked with Mother Theresa. They have stories.

In the West we see the pain. We live comfortable lives in which we avoid anyone who is uncomfortable, alienate anyone we disagree with, and step on anyone in our search for more.

We attack. We denigrate. We lower. We bring others down to our level when we decide we cannot or will not be better people.

That way we feel good about ourselves without doing a damn thing.

I know people who worked in those hospitals and gave men and women, for one time in their poor lives, the feeling of what it meant to be treated like a man or a woman. They bathed. They fed. They held hands with those who are treated so miserably we can have no conception.

Mother Theresa had her issues to be sure. But she was there. She gave her life to help others feel life.

What Hitchens and the rest think? Show me what they are doing for such people. Show me how they are humanizing others instead of constantly de-humanizing for the sake of a rhetorical point.

It is a gift to show another human that they matter. Even if for a moment, even if when they are at their end. They matter as a person and are precious to God.

I know people who served in that setting and it changed their lives, and they are doing similar works now in other parts of the world.

Maybe we need more people following the example of Mother Theresa and showing how it can be done better.

She didn't see God. But she saw God in others. And those others knew it.

Original Mike said...

That she did what she did with all those inner doubts makes her all the more saintly.

rhhardin said...

Kinky Friedman compares Mother Teresa unfavorably with Princess Diana on Imus long ago. (transcription)

ricpic said...

Typical superficial atheist comments which miss the point completely. Being filled with spiritual doubt is not the same thing at all as denying the existence of God. And as liam says, the works are there.

Christy said...

In the words of Robert A. Heinlein "Faith is for the
congregation."


Don't you imagine that by the time she was confronted with the reality, she was so admired and supported (because it was she not they doing the work) that she was locked in by everyone else's expectations. It is nice to think that we don't respond to other's expectations, but we do, and they can trap us.

Roger said...

I would imagine that having to face the squalid conditions, pain and suffering on a daily basis would challenge anyone's belief in a loving God. sounds like a very human theme that goes all the way back to the Book of Job. Mother Theresa is not an icon that needs to smashed IMO. We need examples in our life, even if they may be flawed.

MadisonMan said...

I know I'm just a cynical Catholic-come-lately to the church, maybe filled with buyer's remorse, but I'll ask anyway: If the Catholic Church did not continually generate new Saints for its flock, would it lose ground to churches that have more roots in the present?

And should a person who does not even believe in the existence of God be a Saint -- how could she intercede on your behalf if God can just ask her: Why should I listen to you -- you never believed in me!

I also think that it is decidedly unchristian to give money to the church hierarchy instead of using it to benefit the poor.

Mindsteps said...

Liam said...
[sigh]

The wonders of our modern age. We cannot accept on the balance someone's good works. We have to deconstruct their actions and show the the person's weakness and reveal the context of their motivations.

Congrats guys! Lets drag it all down to the lowest level - make yourselves feel better!


Don't you think that there is the tendency in us all to lionize and demonize. They are both sides of the same coin and may not be the healthiest way of thinking (in adults). There are common psychological processes that underly idealization and demonization. I worry about folks who put people on pedestals (they can be equally unrealistic on the negative side as well). How about being more reality based and trying to put some checks on our tendency to see things as all good or all bad. Aren't most people pretty much combinations of good, bad, and so so stuff?

LarsPorsena said...

MM:

That's why the Church has the "Devil's Advocate". If she is considered for beatification all aspects her life
will be intensively examined.

RE her doubts in her correspondence,
Confession (now Reconciliation ) is a ruthless self inventory and that seems to be what she was engaged in

Roger said...

Although I am a lapsed christian, I do recall that even Jesus had doubts when he was on the cross: "My god my god why hast thou forsaken me." I think we can put Mother Theresa's doubts in that perspective.

IrishLaw said...

Interesting to see the different responses here as opposed to on Catholic blogs. I had no idea Bl. Mother Teresa experienced such doubts, but reading her story sounded very familiar from studying the Spanish mystics such as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Jesus. Many saints experience periods of intense darkness, and that doesn't mean they are "atheists in denial" or hypocrites. It would be wrong to take from this any conclusion that Mother Teresa didn't believe in God. She apparently didn't feel his presence for most of her ministry, which caused her great suffering, but her works showed her continued belief and conviction. If love is a matter of the will, rather than of feelings, she certainly showed that.

I thought the most insight in the article came (I think) from things one of Teresa's confessors said to her - she, as the devoutly religious who ask or hope to share in Christ's Passion, may never have expected to share in the most agonizing time in which Christ himself felt God had abandoned him ("My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"). A lesser person - I'm sure I'm one of them - could not have shared in such suffering for so long without giving into despair (a grievous sin), so I actually think this makes Teresa more of a saint. Saints definitely aren't perfect or flawless people, and I don't claim Teresa was, but her "dark night of the soul" can't be used to convict her of hypocrisy.

Eva said...

What struck me as I read the entire article is how sad it was that Mother Teresa was so terribly unhappy for such a great deal of her life. It occurred to me that she might have suffered from depression, actually. And as a former Catholic, I was struck again by the romanticizing of suffering by the church. Maybe she just needed some Lexapro?

Revenant said...

Paddy,

Better that the poor die in the streets uncared for, untouched.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I think it would be better if they didn't die at all. The central complaint about Theresa is that she ran hospices and convents while giving donors the impression that she was running hospitals and nursing schools.

MadisonMan said...

Many saints experience periods of intense darkness, and that doesn't mean they are "atheists in denial" or hypocrites.

Echoing eva, it sounds like she had some kind of bipolar disorder. I think a fascinating book would explore the mental stability of saints through history. I suppose something like that has been written.

It would be wrong to take from this any conclusion that Mother Teresa didn't believe in God.

It could be wrong. I don't think you can necessarily say it would be wrong.

Maxine Weiss said...

She needed a facelift. Does anybody know of a site where we could see what she'd have looked like with cosmetic enhancements?

hdhouse said...

I wonder if a poor dying person would be more comfortable with Mother T's makeshift hospices or curled up under Mr. Hitchen's desk waiting for a potato chip to fall.

Revenant said...

LarsPorsena,

That's why the Church has the "Devil's Advocate".

The church abolished the "devil's advocate" position nearly a quarter-century ago. It got in the way of John Paul II's canonization binge -- the Church has created more saints in the 24 years since the Devil's Advocate was abolished than it did in the four hundred years it existed.

Anthony said...

I wonder if a poor dying person would be more comfortable with Mother T's makeshift hospices or curled up under Mr. Hitchen's desk waiting for a potato chip to fall.

Okay, that just killed me daid.

Palladian said...

"wonder if a poor dying person would be more comfortable with Mother T's makeshift hospices or curled up under Mr. Hitchen's desk waiting for a potato chip to fall."

More likely they would be killed by a falling empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red.

bearing said...

You could spin it like this if you like: If even a so-called saint like Mother Teresa had doubts about God, how can the rest of us possibly have faith in one?

Or you could think of it like this: Do not let doubts stop you from becoming a saint; even Mother Teresa struggled with doubts.

Myself, I think it points to the importance of going with what one knows intellectually even in the face of feelings -- essentially irrational -- that threaten to cow you into abandoning your mission. Bl. Teresa of Calcutta may have often felt abandoned by God, but she knew God was there, and she knew her calling, and she knew not to abandon them even if what she felt was despair.

When you're flying blind, you have to fly by the instruments that you know are correct, even if the plane's motion fools your senses into telling you the wrong way is up.

Chip Ahoy said...

"I've never read a saint's life where the saint has such an intense spiritual darkness.

To fill that regrettable gap I would recommend to the Rev. James Martin Taylor Caldwell's life's work, Dear and Glorious Physician, about St. Luke, considered a masterpiece by some including myself.

However,

even Jesus had doubts when he was on the cross; for whatever it's worth, from the Urantia book:

Paper 187 - ,The Crucifixion

line 105: Shortly after one o'clock, amidst the increasing darkness of the fierce sandstorm, Jesus began to fail in human consciousness. His last words of mercy, forgiveness, and admonition had been spoken. His last wish--concerning the care of his mother--had been expressed. During this hour of approaching death the human mind of Jesus resorted to the repetition of many passages in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the Psalms. The last conscious thought of the human Jesus was concerned with the repetition in his mind of a portion of the Book of Psalms now known as the twentieth, twenty-first, and twenty-second Psalms. While his lips would often move, he was too weak to utter the words as these passages, which he so well knew by heart, would pass through his mind. Only a few times did those standing by catch some utterance, such as, "I know the Lord will save his anointed," "Your hand shall find out all my enemies," and "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus did not for one moment entertain the slightest doubt that he had lived in accordance with the Father's will; and he never doubted that he was now laying down his life in the flesh in accordance with his Father's will. He did not feel that the Father had forsaken him; he was merely reciting in his vanishing consciousness many Scriptures, among them this twenty-second Psalm, which begins with "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And this happened to be one of the three passages which were spoken with sufficient clearness to be heard by those standing by.
KGV Psalms 22

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent
3 ...

Joan said...

I guess the publication of a book is making this "news", but this very subject was discussed way back in 2001.

In researching this issue, I came across this Wiki article that notes that Christopher Hitchens was asked to testify against the canonization of Mother Theresa. He must've loved that.

Revenant, you sound bitter. It's not as if canonization is a stroll through the park; there is still a lengthy investigative process leading up to canonization. (See here.)

John Kindley said...

"Kindness and benevolence comes from us . . ." [rather than God]

And just where do we and what kindness and benevolence we have come from? That said, I think we should put the emphasis where Jesus put it when he said that the Second Greatest Commandment (to love your neighbor as yourself) is "like unto the First" (to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul). I'm glad to be part of a sect, Quakerism, that has abolished, not the priesthood, but the laity; that invests its resources in the better heavenly bet of people rather than buildings and trappings; and that has a distinguished history of resisting injustices such as slavery and war.

"I think a fascinating book would explore the mental stability of saints through history."

William James' "The Varieties of Religious Experience" does some of this. One of his most prominent examples of someone who acted in ways that could be interpreted as crazy was the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), George Fox.

joeschmo1of3 said...

St. John of the Cross wrote, mentioned earlier by IrishLaw, wrote an entire book on what Mother Theresa experienced: The Dark Night of the Soul. It seems to be not an uncommon stage in a spiritual mystic's faith journey.

Kevin Lomax said...

One might ask what good her sainthood would do when she could not even find God for herself or allow God to reach through to her. Presenting her as an example to be followed serves only to emphasize earthly things where her passions centered.

LarsPorsena said...

"Presenting her as an example to be followed serves only to emphasize earthly things where her passions centered."

Passion for the poor, the dying, the forgotten, we should all be so passionate about these worldly things.

Matthew said...

You can see here that this is old news:
http://www.ignatius.com/Magazines/hprweb/bk_gauthier.htm

The level of ignorance with regards to religion is appallingly high. Even people who consider themselves intelligent and well educated fall in this category. I suggest reading Benedict XVI's Introduction to Christianity, even if you consider the church an enemy.

Revenant said...

Revenant, you sound bitter.

You must be projecting. I'm not "bitter" that the Catholic Church is quite literally cranking out new saints faster than Hollywood cranks out new summer blockbusters -- I'm amused by it.

I was just correcting an earlier poster's mistaken belief that the Catholic Church still maintains the "devil's advocate" position.

It's not as if canonization is a stroll through the park; there is still a lengthy investigative process leading up to canonization.

Sure. Its just that now only one side of the canonization debate gets to formally investigate and present its case -- so, unsurprisingly, it tends to win a lot more than it used to.

Kevin Lomax said...

"Passion for the poor, the dying, the forgotten, we should all be so passionate about these worldly things."

She's being made a saint for a church for God, not a church for a bread king. Fine for us all to care for others, but that is no reason to beatify her.

So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:13-15

"Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. "So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you....

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:1-4, 33

LarsPorsena said...

"She's being made a saint for a church for God, not a church for a bread king. Fine for us all to care for others, but that is no reason to beatify her."

Okay, I'll bite. What would be a good reason to beatify anybody?

Kevin Lomax said...

If a church feels the need to beatify anyone, it should be someone like St. Patrick who purportedly brought Christianity to Ireland...and green beer to college bars.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

My retired Bishop, William Curlin, was one of Mother's confessors. I was privileged [me and thousands of others] to see her when she visited our diocese to set up a mother house for her Missionaries of Charity about 12 years ago. I often wondered what the heck a little selfless nun would have to confess. Now I see. Priests have told me that hearing confessions of the elderly/pious/exremely holy is like being pelted with styrofoam. What a good lesson for me in letting God alone judge one's heart.

LarsPorsena said...

Thanks Ruth Ann

Read your post then googled Curlin and found a short bio. He's a treasure.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Lars:
He is, indeed. He's probably one of the most active retired Bishops you'll ever meet.

Peter Palladas said...

The dark night of the soul - Saint John of the Cross.

The dark teatime of the soul - Douglas Adams.

Spiritual aridity. Give me that any day as proof of sanctity. Smarmy charismatics who just know they know the Lord knows them just make me reach for my knowing shotgun.

I've a friend who clubbed together with his mates to buy and drive a van full of medicines to India for her mission.

She thanked them with a smile and then said with a grin "Next time make it a lorry load."

My kinda gal.

Liam said...

You know, to me it wouldn't matter if she was a heroin addict and dabbled in the Kabala (sp).

The point is, in the total absence of the proof of her convictions, that God loved her *she continued to serve him*.

Why didn't she descend into the bottle, or open a lesbian coffee shop in Oregon, or become a rancid aethist like Hitchens (editorial note: I admire many of Hitchen's other views, but his view of religion is vile).

Faith is not a rational condition. It can manifest itself either by acts of piety or acts of insanity. It's up to you to decide. However:

Who would I rather admire - a person fishing in the gutter for power like Obama or someone fishing in the gutter for lepers? Do I have to answer that?

bearing said...

St. Therese of Lisieux is another great saint who is said to have suffered from enormous doubts and long periods of spiritual aridity. And yet she developed and described a marvelously original spiritual "Way" that has helped countless people.

Sometimes I wonder if that aridity is part of what drives the saints to work so hard for the God they love.

To write that makes it sound a bit like a compulsion; it's not what I'm going for, but I'm not sure how else to say it.

Daryl said...

Thank you for posting the quotes from MeFi.

Mother Teresa was a horrible hag.

She tortured people because their suffering would make them more like Jesus--so she could feel close to Jesus? That's sick and twisted. It's something straight out of a horror movie.

It's just a shame she lived so long. Her longevity alone is evidence that there is no God.

Daryl said...

I wonder if a poor dying person would be more comfortable with Mother T's makeshift hospices or curled up under Mr. Hitchen's desk waiting for a potato chip to fall.

I would take Hitchens' desk. If I'm going to die, and I'm not going to get medicine, at least Hitch wouldn't be jamming blunt needles into my arm and telling me how Christlike I am when I squirm in pain.

I would shoot as many people as I had to, myself included, to stay out of one of those torture hostels.

Galvanized said...

I am sure that anyone who would have witnessed Christ at Gethsemane would have witnessed the same kind of darkness and loneliness, tears and agony that Mother Teresa spoke of. Just because one is Christian doesn't mean that she always sees the light, just that she believes it's there. I think no less of her. It's comforting to know that even someone that revered had her spiritual doubts. One thing though -- to me, it's troubling that the Church didn't respect her wishes that these letters be destroyed. And for anyone who tries to judge her, I would say the same thing -- I challenge you to look at your life and decide if you've done as much good for the world as she. I can't even begin to fathom the many moral questions, the ethical dilemmas and material temptations that one is faced with in her position. She could always have just walked away, but she didn't. And I know that I could never have even attempted most everything she did.

Ann Althouse said...

bearing: "Sometimes I wonder if that aridity is part of what drives the saints to work so hard for the God they love."

This makes them sound like stalkers!

Joan said...

Ann: This makes them sound like stalkers!

Not to me. The pursuit of a human, or a relationship with a human, is entirely different from the pursuit of a relationship with the Divine.

Re: Hitchens, he can be very amusing but I find him, ultimately, pitiable. In his limited imagination, sex is the most profound human experience.

Kevin Lomax said...

"Faith is not a rational condition. It can manifest itself either by acts of piety or acts of insanity."

Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. Mother Theresa was neither. She had no faith. All she had was actions.

tjl said...

"She had no faith. All she had was actions."

The Catholic Church never embraced the peculiar Protestant idea that salvation could be assured by faith alone.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Joan: Hitchens is married. Perhaps it is through his conjugal experiences that he glimpses the Divine. Marriage is the only quasi-sacrament that he has. We must cut him that slack, no?

Joan said...

Ruth Anne, you are a much better Christian than I am.

Kevin, I think you're misinterpreting significantly here. Faith, belief, is an intellectual thing, something you know without proof. What Mother Theresa experienced was a lack of feeling, the absence of something she had previously experienced during her dialog with Christ, and her visions.

We're watching Deadwood on DVD, and recently watched the episodes in which the town's minister, suffering from (most likely) a brain tumor, begins to have seizures and all sorts of other neurological problems. In the beginning, he can deal with his affliction, because he still feels his connection to the Lord. As his illness progresses, though, his suffering is increased not just by the worsening symptoms but the loss of his special feeling of connection with God. Always before he had felt full of the Holy Spirit, and felt it guide him; now, all he had to go on was faith, and that faith never left him. It was a very powerful storyline, and it echoes the journey that Mother Theresa, and many other holy people before her, made.

Galvanized said...

I think that the Christian life can have lengthy periods of disillusionment. It's not usually like being a touring member of Up With People. ;)

Barry Kearns said...

Sometimes I wonder if that aridity is part of what drives the saints to work so hard for the God they love.

---------

The point is, in the total absence of the proof of her convictions, that God loved her *she continued to serve him*.

---------


My question would be: Do her actions comport more closely with with working so hard for and serving God, or with working so hard for and serving her church.

There is a distinct difference, and I think what some have been pointing out here is that the evidence in totality seems to point more towards devotion to the teachings and practices of her church.