Friday, August 31, 2007

"We Can't All Be Mother Teresa" - Or Can We?

The recent publicity about Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the soon-to-be published journals and letters of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, surprised me. One author called the revelations of her profound doubt and sense of God's absence "stunning," but I am not stunned at all, except to learn that others are stunned. I am surprised, not only by the surprise of others, but also by the complete lack of understanding some people appear to have about spiritual struggle. Is it so impossible to imagine that people for whom spirituality consists of deep, intimate relationship will struggle with that relationship?

Jacob wrestled with God. John of the Cross wrote about his "dark night of the soul." Many truly holy people who actually bother to WORK on their spirituality find that the work can be hard, painful, dark, and daunting, that their faith can waver to the point of buckling.

I think this is especially true among humanitarian workers, who have to gaze upon the face of the Suffering Christ on a daily basis. Whether or not you believe God exists, that Face certainly does, and it hurts to see it, live with it, try to make it better.

I've read that some have reacted with disdain to Mother Teresa's inner battles, suggesting she was hypocritical to profess a faith that, in reality, eluded her. First of all, I think anyone who has lived a life as generous as hers can feel free to cast stones - after all, you've been in the trenches; you know what it's like - but everyone else can shut up! Secondly, what a total misunderstanding of the nature of a life in faith. Doubt and near-despair are part of the process of, and perhaps essential to, becoming a fully integrated human being - integrated, whole, holy. The words of Madeleine L'Engle are worth revisiting: "Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself."

I get annoyed when people of one faith - and I include atheism as a faith, as I would any other system of thought centered around something that cannot be revealed by proof - gloat over perceived deficiencies of another. The childish arrogance of being absolutely certain and of believing oneself to be incontrovertibly right, and the cloying superiority with which the "right" people criticize the people they believe to be "wrong," are divisive, unproductive, and morally inferior means by which to "edify" society. The irony of any glee detractors might have over Mother Teresa's faith crises lies in the fact that her humility and human pain actually have a greater power to teach and reach others, who might be going through some spiritual striving of their own.

A Time article points out, "Teresa found ways, starting in the early 1960s, to live with [darkness within faith] and abandoned neither her belief nor her work." I think this is the true meaning of holiness or sainthood, right here. It's what Harper Lee described in To Kill a Mockingbird as the meaning of courage: going on despite obstacles, lack of support, the risk of defeat, and near-total loss of hope. If Mother Teresa made mistakes, had imperfections, and lost faith time and again, what right does any one of us have to criticize, resent, or judge that, or claim she is a less holy person because of her struggles? Can any of us claim we know and understand what lies in the depths of anyone else's heart? I think these journals and letters are the closest we are going to get, and if they reveal a person who experienced unspeakable loneliness and pain but tried her best anyway to live a loving life, then we could learn something from her - about our humanity, our spirit, ourselves. Such an individual is just what our church might declare, in a spirit of hope, to be a saint: not a perfect person, but one who poured herself out completely, in yearning and in hard work, to reach the perfection of love to which every human being is called.


Anonymous said...

More on Mother Teresa

Anonymous said...

Over the past two decades, I have come to believe that the most fruitful ground (for me) on which to build my spiritual home is the gray area between the literal and the metaphorical/mythical, no matter what the wisdom tradition. It allows for flexibility without eliminating the possibilities of the miraculous, at the cost of undermining the comfort of certainties. I think I understand where Theresa might have been (presumptuous-I haven't read her private thoughts yet); she was undoubtedly one of the great souls of the twentieth century, like Ghandi. "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" as the saying goes. This of course, means that everyone has to figure things out for themselves if their beliefs are to be authentic and personally valuable. It's hard work, and requires continuing attention, like maintaining a garden. (But you know this) Conversely, anyone seeking to settle any scores or hoping to be provided with answers based on Theresa's thoughts is playing a fruitless game

As usual, a beautiful post. I used to attend as chief of critical care at the University of Chicago - I loved having "a team" and we had lots of fun. In my day, it was the "magic 8 ball"...