Thursday, August 30, 2007

More on Mother Teresa

This is a good essay:

Mother Teresa's Struggle

August 29, 2007 04:52 PM ET | Tolson, Jay

Pre-publication buzz about a book containing Mother Teresa's private writings, Come Be My Light, occasioned an unusually strong burst of media attention last week, including a cover story in Time and coverage on all the major networks. The big news was that the Albanian-born religious who devoted her life to caring for India's poorest and most wretched underwent a long period of spiritual doubt and torment. Beginning in 1948, the year the 38-year-old nun started the Missionaries of Charity, and lasting until her death in 1997, Teresa was haunted by the loss of God's sustaining presence in her life. Struggling through her doubts with various confessors, she learned to accept this painful condition as part of her Christian journey, as important in its own ways as the missionary work that she and other nuns in her order carried out.

At least as interesting as the revelation of Teresa's long spiritual drought have been the varied reactions to it. In addition to surprise and sympathy, many express even greater admiration for the woman who accomplished so much in God's name while feeling a spiritual deadness that drove her close to despair. But it is the reaction of the devout atheists that is perhaps most telling. In the Time article, Christopher Hitchens, a longtime critic of Mother Teresa (see his book Missionary Positions) who is now enjoying considerable celebrity for his no-holds-barred attack on religion, God Is Not Great, compares Teresa to the die-hard communists at the end of the Cold War: "There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance. They thought, 'Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I'm not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.' They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired."

To say this was Teresa, or any other believer who suffers what the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross first dubbed a dark night of the soul, is to trivialize the experience of faith beyond all recognition. While many believers have claimed to feel a steady inner presence of the divine throughout their lives, just as many others—and probably more—describe it as a journey or struggle with high, low, and even absolutely arid stretches. Except for those who claim that feeling God's redemptive power is a paramount proof of one's salvation—a criterion emphasized by some Protestants and particularly evangelicals—many lifelong believers have never experienced that felt confirmation of their faith.

For many, the reality of faith is best described by St. Paul: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," and often that "substance" is as elusive as the wind. Does that mean that their faith is founded on something as demonstrably flimsy as the communist ideal of the "end of history"? Or are the difficulty of faith, its changing and demanding character, and the fruits that it yields in acts of charity possibly the most powerful proof of its value beyond all merely worldly ideals?

Teresa's spiritual struggle may have been painfully long, but it was a struggle felt by most believers in an age of doubt and skepticism. In that sense, it was truly exemplary.


Ampersand said...

I don't know what to make of all the opinions on Mother Teresa letters. I definitely admire her both before and after these revelations. But, I wonder what definitive meaning we can take from it, pro or con.

She hurt, she doubted, she carried on. That's as much as I can make of it so far.

I read an interesting perspective on the Washington Post On Faith that called her egocentric. (It's the one by Susan Jacoby.)

It seems to me that each of these commentaries seeks to support and affirm their own perspective.

I wonder if it is possible to look at it objectively. Or admit that this new information might change our beliefs about her, or even our beliefs in general.

It sure does make me sad that she hurt that way.

carrie said...

Thanks for the Washington Post link. I read the articles by several of the panelist. Very interesting. Wiesel's was short and to the point.

I read Jacoby's opinion piece. I didn't agree with her, but it was an interesting read. I wonder how she can be so sure of what the letters contain since she hasn't read the book yet. The articles only give snippets. I'm looking forward to reading them all and seeing for myself.

And I agree. Objectivity is all but impossible. Ultimaite, I doubt someone else's experiences with faith have all that great an impact on our own.

carrie said...

Oh, and Ampersand, how did you embed your link like that? I am still trying to figure out why I can't do that on my own blog!! Please enlighten me.

Ampersand said...

Yeah, I think it is hard to make judgments, like Jacoby's, without reading all Teresa's letters. Even then, I think any interpretation could easily be flawed. Not that it hurts to try to take meaning from it, that's what we do as human beings.

Here's how to embed links: Highlight the words that you want linked, then click the little sideways-8-with-world-behind -it button then paste in the URL that you want to link to.

Unfortunately, that tool is not available in the comments, and I have yet to memorize the code, so I cheat an open a new blog entry and make the link there and then paste it into the comments. You have to be in HTML mode (rather than compose) to actually see the code. You switch between HTML and Compose (WYSIWYG) using the top right tab on the blog post box.

Hope that helps.

carrie said...

You are wonderful! I got it. I can now embed links. I was doing it backwards, like it is done on LP. I'm still not sure what you're saying about links in comments, but I will savor my new accomplishment and leave that for another time! ;-)

Ampersand said...

Rock on with your badself! ;D

Susanne B. said...

I wrote about Mother Teresa on my blog this week, too. :)

I'm still adjusting to your new blog wallpaper. It's just like mine, but I forget and do a double-take every time I log onto yours, wondering if I actually left mine or not. :)

NoVA Dad said...

I've been interested in reading the wide variety of opinions and comments on these letters and on Teresa's sense of God not being a part of her life. I read the Time piece (although I'm no fan of Christopher Hitchens and probably won't be searching out his book anytime soon) and watched several of the reports on television, and I may ultimately comment.

However, I've decided that I'm going to wait for the book to come out so that I can read it and see how everything falls into the context of different phases of her life. Chronologically, I know how things were going, but I want to read the oft-debate letters in sequence with others, and really just see how all of these parts of her life intersected, before saying anything. But keep these conversations going; I love them.

And thanks for the hint, Ampersand, about embedding code in a comment. That's great!