Mother Teresa's Spin Doctors

I just read the article about Mother Teresa in this week’s issue of Time and can’t stop shaking my head. It turns out she wrote letters to confessors over the years admitting to relentless doubt. The author, David Van Biema, asks “What does her experience teach us about the value of doubt?”

Usually doubt is a precursor to a change of heart. You begin to have doubts about whether X is really true, look into it some more, and possibly change your mind. But religious doubt? That’s a special case (or is it?).

As a very young woman Teresa’s religious experiences were particularly vivid. To my ear, she describes them in practically erotic terms. Here she is recounting a dialogue with Jesus:

Jesus: Wilt thou refuse to do this for me?...You have become my Spouse for my love—you have come to India for Me.

Teresa: Jesus, my own Jesus—I am only Thine—I am so stupid—I do not know what to say but do with me whatever You wish—as You wish—as long as you wish.

But very soon, and for the next 50 years, the love affair seems to dry up.

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 & thought that crowd in my heart --& make me suffer untold agony.

In her wonderful autobiography The Spiral Staircase Karen Armstrong describes losing her religion, but for her there’s a straightforward solution: she leaves the convent and goes on to find another calling. But Teresa suffers her crisis of faith just as she’s starting the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. She’s completely committed to the charity. There’s no possibility of a “course correction.”

She finally finds a confessor, Joseph Neuner, who helps her interpret her doubt. According to Van Biema, “the Passion was the only aspect of Jesus’ Life that she was interested in sharing.” Teresa writes, “I want to … drink ONLY from His chalice of pain.” Neuner makes clever use of her predilection.

Her doubt, he tells her, allows her to share in Christ’s suffering. Later on Neuner writes,

It was the redeeming experience of her life when she realized that the night of her heart was the special share she had in Jesus’ passion.

This really helps, and she later writes, “I have come to love the darkness.” Aha, doubt is good, but must not do the usual work of doubt.

If Neuner’s spin had been effective, shouldn’t the doubts have disappeared? “The doubts are a gift from God,” she might have thought, “so he does exist, and he is involved in my life.” But no. They continue.

Brian Kolodiejchuk, the editor who collected Mother Teresa’s letters and writings into a new volume (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light), says the book will “reveal her as holier than anyone knew.” How holy? She was in a state of purity “closer to that of Jesus and Mary, who suffered for human salvation despite being without sin.”

You’d think Mother Teresa’s doubts would be just a bit of a problem for the faithful. But don’t worry, says Kolodiejchuk, her doubt is actually an inspiration! (Van Biema, the not very dispassionate Time reporter, seems to agree.)

I can see how the faithful might regard doubt as a part of their religious lives that's to be tolerated. You don’t divorce your husband at the very first doubt that he’s the world’s most perfect man. You don’t give up important beliefs after just a doubt or two.

But it does seem like constant, life long doubts are another thing, and warding them off with convoluted explanations amounts to short-circuiting your own mental machinery. To go even further and regard life-long doubt as tantamount to godliness is nothing short of incredible!

If I am ever in any kind of big trouble, I will look for spin doctors just like this.


Anonymous said...

Even aside from Mother Teresa's atheism, there is considerable evidence that she was a bit of a fraud. There's a whole book that attempts to debunk her status as some kind of larger-than-life figure. The book is called, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

And if you Google mother teresa fraud, you come up with some interesting hits, as well.

(Unlike Professor Kazez, I do want to persuade people to stop believing in god and other superstitions.)

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, I've read that book (by Christopher Hitchens) and it's good!

On the issue of trying to persuade....

If somebody's beliefs inspire her in good ways and give her satisfaction, I don't see what motive I could have for getting her to change her mind. I wouldn't even really have a motive for getting her to stop believing in little green men, in that situation.

If somebody wants to debate religious questions, that's another story. Debate is fun, and I like to be persuasive.