The Long Dark Teatime of Mother Theresa’s Soul

So it turns out that Mother Theresa didn’t feel the presence of God for most of her career. Hmm.

I generally find that trying to dissect the psyches of others is a quintessentially bad idea; it’s usually just too vague and patronizing to be a useful or informative exercise. Our thoughts, motivations and urges are both accessible only to ourselves, and perhaps not entirely in our control. So I’m mostly content to simply accept at face value what someone claims they feel, want, and even believe. Mother Theresa’s actions, her political and moral claims and arguments, as well as the patina of myth and Western guilt that even today helps shield her from even reasonable criticism: there’s more than enough legitimate debate there to be had. Inside, she was just a person, like all of us, trying to make do with who and what she saw herself as.

This particular case of internal turmoil, however, is simply too interesting to let pass without a little comment.

For one thing, it’s a complete inversion of the a commonly presented cliché about how strong religious beliefs work: that the spirit moves, you follow, and all the arguments to the contrary are ultimately the empty natterings of Pharisees. Instead, we have a woman who says that she pretty much felt nothing for decades of her career, and yet for whom the desire to believe and continue the routines of faith was still overwhelming.

That certainly speaks to an incredible level of conviction, and you can of course think that laudable, as her would-be cannonizers do, if you believe that her beliefs are true. But if you are open to the possibility that they might not be true, then this is unavoidably a potential case study in how obsessively unwilling people can be to consider giving up ingrained beliefs, no matter what occurs.

The Time article glides right over a related problem when it speaks of glowingly of how “all believers” face doubts and seems to regard it as a universally happy ending when they overcome them or incorporate them into their faith. What it neglects to consider that many of those deeply held beliefs are things that, say, the Catholic Church’s teachings would consider heresy and falsehood. How can this maintenance of religious practice and conviction in the face of doubt possibly be universally laudable?

That implication simply makes no sense, either in theory or in practice. Catholics, for instance, most certainly found it to be a wondrous thing when Mother Theresa’s Calcutta audience gave in to their doubts about Hindu beliefs, lost their old convictions, and took up different ones instead. And while she was far less evangelical and accepting of other religions than many missionaries, even Mother Theresa’s found her highest joy not in the relief of suffering, but that when dying people in Calcutta cried out in pain, that they would cry out the religiously correct phrases.

What is really tragic here, though, is the fact that someone like Theresa felt the need to keep her true feelings (which were clearly not under her control) a guilty secret, even while counseling countless others. Her reasons for doing so (embarrassment, fear of making herself an issue or risking doubts in others) seem very human and forgivable, but the effect is still just unavoidably condescending. Without question, it deprived her missionary audience of important information about the beliefs being evangelized and the true experiences of those they were considering emulating.

This is especially unfortunate in light of the fact that many religious believers seem to agree that her experiences are an important and insightful part of understanding faith in any case.

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5 Responses to The Long Dark Teatime of Mother Theresa’s Soul

  1. Bug Girl says:

    I heard that today, and was really stunned. I also can’t *wait* to hear what Hitchens says about this :)

  2. Bad says:

    He’s actually quoted in the Time article, comparing her to Soviets who realized early on that communism wasn’t going to work. That’s a little off base I think, seeing as how she never seems to have lost her conviction that her religion worked and that she wanted to work at it.

  3. thefatimacode says:

    Hey, responding to the comment on the Mother Theresa entry you made over at my blog.

    In regard to my comment about knowing previously about Mother Theresa’s aridity (Catholic speak for what we’re talking about) I suppose it would have been better to qualify that what I was referring to was the fact that her aridity has been known about for years and its quite frustrating to hear it being talked about as if it were breaking news. I guess I was just venting my frustration at the sensationalism all of the media outlets that I observed were showing over this whole thing (note: I am not commenting on the Time article as I have not yet read it.)

    I apologize for the ‘Atheists jumping on this one’ comment. That may have been a little overly cynical.

    As per your second point, obviously my blog entry was already a response to it and I assume you were just pointing out the perspective an Atheist, and I would assume you in particular, would have in regard to this whole thing.

    I find the points you make in the later part of your blog entry interesting to think over. Obviously, I’m in no position to engage them from the perspective of a religious person as you qualified nearly everything you said with the phrase, “But if you are open to the possibility that they might not be true…”

    However, I would like to make one observation. And I’m making this observation off of what I read in your blog entry and not the Time article itself (I’ll have to read it through when I get the chance.) But if I read correctly, it sounds like Time is coming from a more multi-cultural approach that says, ‘hey, believe what you want cause its all equal. What’s important is that you feel good doing it.’ I would hypothesize that the writer of the article simply doesn’t care about the particulars of the belief.

  4. Bad says:

    Well, it was breaking news in that the book was being publicized as part of a major rollout towards canonization, and most people don’t read First Things.

    I may have misread Time, but I’m pretty sure that it paints ones’ persistence in a belief even in the face of doubt and lack of passion as wondrous, without qualifying the fact that, well it’s not all good. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, doubts should win out, and I hope that no matter what someone believes, they should agree that we should not encourage people to be less rational and more fanatically committed to a belief in the face of doubt as a general rule.

    Also, the fact was, Mother Theresa didn’t feel good. She was miserable. And the sad thing I guess considering it as a non-believer is that utterly regardless of the truth of her beliefs, she may well have been especially miserable because of her fanaticism, not in spite of it. Or she may have simply had clinical depression, which could have been treated if people could get beyond the idea of lionizing her wondrous and inspiring misery.

    As I wrote in a followup post, Mother Theresa seems to have spent her life being exploited as an extremely simplistic and uncomplicated image of perfect charity, when in fact the reality was far more complicated. And now, I guess, the same will happen in death: whether she was painted as a committed believer or revealed to have had huge doubts, both are taken as just more grist for apologia.

  5. Kathryn Jean Lopez Kant Hardly Reed Good: more on Mother Theresa

    National Review blogger and and Rick Santorum groupie Kathryn Jean Lopez brings us our latest entry in the genre of sloppy, witless commentary on the Mother Theresa story: The similar struggles of Mother Teresa and Hillary Clinton. She makes two key c…

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