Monday, September 10, 2007

Mother Teresa's faith

The media has been very interested in Mother Teresa lately and the revelation that she struggled mightily to hold on to her faith, even her conviction about the very existence of God. Although some have labeled her a hypocrite, most seem alternately puzzled and pleased that a modern-day saint would question her relationship with God while never releasing her hold on a sacred calling. I'm pretty sure that most people of faith smiled wryly at the news and said to themselves, "Well, yes. Of course. Nothing so dramatic there."

Mowgli, who is something of a Christian agnostic (he can identify more of what he doesn't believe than what he does at this point, but retains a basic love for Jesus), was very excited by the news. One of his great complaints about church (and there are many) is that it has always felt inauthentic to him--people claiming to experience God in ways that seemed to him to be better explained by psychology or wishful thinking, or worse, emotional manipulation. So, the recent revelations about Mother Teresa have given him new enthusiasm about his own faith and doubt and commitment to mysticism as a spiritual path. I imagine that's true for many people.

There are a couple of things that have captured my attention, though. As I've read some of the excerpts of Mother Teresa's letters, I've noticed that she has a personality that seems to lend itself to narcissism and grandiosity. She describes wanting to love Jesus as no one has ever loved him before, to achieve things in his name that are beyond human comprehension. I think it makes sense, then, that her own sins seem to her to be worse than anyone else's, that her struggles to feel God's presence seem to her to go beyond what others experience.

As I read the excerpts, I think I also detected a certain amount of self-rejection--as if Christian self-denial meant denying herself even the comforts of faith. She sees herself at times as helping Jesus to carry out the work on the cross by remaining in a state of being forsaken by God.

The other thing is a little more personal. Back in May, while we were staying in the little apartment, I realized while talking with a friend that my life with God had recently felt more alive, a little easier. The doubt that always grips me seemed to have me by the ankle instead of by the throat. I understood intuitively that my easier faith was related somehow to not working every day--less busyness, more time for contemplation, for example. But I realized in a flash of deep awareness that what had changed was my daily exposure to the deep suffering of hurting people. I had never realized what a heavy burden that was for my faith to carry and how weary I had become.

So, I would never compare myself to Mother Teresa but I do have great sympathy for her. I, too, can be very narcissistic in my faith and in my doubt. I can try to help Jesus save me and others by denying myself forgiveness and consolation. And I sometimes find the enormous pain and suffering in the world to stand like an ominous sentry between me and faith, denying me entrance.

I am not at all surprised to know that Mother Teresa suffered in her quest to know God, only sad that she was not able to find comfort in it, sad that her requests for privacy were not honored, and sad that many have judged her harshly. I feel great mercy for her. I believe God does, too.

1 comment:

Electric Monk said...

I remember one of the things that struck me most about Mother Teresa's death was, for lack of a better phrase, its poor timing. It happened six days after the tragic death of Princess Diana, and so was completely overshadowed.

Now don't mistake what I'm about to say: Diana did some amazing things, and set a high standard for philanthropic work among the wealthy. But I was always saddened that the passing of someone like Mother Teresa, someone who truly lived for the good of others at the expense of herself, was second-page news next to the bizarre death of the princess.