Mother Teresa: The Enigma

Since the 2007 publishing of her letters in which she strongly expresses her continued religious doubt, I’ve felt a strong kinship with Mother Teresa.  Not because I do comparable good works, but because I can relate to her continual questioning about the nature and existence of God, and the meaning of human experience.

David Van Biema, of the Religion News Service (published in the sltrib.com; 7 Sep 2012), has recently reminded us of the enigma that is Mother Teresa:

On Sept 5, 1997, the world mourned when Mother Teresa . . . died of a heart ailment at age 87.

Exactly 10 years later, the world did a double take when a volume of Teresa’s private letters revealed that the tireless, smiling nun spent the previous 39 years of her life in internal agony.  Jesus, she wrote, no longer seemed present to her, in prayer or even in the Eucharist.  In letter after tormented letter she described an unrelenting spiritual “dryness,” a “torturing pain.”  Her smile was “a big cloak” of deception.  She admitted at one point to doubting God’s existence.  Eventually she apparently became reconciled to her condition; but as far as we know, she died with it.

The news was disorienting. . . .  Her Catholic Church remained unperturbed:  Pope John Paul II had already alluded to her “inner darkness” as a “test” she had aced.  Yet for many the question remained:  How, short of hypocrisy or a psychotic break, could such alienation coexist with such obvious devotion?

The paradox still shock me.

I can’t say that it really shocks me.  Here we have a woman who has dedicated her life to helping the poorest of the poor.  We can only imagine what horrors she witnessed.  If you multiply this suffering times the billions who have had to endure it, how could you not question the very roots of your belief structure?  Why has God foresaken all these people?

But frequently devoid of faith, and for whatever reason, she continued her work with the poor in Calcutta, India, and eventually expanded her mission around the world.  So, for 39 years of her life, overcome with doubt, she continued her ministry to those who most needed it.  It would seem that if we were to look at Mother Teresa’s motives, suddenly they become more altruistic.  Doubt and good works can coexist in the same person.

Van Biema goes on:

[T]he 2007 Mother Teresa is more compelling than the 1997 model.  A woman who does great works for God is a paragon.  One who does them while overcome with loneliness and doubt is a fascination. . . .  [S]he may be less easily fathomed than the smiley Mother–but once considered, she is harder to forget.

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10 Responses to Mother Teresa: The Enigma

  1. Allen says:

    “Why has God foresaken all these people?”

    He hasn’t forsaken them. He works through natural laws of nature and human relations. There will always be rich people, poor people, and people in between. There will always be educated people and illiterate people. That’s just the way mortal life is. God inspires people of all nations, of all religious beliefs, to help the poor. We have our agency to choose what we will do with our opportunities. Mother Teresa chose to live with the poor and to do what she could to help them. Various groups choose to do humanitarian work to help others. You and I choose to help others, or to not help others, within the means and opportunities that we have.

    God could step in and give everyone food and shelter through miraculous means. But what would it accomplish? Not much. People would become dependent on miracles for their livelihood. We wouldn’t learn to give service to others. In Moses 1:39 we learn that God’s purpose in all things is the immortality and eternal life of his children. This means that we have to learn to give and to receive service. We have to learn to truly love others. If there were no poor people, people in need, we wouldn’t learn to help them, and we would never become like our Father in Heaven. It’s sad to see poor people living in unimaginable conditions, but in the resurrection they will be blessed, and through work for the dead, they will have full opportunities to receive the Gospel and to grow within that Gospel. They are growing now as they learn to rise up above their poverty and to seek better conditions in their lives. They are growing now as they learn not to be critical of their conditions. They are growing now as they learn to share what little they have and to be grateful for the little they have.

  2. roger hansen says:

    Hi Allen, This doesn’t sound like a very compelling argument to me. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that in this large pagaent that we call life, billions must suffer, so millions can be tested. Are you suggesting that the billions living hand-to-mouth are just actors in a play designed to test a few.

    If you are saying that this earthly existence is a test for everybody, then why is my test so much different than the test for someone who has few opportunities other than to figure out how to survive? From my perspective, this earthly-sojourn process that you outline is difficult to comprehend. Why so many poor? For Mother Teresa to have seen what she must have seen, it is certainly easy for me to understand her doubt.

    • Allen says:

      Hi Roger,

      God doesn’t create the conditions in which poor people live. People create those conditions through their agency. God doesn’t create the misery and suffering that plagues many if not a majority of people on earth. People create that misery and suffering. Misery and suffering are part of mortality. Rich people and poor people are part of mortality. God doesn’t choose to send his children into conditions of misery and suffering. People in those conditions choose to have children, and God sends his children in response.

      I believe that life is a test for all people, not just for the millions that you referred to in your comment. Mortality is the time for God’s children to experience mortal life. Some people experience it by being born into wealthy homes. Other people experience it by being born into poor homes. Everyone experiences mortality and grows from their experiences. All people will be judged by how they react to their mortal conditions.

      Misery and suffering will be eliminated by the actions of people, not by miraculous intervention from God. We caused misery and suffering, and it is up to us to eliminate it.

  3. dor says:

    It is easy to see the world from our perspective, to justify the suffering of others so that we can feel relieved and comfortable. But to do so fails to acknowledge that we, if born in another place, would be the ones that suffer, that we come by grace as much by luck or chance as by God. With that failure we blame the poor for their plight and inadvertently relieve ourselves of the responsibility for both examining how we cause the suffering and how we choose (or not) to intervene.
    It is also easy too to romanticize God and the saints. We, who get our lore from novelists and screenwriters, like a certain narrative arc, a tidy ending (whether happy or ironic). But God is complex and messy and paradoxical. God is a myth and a presence; intervening and absent; loving and a cruel trickster.
    Mother Teresa embodied God even as she doubted God’s existence and, in so doing, redefined faith for the modern age. She showed us God as a Mobius strip: she taught that faith is not belief; it is acting in accordance with our image of God in spite of evidence to the contrary and that action brings that God into being. It is the kind of faith that you, Roger, also embody.

    • roger hansen says:

      One of my problems is that I have trouble imaging God as “messy” and as a “cruel trickster.” During the periods when I want to believe in God, I want him to be hands off, “complex,” and progressing. But maybe your image and my image are really the same thing.

      While I was living in France, I read some of the books and essays of Albert Camus, and his “absurdism” seemed to make more sense than most of my Mormon beliefs. I really struggle understanding the meaning of life. Next summer, I hope to get to Lourmarin, France, where Camus is buried. I want to burn a candle on his grave. He either screwed up my life, or unscrewed it. It just depends on your perspective.

  4. dor says:

    Perspective is everything. The lens through which we view our world — joy and hardship included – often makes the difference between Heaven and Hell.
    With “messy” and “cruel trickster” the perspective of a personified God vs. a chaotic force matters. If there is intentional design in violence, poverty and disease, faith becomes (for me) impossible. But if there is a connecting force, that which creates ecosystem, that which creates the lived unity experiences of our lives then God is possible, faith is possible and prayer and miracle are can coincide with science; Mother Teresa could be both an agent of God and an unbeliever.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      It sounds like you are getting dangerously close to gnosticism, where the earth is created by an evil force, while God above remains detached (I hope I’m doing gnosticism justice!). I can somewhat understand the agruments about good and evil (for example, there is no good without evil), but I struggle with magnitude of poverty, and the excusivity of a comparatively wealthy few. This “misallocation” of resources is just crazy, and for me incomprehensibly unjust. If God had a hand in the creation of the Earth, then doesn’t he have a hand in what has occurred historically and what is happening presently? How detached are you making God?

  5. dor says:

    I am more of a Christian existentialist than a Gnostic (though always room for overlap).
    How detached is God? As detached as the majority of the human population. For me, God and the whole of humanity are closely linked. God is the whole of humanity plus the whole of creation. Mother Teresa acted as if God existed even as she doubted that God existed. Because she did, she called God into being.
    We are called to cooperate with the transcendent but not to abdicate responsibility to God. Personally I do not believe that God “planned” for some people to be poor and others to be wealthy. To me, such a notion flies in the face of what God is: a force, an idea, a drive, a way of being, and Being itself.
    To be Christian means that we do not accept the inequity and injustice, but that rather we use our gifts to aid others, without judging or assuming that there is a reason for anyone to be in need. We all have poverty of one kind or another; for some it may be a poverty of food, for others it may be a poverty of heart.

    • rogerdhansen says:

      I’m not sure about my Christianity anymore. I don’t really understand the need for an atonement. I’m closer to Jefferson’s concept of Jesus (where the Jefferson Bible took all the miracles out of the NT).

      So how would you describe God? For Mormons, He (and I mean He) is a distinct being. I sense with your writing that he is something more nebulous. I suspect that during the times I do believe in God, He is more along the lines of how Process Theologians might describe him.

      Do you see any God created purpose in life?

  6. Pingback: Terryl and Fiona Givens on Doubt (and Questions) | Tired Road Warrior

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