Sunday, September 23, 2007

I Make My Peace with You, You Old Slag

You've probably heard about the recent revelations of Mother Teresa's agonizing spiritual doubt, and you may, if you are an obsessive Kalibhakta fan, remember that somewhere on this blog, in some post I don't have time or energy to look up, I dissed Mother Teresa, citing Christopher Hitchens's infamous rant about the recently departed though damn near sainted nun.

There's an even better anti-MT rant on the web now--Susan Jacoby's "Road to Sainthood Paved with Good Publicity," and though I understand every argument and ideological tack and jibe therein (and still sympathize with many of them), I am far less on board the
H.M.S. Nunsense than I used to be. In fact, I now count myself among the brainless theocrats who believe, in Jacoby's words, "that Teresa is even holier because of her overwhelming doubts." MT's dark night of the soul (aka "the Abyss") not only fits to a "T" the classic description of this dreadful malady, but is the longest such night I have ever heard of...the Divine Mother has given me little tastes of the dark night and they were more than enough...

But Jacoby's not fooled. In her rather Freudian diagnosis, MT "combine[d] masochism with narcissism," no doubt due to toilet training in the presence of a crucifix. Jacoby's piece is worth reading, and allow me to repeat, she makes a real good point, which boils down to one pithy sentence: "Teresa never showed any concern, in India or elsewhere, about the root causes of poverty--including lack of education, corrupt dictatorships, inequitable distribution of wealth, bigotry against social, ethnic, or religious underclasses, and contempt for women."

Problem is, I and Jacoby and some of our fellow T-skeptics have overlooked some, er, rather obvious empirical truths. Yes, MT arguably abetted as much suffering as she ameliorated; inarguably, she made an idol of suffering. But, as one commenter to Jacoby's column puts it, "Of course had she advocated birth control liberals would love her too, but being a Catholic nun it is a bit much to have expected from her." And I would say it was a bit much, as well, to expect MT to turn down money she believed was going to help her accomplish God's work of caring for the poor and helpless. If God's work was aided by bucks from bad guys--great. Why turn them away and swap a minor ethical hat-trick for actual lives in the slums of Calcutta? And if she were clueless or blinkered about the bad guys she hung out with, I have to say she wouldn't be the first blinkered or clueless religious person in history. Hell, I've even heard of clueless, closed-minded

Even Jacoby admits a more basic point: "someone who observes extreme human suffering on a daily basis would have more doubts than most about the existence of a benevolent deity." In true faux-skeptic style, though, Jacoby bulldozes past this excellent caveat so she can flog (so to speak) her far more speculative maso-narcissist theory. It's possible that MT was doing the best she knew how to do, given the horizon of her knowledge, belief, and experience--in other words, that she was human like the rest of us. Despite the low-grade sensationalism with which atheists and other non-Catholics tend to treat the concept of sainthood, this human fallibility is exactly what makes "sainthood" so inspiring: here's somebody who had to deal with all the crap I've had to deal with and more (boils, living in a cave in the desert, being sawn in half) and yet he or she made a pretty good run of it.

If Mother Teresa could do God's backbreaking work for 50 grinding years during which she was pretty sure there wasn't a God, during which she was pretty sure it was all for naught and there'd just be lights out and oblivion at the end, then for me she embodies the Grail Knight spirit of recognizing that one's task is impossible and doing it with all one's heart anyway. It matters little whether her work really was God's, or whether it was as noble as it could be, as perfect as it could be, as well-intentioned or rational or as worthy of my approval as it could be. Kali has been gradually relieving me, for years now, of my duty to approve of everything that goes on in Her creation, and for this I'm thankful. So no, there's much of MT's career I still don't approve of, but I don't need to, and don't need to make of her an idol of goodness nor of righteous foolery. I do know that God favors certain of Her children with the dark night (for reasons John of the Cross can explain far better than I), and so I look at Mother Teresa with awe now, not uncritical awe but with a feeling of mingled affection and reverential dread; I know now that we are siblings in God's family, but I hope Mom has different plans for me.

Stained glass by Catherine A. Brock, Yulokod Stained Glass Studios

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