doubting theresa
June 28, 2003 7:56 AM   Subscribe

“. . . just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” Even the soon-to-be St. Theresa had moments of atheism; although this essay is too devotional for me (and doesn't even mention Hitchens's take) it does humanize the calcutta nun's experience for me. via aldaily.
posted by mdn (17 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There's something very moving about the desperation of humanity to be part of something Important. Some of us try to find that in arts or intellectual pursuits rather than through religion, and we have our moments of doubt, too. I was just struck by how even people on opposite ends of a religious spectrum don't necessarily live that far apart.
posted by mdn at 8:00 AM on June 28, 2003

"The chief motivation for the Missionaries of Charity, as she would often say, was not to do social work, but to adore Christ in the littlest and weakest of his children, and to bring Christ the souls for which he thirsts."
posted by angry modem at 8:40 AM on June 28, 2003

Wow: Christ drinking up all those souls as if he were chugging a 32 ounce Gatorade on a hot summer day. It seems a little creepy to me.

I seem to recall that St. Theresa lived for years on one or two communion wafers a day. A miracle? Depends on the size of a wafer, and perhaps she knew some "Breatharian" tricks.

But, as one who believes in the miraculous, I believe the wafers were wee and insubstantial and so I guess that the transubstantiated Christ substance in those "wafer-thin" and wee communion wafers was highly nutritious, or.......her very belief that she was consuming "transubstantiated Christ-spirit" somehow sustained her (regardless of the existance of Christ "on high" or not.)

*cues myterioso theme music, rolls credits for cheesy made-for TV docudrama, "Theresa - Saint of Miracles, Saint of Mystery"*
posted by troutfishing at 9:34 AM on June 28, 2003

In the history of Christian theology and spirituality, there have been many accounts of divine darkness, with a host of different implications. It is an ancient doctrine, emphasized by apophatic theologians and mystics, that God dwells in inaccessible light, a light so searingly absolute that it cancels out all images and ideas we may form of Him, veiling the divine glory in a dark “cloud of unknowing.”

Oh no, head... spinning... blacking... out. If this isn't a prime example of an ad hoc hypothesis, I don't know what is.

The Raving Atheist will probably want to comment on this. You might find his basic assumptions interesting.

What a rare species I am - an atheist in religious India.
posted by madman at 9:43 AM on June 28, 2003

Doubt has always been an important part of the Christians journey - from the parable of Thomas to the Dark Night of the Soul and Cloud of Unknowing which are classics of Christian Mysticism. There may be a 'memetic' or evolutionary reason for this, in that it prevents faith from collapsing into fatalism. If you absolutely believe - 100% - with no doubt at all, then why get out of bed? Islam is instructive here - in many ways it's a much more sensible and streamlined faith with visible proof of its truth in the Koran (doesn't work in translation though for us poor infidels). Over time Islam has become a byword for fatalism, perhaps precisely because it excludes the energising uncertainty of doubt.

But you're right, madman, it is a shocking piece of ad-hoccery. How would you prefer your Christians - 100% convinced or wracked with doubts? I think the latter would make more interesting company.
posted by grahamwell at 1:20 PM on June 28, 2003 [1 favorite]

Faith is a journey, and the dark times are meant to stretch and increase faith. In my case it most certainly did.

And after all, faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.
posted by konolia at 3:15 PM on June 28, 2003

And after all, faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.

What does that mean? I can't parse that sentence.
posted by rushmc at 7:07 PM on June 28, 2003

It's from a Scripture passage, rushmc. Hebrews 11:1 if anyone is interested.
posted by konolia at 7:21 PM on June 28, 2003

That didn't really answer his question.
posted by dgaicun at 7:25 PM on June 28, 2003

There is no answer which is intelligible through logic....but still the scriptural verse stands taunting, beckoning.
posted by troutfishing at 8:47 PM on June 28, 2003

...An iconic marker gesturing at the chasm of fire.
posted by troutfishing at 8:49 PM on June 28, 2003

That's what I thought.
posted by rushmc at 8:55 PM on June 28, 2003

it does humanize the calcutta nun's experience for me.

And me too. It's all too easy to chalk up a heoric devotion like hers to religious fanaticism. Those of us who aren't god-fearing christians must all sometimes sigh and envy the fanatics. After all, everything's so simple to them. They know what they need to do.

But to spend one's life serving the poor and suffering, while entertaining doubts of this magnitude about life, the universe and everything... that's gutsy, and damn lonely. I think you're a little on the dismissive side, skallas. I sorta see your point on the rhetorical level, but how ego-serving is a life of poverty and hard work?
posted by scarabic at 12:10 AM on June 29, 2003

That didn't really answer his question

Well, actually the rest of the passage does, in the sense it gives a ton of examples of people of faith in the Bible. This isn't a bible study- I would have had to go into a bit of depth to explain it, and I really didn't think most of you really cared to begin with, honestly.
posted by konolia at 3:17 AM on June 29, 2003

Having doubts over whether he likes you or not is simply drama.

but having doubts over whether he even really existed?

I see your point, but really, if humans seek meaning at all, they seek drama. Most of us who are not religious probably try to find meaning in art or philosophy or other people, and also try to balance this ridiculous quest for something that obviously doesn't "exist" in any sort of non-human-centric way with humor, and also try to find beauty in tragedy and futility (since that's what's out there...)

This article just made me think that a lot of religious people are doing more or less the same thing, maybe minus the humor aspect - which I agree is important. Taking any of this too seriously (this meaning existence, the world, etc) is maybe the divergent point. Still, scarabic expressed what I was thinking: I always imagine religious people are ensconced in their fantasy so fully that I can't relate to them, and they really think they have everything figured out. This reminded me that most of them have chosen to interpret things through this mythical structure, but they're dealing with the same data, struggling to find a way to make it "meaningful", whatever exactly that "means"
posted by mdn at 8:24 AM on June 29, 2003

But to spend one's life serving the poor and suffering, while entertaining doubts of this magnitude about life, the universe and everything... that's gutsy, and damn lonely.


HITCHENS: ...One of Mother Teresa's biographers - almost all the books written about her are by completely uncritical devotees - says, with a sense of absolute wonderment, that when Mother Teresa first met the pope in the Vatican, she arrived by bus dressed only in a sari that cost one rupee. Now that would be my definition of behaving ostentatiously. A normal person would put on at least her best scarf and take a taxi. To do it in the way that she did is the reverse of the simple path. It's obviously theatrical and calculated. And yet it is immediately written down as a sign of her utter holiness and devotion. Well, one doesn't have to be too cynical to see through that.

...The care facilities are grotesquely simple: rudimentary, unscientific, miles behind any modern conception of what medical science is supposed to do. There have been a number of articles - I've collected some more since my book came out - about the failure and primitivism of her treatment of lepers and the dying, of her attitude towards medication and prophylaxis. Very rightly is it said that she tends to the dying, because if you were doing anything but dying she hasn't really got much to offer.

This is interesting because, first, she only proclaims to be providing people with a Catholic death, and, second, because of the enormous amounts of money mainly donated to rather than raised by her Order. We've been unable to audit this - no one has ever demanded an accounting of how much money has flowed in her direction. With that money she could have built at least one absolutely spanking new, modern teaching hospital in Calcutta without noticing the cost.

The facilities she runs are as primitive now as when she first became a celebrity. So that's obviously not where the money goes.

FI: How much money do you reckon she receives?

HITCHENS: Well, I have the testimony of a former very active member of her Order who worked for her for many years and ended up in the office Mother Teresa maintains in New York City. She was in charge of taking the money to the bank. She estimates that there must be $50 million in that bank account alone. She said that one of the things that began to raise doubts in her mind was that the Sisters always had to go around pretending that they were very poor and they couldn't use the money for anything in the neighborhood that required alleviation. Under the cloak of avowed poverty they were still soliciting donations, labor, food, and so on from local merchants. This she found as a matter of conscience to be offensive.

Now if that is the case for one place in New York, and since we know what huge sums she has been given by institutions like the Nobel Peace committee, other religious institutions, secular prize-giving organizations, and so on, we can speculate that if this money was being used for the relief of suffering we would be able to see the effect.

FI: So the $50 million is a very small portion of her wealth?

HITCHENS: I think it's a very small portion, and we should call for an audit of her organization. She carefully doesn't keep the money in India because the Indian government requires disclosure of foreign missionary organizations funds.

I think the answer to questions about her wealth was given by her in an interview where she said she had opened convents and nunneries in 120 countries. The money has simply been used for the greater glory of her order and the building of dogmatic, religious institutions.

posted by y2karl at 9:56 AM on June 30, 2003

y2karl, I agree that she was misguided. She could have done a lot and instead she spent her life seeking something even she could feel wasn't really there. She pushed through and found faith to keep going, but she didn't have a remarkably different experience than we do, only a remarkably different conception of what is important. I wasn't trying to excuse her choices, as I think they were unfortunate and perhaps even immoral (that's why I linked to Hitchens, too) but I've been through that argument plenty of times.

This just suggested a side of her that I hadn't expected to find. I'd written her off as self-righteous, blind to everything but her own holiness, etc, but it seems like she was honestly seeking something, honestly pained by emptiness, and trying to find a way through it that would give it some sort of substance.
posted by mdn at 11:39 AM on June 30, 2003

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