September 24, 2007
Mother Teresa's Agony
— Martin E. Marty
Once when Mormon origins were being radically questioned by a man who turned out to be a forger, I asked Jan Shipps, foremost Gentile scholar of Latter-Day Saints, what if the publicized fake documents turned out to be authentic? Wouldn't such shaking of the foundations bring down the whole edifice? No, she reminded me: The faithful have ways, indefinite and maybe infinite, of responding with new explanations. Without cynicism, Shipps noted that religions do not get killed by surprises that would seem to necessitate revision.
I thought of Shipps' dictum this month when a beautifully sad or sadly beautiful book by the late Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, saw the light of day and met the glare of publicity. Aha! was the instant and general response of well-selling a-theists: This shows that a character on the way to sainthood was inauthentic, and her failure to experience God "proves" God's non-existence.
Not to worry, was the main literate Catholics' response. Catholic apologists and experts on mysticism addressed Teresa's agony over her non-experience of God and her disappointment in the Jesus in whom she believed but whom she did not experience. They scrambled to show how her story would more likely lead people to the search for faith than it would disappoint them and drive them away. But if Mother Teresa had trouble feeling the presence of God, wrote critics, the old hypocrite should not have hung in there as a model, a self-sacrificing but not always easy to applaud rigorist. We were told that she would be a challenge to every right-thinking and right-experiencing Catholic.
Wrong. Her published diary is likely to sell as well as those attacking her. From what I have read, it is a cry of the heart to a heaven evidently empty and silent to her: "Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?" In response, historically informed commentators reached back to the Psalms or medieval precedent for analogies. Those familiar with mysticism were ready with "Is this the first time you've heard of this?" or "Let's make this a teaching opportunity." Eileen Marky in September 14th's National Catholic Reporter laid it out well, as did colleagues in most weekly Catholic and many Protestant papers. Most asked what any of this had to do with the existence of God.
Then followed, in most accounts, learned revisitations of believers who had doubts or were victims of what medievalists called accidie or, deeper than that, "The Dark Night of the Soul." While few who value the experience of God's presence would envy Mother Teresa, most expressed sympathy to a now deceased figure who always offered compassion but did not always receive it. The Jan Shipps dictum did not even have to be put to work. Catholics and other Christians did not need to reinvent the faith--austere, threatening experiences like Teresa's are as old as faith itself. It was asked: If there are bright sides to this darkness or palpitations to replace the numbnesses of spirit, so that the darkness can be, conditionally, a boon, why don't believers put more energy into preparing their fellow devotionalists, showing that such silence may be in store for them, and then telling them not to fear.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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