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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mother Teresa What really happened? What can we learn?

A decade ago, on September 5, 1997, almost unnoticed in the popular frenzy around the death of Princess Di, Mother Teresa slipped away at the age of 87. Apart from externals, few knew much about her. Malcolm Muggeridge liked to say, “Saints have no biographies.” He meant, of course, that saints are defined by Eternity, not ephemera.

This year, the letters she had wanted destroyed were published in Come Be My Light. Written to her spiritual directors over half a century, they shed light on the deep mystical experiences that led to the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, a religious order that attracted thousands of young people worldwide while many established Catholic orders were declining. They also reveal to the world a terrible secret - the awful personal cost of those experiences, and therefore of the fruit they bore.

Because Mario Beauregard and I talk about his neuroscience studies of the mystical experiences of Carmelite nuns in Quebec in The Spiritual Brain , Lorna Dueck of Listen Up TV asked me to comment on the relationship between mysticism and profound spiritual devastation, such as Mother Teresa experienced (September 30, 2007, viewable on line).

Lorna and I were well aware of the background noise of shallow pundits opining that it is natural, after all, to doubt ... no one can be sure of anything these days ... etc. To say nothing of atheist blogs screaming “Mother T was really one of US!” It is hard to know how to respond in a brief format like TV, though Lorna does an admirable job. However, a few more things can usefully be said:

First, Mother Teresa was a mystic. That is, in the late 1940s, she was apparently at times in direct contact with God. This is not to be confused with feelings of love toward God, and certainly not with opinions about religion or a resolution to reform or do good works. The “born again” experience bears a family resemblance to the mystic’s experience.

Second, hers was the “mountaintop” spirituality of the great Carmelites—Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux. In September 1946, she apparently had a decisive encounter with Christ, a vision in which he showed her a throng of desperately poor people—the poorest of the poor—and asked her to leave her beloved, comfortable convent life to go and look after them. She obeyed, and the rest is history, as the saying goes.

But a life of profound suffering, including dark nights of doubt, commonly accompanies such experiences. Mother Teresa never had another vision and never again felt the normal comforts that people of faith take for granted. As a result, she suffered inner agonies for fifty years. Why? How could God let a good person like Mother Teresa feel so abandoned?

According to the Carmelites, part of the answer—the less interesting part—is technical. For God to fill us, lesser things must give way. But they don’t go quietly, not by any means, and the results are painful. After that, our love for God may be further tested by pain at his apparent absence, often for a long time. What is absent is the feeling of God’s presence, not the reality. Learning to do good while feeling bad is a fundamental component of true spiritual maturity. During God’s apparent absence, the Christian continues to increase in all the Christian virtues, to do what Christ would do, and to radiate joy. Those are works of the Holy Spirit. They cannot be faked.

For fifty years, Mother Teresa radiated a joy she never felt. She was a water pipe in a desert, constantly thirsty yet never satisfied—the water was always rushing away, to quench the thirst of others.

Years ago, I was proofreading a social psychology text that explained Mother Teresa’s work as a form of selfishness: Helping the poor made her feel good. Well, now we know otherwise. Therefore, one key excuse not to get involved (“Why not leave it to people who really enjoy it?” ) has just vanished. Poof! Could that be a small part of the reason why God let it happen?

Note: This column appeared in the November 1, 2007 edition of ChristianWeek

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