Wednesday, November 12, 2008

We Swim in an Ocean of Suffering----

I haven't posted for a long time primarily because I've been working on a book. Whether anything comes of it or not, I have enjoyed taking the time to research, think and write about things without any time pressures.

As part of the research, I've been reading a lot on Mother Teresa; and this, in turn, has got me thinking about some pretty deep questions.

I got interested in Teresa because she seems to embody the failings conservative Catholic spirituality. I say that because there is a lot of published material from her (especially her book of letters to her spiritual directors), so it is relatively easy to "get inside her head"----and what there is to see isn't very pretty.

A lot of people would be surprised by this (actually, as I was too.) Most of what we know about her is some sort of generalized feeling that she spent her life helping the poorest of the poor. And to give the woman her due, it does seem that her order of nuns have done a great deal to help suffering people in the world.

But if you read her writings it all seems to have been built on a set of ideas that would repell most modern folk. For example, her primary motivation seems to not have been to help the poor and relieve suffering, but rather to convert them to Roman Catholicism. And her pity for the poor is ultimately because they are going to die as non-Catholics and end up in Hell. For example, she had the phrase "I thirst" placed prominently in the chapels of all Missionaries of Charity homes. I suspect that most people who see this assume that it refers to the idea that Christ suffered when he was on the Cross (where the phrase comes from in the New Testament), and similarly the poor also suffer. Teresa's writings make it very clear, however, that she placed the motto because she saw it as meaning that Christ "thirsts" for the souls of the poor and suffering. Indeed, an ex-Missionary of Charity relates in an unpublished manuscript (quoted by Christopher Hitchens) that Teresa instructed her nuns to secretly baptize dying Hindu and Muslim patients by asking them if they would like a "ticket to heaven" and then mopping their brows with a wet cloth if they said anything positive in reply.

Another thing that certainly sounded weird to me was the way she glorified suffering in a way that sounds like out-and-out masochism. For example, in many places she writes about her nuns as being "victims of Christ's love". And in a quote from Hitchens she describes the pain of a person dying of cancer as "the kisses of Christ". Indeed, this revelry in pain and suffering seems to have been the core of Mother Teresa's spirituality. As her letters to her spiritual directors reveal, after the initial period when her order of nuns was established, she seems to have suffered from a never-ending horrorshow of depression (what Catholic spirituality calls "desolation" or "spiritual aridity".) At points she even doubted the existence of God. The way she dealt with this wasn't to let it spur her into a re-examination of how she was living her life and guiding her nuns, however. Instead, she decided that Jesus had singled her out for the especially excruciating "gift" of sharing in his pain and suffering. Her advisors didn't see this as unwholesome masochism, however, but evidence of faith in God.

Originally, I wasn't terribly sympathetic to all of this---and I still think that it is extremely wrong-headed---but as I spent more time thinking about it, the more I came to think that I understand what was going on. As I see it, we have to remember that this earthly existence is an ocean of human suffering. The Dao De Jing acknowledges this with its statement that 'Heaven and Earth treat humans like straw dogs'. The Buddhists understand this by saying that 'Life is Dukkha'. This comes especially home to me when I go to my local Unitarian church and listen to people in the congregation announce their various "joys and concerns". Even in a very small congregation on one Sunday it isn't that uncommon to have more than one person stand up and announce a really nasty concern in their life---a terminal illness, death of a child, business collapse, etc. As a nun ministering to the desperate poor of Calcutta, Teresa spent a great deal of her life dog-paddling around in this sea of misery. As such, I suspect that she simply had to develop some sort of coping mechanism for dealing with it.

The response of most people to all of this suffering is to turn their heads away and try to ignore it through various forms of denial. But people who live introverted, spiritually-directed lives (like Catholic nuns who aspire to sainthood) do not allow themselves this luxury. They try to stare full-on into the face of this misery and understand it. Mother Teresa was a very simple, uneducated woman from a very conservative Catholic background. As such, she simply couldn't start to see the poor in a social context, which means that she was consigned to the ultimately fruitless job of what Henry David Thoreau would have called "hacking at the leaves of evil while leaving the roots intact". Moreover, since Christianity teaches believers to focus outside of the believer onto a deity, she had no meditative practice to follow that would have allowed her to develop detachment and equanimity in her daily work with the poor. Instead, she had to "put everything onto Jesus". My understanding is that followers of Eastern spirituality can develop the wisdom to see suffering as an illusion, but all Christianity gave to Teresa was the option of using an act of willpower to simply accept it all on faith. Faith was enough to keep her going in a punishing work schedule and put forward a cheerful facade to her nuns and the rest of the world---but it does not seem to have been enough to let her be happy.

And if Christopher Hitchen's book about her can be believed, this faith was not enough to give her any wisdom about the world around her. She was regularly used by evil people who gave her money so they could use her to give them credibility, she seems to have not used the vast sums of money donated to her mission in anything like an efficient manner to help the poor she was supposed to be serving, she opposed any sort of artificial birth control, and, when she won the Nobel Peace Prize announced to the world that the greatest threat to world peace was abortion. In other words, the fruits of her life of service and prayer amounted to not much more than non-offensive charity work and whatever platitudes the Pope had decided were important.

How very sad and empty.