[This is Part Two. For Part One, click here.]
A question arises: given that Teresa was already experiencing the loss of God long before 1959, how could she continue to teach her nuns as she did? And as that sense of loss continued and even worsened, so that Jesus was absent for her even from the Blessed Sacrament (the consecrated bread, believed to be the actual flesh and blood of Christ), how could she continue to present the public face of a hyper-committed, conservative, and holy Catholic? Initially, as we have noted, she could frame her experience as a classic dark night of the soul. Formed by Catholic spirituality, she knew that on her own she would never be able to give all, to eliminate even the residue of self in her actions; God, therefore, in his special love for her, was purging her soul of self-attachment. In that belief, she could hope for a light at the end of that dark tunnel which had been described by St. Thérèse (whose saintly suffering included a spiritual night that ended with her early death from tuberculosis).
But Teresa was eventually able to say that she had “not been seeking self for sometime [sic] now,” yet the darkness did not dissipate. As the tunnel stretched across decades, she would need a different paradigm. With the assistance of a spiritual advisor, she found one: knowing that she could withstand the pain, Christ was permitting her to share the terrible but salvific experience of abandonment that he had cried out from the cross on Calvary, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Her soul now pure, her suffering was no longer purgative; the pain had become, like Christ’s, fully redemptive. Every day, precisely through remaining faithful despite her sense of abandonment by God, Teresa was achieving her aim of saving souls. She was hanging on the cross with her God-forsaken Jesus. And so at every step, whatever the conceptual framing, the response of this faithful bride was to say “Yes!”
[M]y Jesus, You have done to me according to Your will [here Teresa echoes Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is in a sense the icon of the willing and long-suffering spouse of God – see, for example, Luke 1] – and Jesus hear my prayer – if this pleases You – if my pain and suffering – my darkness and separation gives You a drop of consolation – my own Jesus, do with me as You wish – [for] as long as you wish, without a single glance at my feelings and pain. I am Your own. – Imprint on my soul the life and sufferings of Your Heart. […] If my separation from You – brings others to You and in their love and company You find joy and pleasure – why Jesus, I am willing with all my heart to suffer … not only now – but for all eternity – if this was possible. Your happiness is all that I want. – For the rest please do not take the trouble – even if You see me faint with pain. […] I want to satiate Your Thirst with every single drop of blood that You can find in me. – Don’t allow me to do you wrong in any way – take from me the power of hurting You. […] I beg of You only one thing – please do not take the trouble to return soon. – I am ready to wait for You for all eternity. – [signed] Your little one
Here we see most clearly the essential, if not only childish but also masochistic, selfishness behind Mother Teresa’s career: she wanted to be special to Jesus, more so than his other brides, more so than the rest of the human race. Teresa wanted to be the greatest of saints. That desire would drive her to take a secret vow of total submission to God and to push, even harass, her ecclesiastical superiors – “Don’t delay, Your Grace, don’t put it off. Souls are being lost …. Do something about this before you leave, and let us take away from the Heart of Jesus His continual suffering” – until they permitted her to leave Loretto and work “among the poorest of the poor” with the goal of founding her own religious order. Why the poorest of the poor? Not completely, it turns out, because she feels human compassion for them: Teresa is interested in saving souls from hell, not persons from misery and pain. What motivates Teresa is solicitude less for the poor than for her lover, Jesus, who is not happy.
Teresa’s divine husband is displeased with the poor, not with the rich whose exploitive and hoarding behaviors perpetuate and exacerbate poverty, because the poor do not turn to him for succor in their suffering, do not offer their pain to him for the redemption of the world, do not love him. After a lifetime of misery and a painful death, the souls of the poor are being consigned to everlasting punishment in hell because they either did not know God or rejected him in anger about their lives, anger Teresa traces to a false – i.e., non-Catholic – understanding of suffering. And, believing that the situation causes pain for Jesus, she wants to alleviate “His longing, His suffering on account of these little children, on account of the poor dying in sin ….”
Teresa left Loretto to “serve” the poor from her desire to give something to Christ – to, as she repeated many times throughout her career, “satiate his thirst for souls.” When the eternal Christ on the cross says, “I thirst,” he means, believed Mother Teresa, that he thirsts for souls that are being lost for eternity – lost because there are no sisters to take Jesus to them, to be his light in the darkness of poverty and sin, to teach them to offer their pain to Jesus. “He spoke of His thirst – not for water – but for love, for sacrifice.” Teresa dedicated herself and her order not to helping the poor out of poverty but to helping Jesus – and thereby helping their own souls – by being with the poor as models, teaching them to accept and even embrace their suffering for Jesus’ sake. And she was richly rewarded, at first by Jesus’ loving companionship, and then, when the work had been established, by the opportunity to suffer cheerfully his abandonment of her. Her motivations can be seen in a 1947 transcript of the words that Jesus had spoken to her. Here is an excerpt:
The poor I want you to bring to Me – and the Sisters who would offer their lives as victims of My love – would bring … souls to Me. […] You have been always saying, “Do with me whatever You wish.” – Now I want to act – let Me do it – My little spouse – My own little one. – Do not fear – I shall be with you always. – You will suffer … but you are My own little spouse – the spouse of the Crucified Jesus – you will have to bear these torments on your heart. […] Refuse Me not. – Trust Me lovingly – trust Me blindly.
The Church has taught Teresa that Jesus thirsts for souls. And, while he makes no complaints about rich oppressors, he is pained by his rejection by the poor and oppressed. Teresa’s saintly work is, therefore, to deliver the souls of the poor to him, “to fight the devil and deprive him of the thousand little souls which he is destroying every day.” That is why, as Christopher Hitchens details in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, while patients in her facilities receive appallingly inadequate care in penurious “penitential” surroundings, Teresa travels around the world like a female John Paul II, receiving adulation, accepting and hoarding millions of dollars from well-known sociopaths and autocrats (Charles Keating, the Duvaliers) while helping to improve their images, and condemning the birth control and abortion services that could help alleviate the misery of the people she claims to serve. Teresa serves not the poor but the Catholic Church and its Christ – and her own overarching spiritual ambition.
According to the blurb from John Waters, The Missionary Position is “Hilariously mean.” In fact, it is neither: Hitchens has written a sobering and straightforward account of the dark side of Mother Teresa’s love for Jesus and souls and of her fidelity to Roman Catholic doctrine. Although he wrote his book about a dozen years before the publication of Come Be My Light, Hitchens saw clearly that Mother Teresa’s vocation was to do her utmost to advance the ideology and soul-saving mission of “the body of Christ,” the Catholic Church. If she felt compassion, and it appears from her letters that she did, this was the form her compassion, distorted by doctrine and institutional/peer pressure, took. (We Quakers, even of the liberal variety, may benefit from meditating on that phenomenon.) And that’s understandable, given that she was formed in the Catholic obsession with soul-saving from her earliest days. She would report that “From the age of 5½ years, – when I first received Him [she refers to her “First Communion,” her first reception of bread transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ] – the love for souls has been within. – It grew with the years – until I came to India – with the hope of saving many souls.” When we recall that souls are saved through suffering, we can perhaps understand how a seed of love has produced thorns.
In a section called “Good Works and Heroic Virtues,” Hitchens documents a sad litany of such thorns. He begins by quoting a 1994 report by Lancet editor Dr. Robin Fox, who, visiting Teresa’s Calcutta home for the dying, was surprised to find that the nuns were making medical decisions based on minimal training and were providing “care” that could be considered cruel, especially given the large amounts of money that Mother Teresa had collected over the years but had chosen not to apply to the care of her clients. “Along with the neglect of diagnosis,” he wrote in The Lancet, “the lack of good analgesics marks Mother Teresa’s approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer.”
Our eyes thus opened, we are immediately exposed to an even more disturbing account, this one by former volunteer Mary Loudon, of the same Calcutta facility. Loudon’s first impression was of a concentration camp.
[A]ll the patients had shaved heads. No chairs anywhere … no garden, no yard even. […] They’re not being given painkillers really beyond aspirin … for the sort of pain that goes with terminal cancer …. They didn’t have enough drips. The needles [were] used over and over and over and you could see some of the nuns rinsing needles under the cold water tap.
When Loudon asked a nun why they were not sterilizing the needles, she was told, “There’s no point. There’s no time.” Loudon also tells of a boy who was dying there because a “relatively simple kidney complaint” had worsened due to lack of antibiotics. The boy needed surgery, but the nuns refused to take him to hospital, lest they have to “do it for everybody,” as an angry American doctor who was trying to treat the boy told Loudon. And this, a level of “care” that is reminiscent of the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill against which the Quaker “moral treatment” approach was developed over two hundred years ago, is the norm in the premier facility of a modern religious organization flush with millions of dollars and directed by a saint?
Mother Teresa herself, Hitchens notes, was treated in the finest clinics and hospitals, yet her “poorest of the poor” – and her nuns – were kept in substandard conditions and given inadequate treatment in order to be joined to the suffering Christ in pain and poverty. With characteristic incisiveness, Hitchens writes that “The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.” Mother Teresa put it very plainly herself, in a 1981 Anacostia speech quoted by Hitchens: “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion [i.e., the salvific agony] of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of poor people.”
There’s much more in The Missionary Position, some of which, addressing topics such as Teresa’s assistance in image-management for wealthy criminals and despots, we have already alluded to. In addition, Hitchens notes Teresa’s failure to return $1,250,000 of stolen money, given to her by Charles Keating, when requested to do so by an Assistant District Attorney of Los Angeles; her vocal support for right-wing regimes; her equation of abortion with war; her preaching against birth control, with the cruelly absurd claim that “there can never be enough” babies for God, who “always provides” for them; the secret baptisms of dying Hindus and Muslims. But the essential point for our purposes here is that Hitchens, by focusing on the actual implementation of “the work,” exposes the truth of Mother Teresa’s career, a truth reflected in her private “dark night” as well: it’s all about gaining favor with God (if he exists!) and Church by serving up imaginary souls to her imaginary husband Jesus, who, in practice, subsists in the ideology (and in the priestly hierarchy, which operates in persona Christi) of the Roman Catholic Church.
It’s noteworthy that Jesus departed from Teresa, and no longer spoke his will to her, only after the founding of her Missionaries of Charity was assured. From one perspective, one might say that, having guided her to do what he wanted, and knowing that she would persevere despite all, Jesus had no further need of Mother Teresa and so moved on. From another, one might say that, having gotten her way by appealing to direct revelation from him, well along the road to sainthood and subliminally fearful of contradictory revelation from the same source – namely, her own subconscious mind – she could not risk having him speak to her any longer.
That is not to say that Teresa ever consciously broke faith with her heavenly husband, or that, having silenced him, she did not continue a one-way conversation. Even while doubting his existence, she spoke her doubts to him. Again from 1959, the following is an excerpt of a prayer Teresa offered to him, transcribed at the direction of her confessor:
They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God – they would go through all of that suffering if they had just a little hope of possessing God. – In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies – I have been told to write everything). […] What do I labor for? If there be no God – there can be no soul. – If there is no soul then Jesus – You also are not true. […] I am afraid to write all of these terrible things that pass in my soul. – They must hurt You.
“Of God not being God”: of her God who demands human suffering being, perhaps, no more than an internalized construct of the Church, a way of making sense of a heartless world by divinizing pain and calling it love?
The “darkness,” the sisyphean struggle between fact and fiction, continued almost without interruption for the remainder of Teresa’s life. After many years of inner sorrow and spiritual aridity, and still beset by godlessness, she could nonetheless write in 1983:
Jesus is my God.
Jesus is my Spouse.
Jesus is my Life.
Jesus is my only Love.
Jesus is All in All.
Jesus is my Everything.
Jesus, I love with my whole heart, with my whole being.
I have given Him all, even my sins, and He has espoused me to
Himself in tenderness and love.
Now and for life I am the spouse of my Crucified Jesus.
In the end, the eternally suffering Jesus that had been implanted in the brain of a little girl in Albania was as real and necessary to the adult Teresa as was she herself, despite decades of almost continuous experience that he was a figment. For her, the conflict and contradiction were unresolvable; only exaggerated devotion and outward certainty carried her through. What she and others such as Kolodiejchuk frame as a mystical night of the soul was the experience of a continuous struggle to suppress irrepressible truth lest a life and a self built upon religious delusion fall apart. An almost heroic application of the Catholic myth of salvific suffering saved Teresa’s ambitions from being crushed by truth, but that salvation had a steep price: what could have been – and appeared to be – a beautiful life of compassionate service was instead just another insidious operation of superstition and oppression. The chalice may have sparkled on the outside, but a look inside told a different story.
Toward the end of Come Be My Light, Kolodiejchuk adduces testimonials from others to buttress his case that Mother Teresa was a selfless mystic who underwent a dark night of the soul that was perhaps unique in both nature and duration. Hitchens sees Teresa quite differently, as a relatively simple but egotistical woman who was willingly used by powerful people to support oppressive superstition and abusive power and wealth. Both marshal facts, if selectively, to support their cases. Perhaps they are both right; perhaps a saint, at least a canonical saint, is simply a person who consistently and fully lives a religious ideology. If so, Mother Teresa is a saint, but so are religiously-inspired suicide bombers. In any case, with postulator Kolodiejchuk’s very positive framing of her darkness and doubts, and his avoidance of such practical aspects of her career as Hitchens covers, it seems a good bet (despite Hitchens’s submission of a negative evaluation to the Vatican) that Mother Teresa will eventually be canonized, probably sooner than later. However that turns out, it is likely that the lie will live on.
In the eyes of the world, Mother Teresa was a deeply compassionate person who dedicated her life to alleviating the suffering of the very poor. The hagiographic efforts of her disciple and advocate, Brian Kolodiejchuk, are clearly intended to support that view. (Again, that’s his job.) Quakers should know better than to accept the perspective of the world, but in case we, too, are taken in, Christopher Hitchens does us the favor of providing evidence that the light of Christ which Teresa claimed to be for the poor, a light that maintains the grotesquely unjust status quo by congratulating oppressors while urging the poor to gratefully accept injustice and suffering as blessings, is not a light which we would wish to personify or be guided by. In doing so, he may also raise important questions for us regarding our belief in our own commitment to compassion, justice, and peace: if so, the (in-)famous atheist has done us doubly good service. In any case, Hitchens has thrown open the lid of yet another whitened sepulcher. For that, we owe him our gratitude.
NOTES FOR PART 2