Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Teresa and the Absence of God

This week's Time magazine features an essay on a forthcoming book called
Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. It contains her personal correspondences to her personal spiritual advisors. The letters reveal a profound sense of the absence of God in the midst of her phenomenal ministry to the poor and needy.

The book's editors see Teresa's lack of God-encounter as real and moving within her faith experience, whereas atheists like Christopher Hitchens will find Teresa's words as evidence for the non-existence of God. Hitchens writes:
"She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself." Psychologists will likely analyze Teresa's inner emptiness in relation to her upbringing and/or neurophysiology. Teresa appears, emotionally, melancholic.

The sense of the absence of God is part of the Judeo-Christian experience, so much so that Jesus, dying on the cross, quotes Psalm 22:1 - "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?

In my own spiritual journals I have written many things about my own sense of the presence of God impinging on me, as well as "Where are you now, God?" moments. "Doubt" is part of the human condition, and few if any are immune to it. Even atheists doubt (if they are honest). For example, C.S. Lewis describes feeling doubts about his atheism that came upon him and caused him to think "There must be a God." The existence of doubt can increase the more a person believes. The doubtable object of belief can be anything, to include a scientific theory, a relationship with another person, one's own decisions, and so on. If you wonder what kind of things are candidates for doubt re-read Descartes' Meditations.

The essay states: "Two very different Catholics predict that the book will be a landmark. The Rev. Matthew Lamb, chairman of the theology department at the conservative Ave Maria University in Florida, thinks Come Be My Light will eventually rank with St. Augustine's Confessions and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain as an autobiography of spiritual ascent. [James] Martin of America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book "a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life," and says, "It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.""

The publishing of these letters raises ethical issues. Mother Teresa did not want these letters to be seen by anyone. "The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church)." What can we make of this? I've functioned as a spiritual counselor for 500 pastors and Christian leaders over the past 30 years. They have sent me their spiritual journals, and I've read them and corresponded with them. These journals contain deep personal thoughts. To me it is a great privilege to read them, and a window into real, honest faith. The journals always contain questions about a variety of things. My role is to discern what I hear God saying and communicate that to the person. After I'm done with a journal I destroy the copy I have been entrusted with. It would be a violation of that person's rights and wishes to save them for later publication.