Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Yesterday, Mother Theresa was officially recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint. Not that millions of the poor and disenfranchised needed its official recognition to believe that about the iconic woman. Her sixty plus years of sacrifice and work speak for themselves. Since 1929, the Albanian nun who moved to Calcutta at the cost of her comfort has been one of the defining standards of what it meant to be truly moral. If you ever heard the name, ‘Mother Theresa’ in a sentence, it was usually to compare you to some picture of perfection.
The Cloud of Witnesses
Mother Theresa is intriguing to me because she is one of those rare people who don’t talk morality, ethics, and love out of convenience and being accepted. She is part of a group including Martin Luther King Jr, Malala Yousafzai, and countless unnamed others that are or were living by standards that judged the world by how they lived and what they were willing to give for it.
Though declared a saint by both populace and denomination, by no means was the woman perfect. She had her fair share of people who condemned her, somewhat surprising to many given her reputation. There have been accusations of mishandling of money to help save the people she was trying to serve, but her greatest criticism came from people pushing for the recognition of women beyond traditional roles and concerning their rights. And in fact, Mother Theresa was an avid anti-abortion supporter and drew fire from many pro-choice advocates for advocating outdated ethics instead of modern contraception techniques and abortion seen as more viable solutions to India’s poverty. One would think a ‘perfect’ person would not encourage such divisiveness.
Against Giants and Messiahs
Here is where she becomes the scales by which the rest of our morality and ethics are weighed. While she had chosen to not go along with modern, progressive thinking on handling poverty and women’s biological rights, those who attacked her were often countered by the challenge to go as far as she had for their own values. What made Theresa different from other conservative-minded, religious people was that her actions backed up her beliefs, something that few others saying similar ideologies are willing to do. Disagree with her on certain points if you want, but the one thing no one could say with any amount of legitimacy was that she was bullshitting: sixty-eight years in one of the worst slums on earth.
What makes Theresa and those like her different is that unlike many of people today-politicians, celebrities, or even the clerk at the register-they never customized their beliefs and actions to the will of the masses. They did what they did because they thought the cause was worth it, and fortunately it happened to line up with our view of social justice at the time. While that makes them popular, it doesn’t make them controllable, which is what human beings tend to do with their messiahs.
When we get even a glimmer of someone who seems to have achieved a status that hits home with where we are at in someway, we automatically tack all of our other values on them as well.
‘Oh you believe in abortion rights? Great that means you also believe in Gay marriage too!’ ‘Wow you are against Obama? Awesome, that also must mean you are against gun-control as well’ ‘You believe in God?! Cool, so you also believe then in the Bible or the Quran.’…you get the idea.
It doesn’t matter what side of the fence they fall on, everyone does this by default. That’s what gets us in trouble: when the scales of judgment that were in our favor suddenly start weighing against us. We react by calling them ‘hypocrites’, ‘liars’, and ‘opportunists’, but in reality it was our own damn fault for adding those values to these ordinary people that they never said they believed in.
Passing Through the River Styx
For me the most inspiring aspect about Mother Theresa despite her faults was her years of ‘darkness of the soul’. While I hold no allegiance to any organized religion (a vile word these days), I do have some beliefs. One of the things that spiritual people often encounter is a period where they begin to seriously question their religion and morality. It is called often the darkness of the soul.
Because Mother Theresa was a nun and given her rep, it was easy to assume that she was somehow immune to these doubts, or at least never dared go where angels fear to tread. However according to her postulator, Rev, Brian Kolodiejchukm, she went through almost five decades of doubting the existence of God. It was a private struggle so it did not come to light until after her death and given the depth of human suffering she saw over that time, it would have been amazing if she did not have those thoughts.
Why this is inspiring is two reasons. One is that there is this myth that true spiritual people never experience such isolation. This is more present with members of organized religion. For the former, it can be extremely disruptive and is a very vulnerable place to be in. Your safety net and rationalization for how you lived your life is gone, with nothing but a dark abyss beneath where you don’t know where you will land, if ever.
For the latter it can be similar but is more relevant to the community than the individual. You can ask questions about the branches of the tree, but never the root itself. To do so questions the integrity and identity of not just yourself but the group as a whole. In my own experience, it leads to periods of intense isolation and loneliness that even secularists and humanists would find hard to endure and come out the other side.
Mother Theresa went through this period and did so for decades. Yet somehow she still came out talking about love and peace in a balance and authentic voice that few can communicate. When reading her writings, it’s hard to disagree with her ethics of acceptance, even if you don’t share her faith in Jesus Christ. It’s something that on some level, everyone in the modern world is striving for and yet falling so short of.
The second reason why the saint’s crisis of faith can be reassuring is that the argument that there is no God because of the injustice that is in the world is the first wall many people throw up to dealing with that possibility. I have no issue with atheists or people who like myself want no part of an official religion, but often times it seems many people use the suffering/injustice argument to keep themselves from really dealing with that question. Many religious people when confronting this question often give ‘band aid’ answers. They don’t really answer the question but it suffices the same way the argument does for the accuser: they don’t really have to wrestle with the question personally. This can turn both the argument and the belief into academic quarrel rather than something truly thought out.
Mother Theresa took on this issue head on. She didn’t really have a choice given that was the reality she had chosen to live in day in and day out. So this gives some weight to how legitimate her faith was, again whether we agree with it or not.
The argument for the continued presence of evil is commonly heard these days and for good reason.
Mother Theresa was a scale of judgment because of her authenticity. The arguments we can make against people of notoriety preaching to us almost all fall flat against people like her. There is almost an invisible voice that attacks when we try saying, “can you go as far as she did?” Silent, but loud enough, accusing and soul searching, that automatically makes us defensive like we have to somehow justify ourselves even when we don’t want to.
That is the role that Mother Theresa indirectly served. Maybe I am doing the same thing as others: projecting my own biases and values onto someone whom never claimed to hold them. However it is a common theme I see that runs through these kinds of people. In a world where we can’t believe most of what we see and hear, people like Mother Theresa are needed to inspire us that striving for something better is not a bullshit endeavor.