This one came completely out of left field. I’m still taken aback by it.
For the last fifty years of her life, Mother Teresa had lost her faith. In private letters to friends and confessors (as documented in a new book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”), she acknowledged repeatedly that she no longer felt the presence of God in her life. At all. Ever. Not in prayer, not in the Eucharist — never. She was tormented by God’s absence, described her empty spiritual life as one of “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture,” and once described her pretense at faith as “hypocrisy.”
For the last fifty years of her life.
Before I really get into this, I have to say a few words about Mother Teresa. If you have an image of her as the pinnacle of human goodness, the compassionate and charitable woman who selflessly devoted her life to others and founded hospitals and hospices for the desperately poor… I’m going to have to burst your bubble. Mother Teresa was a problematic figure at best, and many of her so-called charitable works were profoundly screwed-up. Despite the enormous amounts of money she collected, her hospitals and hospices offered grotesquely inadequate medical care, revoltingly unsanitary and even abusive conditions, and — pay attention to this part, it becomes important later — little or nothing in the way of pain relief, allowing the sick to suffer and the dying to die in terrible pain. They were essentially warehouses for people to convert to Catholicism and die, and the conversion part was far more central to their mission than either healing or the relief of suffering.
(There are other problems with Ms. Teresa, including making nice with dictators such as Duvalier; taking donations from savings and loan racketeer Charles Keating and not returning it to the people from whom it had been defrauded; her rabid opposition to abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace today”; her non-consensual baptisms of non-Christians on their deathbeds; founding convents and conversion missions with donations intended for the hospitals and hospices (that also becomes important later); and more. Furthermore, when she herself was ill, she spurned her own clinics, and sought out the best and most expensive Western hospitals available. For corroboration and more details, read “The Missionary Position” by Christopher Hitchens, Aroup Chatterjee’s “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict,” and her Wikipedia bio, which includes several references to her critics.)
But for now, I’m going to focus on the hospitals and hospices.
I’m going to focus on the lack of pain medication offered in those hospitals and hospices.
And I’m going to come back to her loss of faith.
By all accounts, Mother Teresa was obsessed with suffering. She believed that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus, and is quoted as saying, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” And she once told a man at her one of her hospices that his pain was “Jesus kissing him.” (His reply: “Can you tell him to stop?”) She saw human suffering as a gift from Christ, something that would bring people closer to him.
And I’m beginning to see why. The woman you see in these letters obviously suffered tremendously.
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.”
“Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. — [The saving of] Souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”
And there’s more. A lot more.
I should be clear that she didn’t become a secret atheist. She still believed in God and Christ. But the belief was theoretical; a belief in her head, not in her heart. She eventually came to see her suffering over the absence of God in her life as her form of identifying with Christ’s suffering, a yearning that itself demonstrated his presence in her life. Of course, as Daylight Atheism (where I found this story) points out, these teachings “further demonstrate the unfalsifiable nature of religious belief. When God’s presence is felt, that is evidence of God’s existence; when God’s presence is not felt, that is also considered evidence of God’s existence. These beliefs are formulated to be perfectly circular, immune to logic.”
But that’s not where I’m going with this.
Here’s where I’m going with this: The woman was suffering horribly at the absence of God in her life. She began to see this suffering as proof of her devotion. Is it any wonder that she became obsessed with suffering as a necessary part of spiritual salvation?
Not just her suffering, but everybody’s?
These new revelations actually make me have more compassion for her than I did before. Ever since I read “The Missionary Position,” I’ve just been pissed. Her vision of a God who wants millions upon millions of babies to be born into suffering, suffer throughout their lives, and die in pain, like a giant human pain factory, is one I find revolting. And the idea of setting up hospitals where hypodermic needles get reused, and hospices where pain medication isn’t offered, seems to me to be missing the point so astronomically it verges on evil. But this story makes me feel for her, in a way I haven’t since I read the Hitchens book. To center your life around your faith in God, to feel a calling to do Jesus’s work — and then to lose that sense of God being present in your life, just as you’ve started doing the work you felt called to do… that has got to suck. Her writing about her mental and emotional pain is eloquent and agonizing, and it makes me feel intensely sorry for her.
But it also makes me angrier at her.
So she was suffering. So what? She should then take out that suffering on thousands and thousands of helpless others? She was being denied the soothing presence of God in her life — so the people in her hospices should be denied the soothing presence of morphine in their lives? She came to terms with the painful hole left in her heart by God’s absence, by accepting her suffering as devotion — so the people in her hospitals should have painful holes in their arms left by re-used, unsterile hypodermic needles, as part of their devotion?
Who the hell was she to make that decision?
What the hell is the point of founding hospitals and hospices, soup kitchens and orphanages, if you think suffering is beautiful and helpful to the world?
And why should thousands upon thousands of people suffer from the ministrations of an incompetent, half-assed charity — funded by sincere donators who thought the charity was competent and entirely-assed — because her inspiration to relieve the suffering of the poor the way Jesus would got twisted into a dark, self-torturing martyr complex in which suffering became the point of life?
The people who gave money for Mother Teresa’s charities assumed she was using it to alleviate the suffering of the poor. And she let them think that. (See above re: funding convents and conversion missions with money intended for charities.) She took their money, meant to help desperately poor people in this life, and let those poor people suffer, preparing them for the next life at the expense of this one. That — and not the smiling profession of a faith she no longer had — is the most shocking hypocrisy of her life.