Mother Teresa’s cult of suffering

Ashlie D. Stevens reviews a new podcast series The Turning: The Sisters Who Left that talks to some of the nuns who joined Mother Teresa’s missionary order and later left because they could not take it anymore. It seemed like MT had a peculiar fixation that suffering was somehow ennobling and good for you, and the nuns had to go out of their way to adopt the most painful option in any situation.

It’s a telling detail that Mother Teresa was so intently focused on Christ’s crucifixion. While, as [producer and host Erika] Lantz put it in “The Turning,” one would anticipate that the scriptural passages that would have most impacted Mother Teresa would have centered on Jesus’ interactions with the poor, sick and hungry, she was perhaps most moved by how his pain catalyzed his holiness. 

This was reflected in how the sisters lived in their respective convents, the series reports. Why would you pray from a chair when you could kneel on the hard ground? Why would you open the windows or wear one less layer when you could simply swelter? Why, as in the case of one nun, would you rest in bed after sustaining major burns when you could go back to work in almost unspeakable pain? 

However, as Lantz found out, the emphasis on achieving holiness through suffering didn’t stop there. As is revealed early in “The Turning,” the sisters would frequently engage in self-flagellation. 

Mary Johnson, a former nun and author of “An Unquenchable Thirst” — who also spoke with Salon back in 2013 about her experiences in the order — joined the Missionaries of Charity when she was 19 after seeing Mother Teresa on the cover of TIME Magazine. 

She detailed her first self-flagellation session to Lantz, remembering how the bundle of cords she was given left her upper thighs streaked with red and white lines. In the bathroom stall next to her, there was another, more experienced nun doing the same thing. 

This shocked Lantz, who said that the effects of that kind of trauma, even if self-inflicted, are lasting for many of the former sisters. 

“I don’t think anyone pictures Mother Teresa and imagines that her sisters are whipping themselves daily,” she said. “I know Mary Johnson had told me, at one point, she asked her now-husband to beat her — he did not, I should say —because she craved a way to have relief from guilt.”

Christianity has always had major elements oof being a death cult, emphasizing consuming the body and blood of Jesus and fetishizing pain and suffering with Jesus’s crucifixion playing a central role and depicted in much of its art and iconography. It is all of a piece with its relentless focus on the inherent sinfulness of people and the need to atone.

This should not be surprising to those who have looked beyond the hagiography surrounding MT and her work with the poor in the slums of India. As someone said, she was not so much a friend of the poor as a friend of poverty, firmly of the belief that suffering brought you closer to God. Her focus was not on any measures that might have helped alleviate poverty and suffering but instead on taking care of the poor. That is still admirable (no one can do everything) except that she also hobnobbed with some of the worst people on the planet such as the Duvaliers in Haiti, whose actions created a great deal of poverty and suffering. She was willing to praise them and intercede on their behalf because they gave her order large sums of money, even though that money was stolen from the people of Haiti.

It has been revealed after her death that MT struggled with doubt, desperately seeking a sign from her god that he existed. What surprised me is that she did not get such a sign, since the very pious are so desperate for affirmation that they can interpret almost anything, even images on toast, as a sign of their god’s favor..

One wonders whether, as she struggled with her own doubts, she also had doubts about the regimen of pain and deprivation she was putting the nuns in her order through.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I recently got into a discussion with some (I suspect) atheist Libertarian sympathizers on a non-FtB forum, who argued that the liberal concept of privilege was analogous to the Christian concept of sin, in that both were something you were born into and were obliged to make sacrifices to help the less fortunate in order to expiate.
    I argued that, at least in my interpretation of privilege, the “you should feel guilty for being who you are” message was an unfortunate misinterpretation, and that, while we definitely should try to even the playing field and remove obstacles in order to help everyone get a fair shot, our motivation should be a sense of fairness, not guilt.
    But I think it’s useful to remember that, for some at least, privilege can be used as the same kind of “morality hammer” that sin is within many churches. Liberals from our neck of the woods ought to push back against this usage, IMO.

  2. says

    Wasn’t Mother Teresa also a hypocrite? She wanted other people to be poor and in pain while she herself enjoyed wealth, luxuries, and professional medical care that aims to diminish pain.

    brucegee1962 @#1

    I argued that, at least in my interpretation of privilege, the “you should feel guilty for being who you are” message was an unfortunate misinterpretation, and that, while we definitely should try to even the playing field and remove obstacles in order to help everyone get a fair shot, our motivation should be a sense of fairness, not guilt.

    That’s a terrible misinterpretation. For example, I definitely wouldn’t want cis people to feel guilty about being cis. I just wish them to change a few laws so that I could change my legal name and get some medical procedures that I currently cannot obtain. Nor would I want men to feel guilty about being born male. Instead I want the society as a whole to put an end to sexist discrimination.

    When I say that for straight cis white men some good things in life are easier to obtain (namely, they have some privileges), I don’t want to evoke guilt, I just wish for people to become more aware about certain social inequalities and, at the very least, stop opposing proposed legal and social changes. It’s not like I expect all white dudes to become activists fighting for equality. If they merely stopped opposing and arguing against proposals to end various forms of bigotry, that would be good enough.

  3. Marja Erwin says

    Right. A lot of privilege is about rights that the privileged person probably has, that everyone should have, that the privileged person may not know that other people don’t have.

  4. mediagoras says

    If she didn’t have doubts about the pain and deprivation she put others through, then perhaps she was vengeful or a sadist. I guess people have the right to deliberately suffer, if they want—they just shouldn’t try to bring the rest of us along with them.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    @2 and @3, I definitely agree with both of you. I do think that a few folks on our side use some of the language of guilt when they’re talking about privilege — or at least they are seen to be using it. I just want to encourage people to avoid using that language, because those supporting the status quo will be only to eager to leap upon it as justification for their comfort in not lifting a finger to change anything that would impinge upon their comfort.

  6. hatstand says

    She spent a lot of money on medicines for the poor, but nothing on painkillers.

  7. publicola says

    Perhaps she thought she was cleansing their souls to have a better chance at getting into heaven. It’s twisted thinking, which is what I’ve come to expect from fanatical/conservative christianity. Still no excuse for encouraging sado-masochism.

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