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.