Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mother Teresa, Part 4

Kenneth Woodward wrote a nice essay for the Wall Street Journal about the Mother T story. Here it is:

A Special Breed of Saint
By KENNETH L. WOODWARD September 8, 2007; Page A12

Ten years ago this week I watched Mother Teresa's funeral on television, then got up the next morning to write an appreciative cover story on her life for Newsweek. All day long I imagined that she had turned in her sari, jumped into a convertible and headed to the south of France to write her autobiography, "From Calcutta to Cape d'Antibes: My True Story." In other words, I felt Mother Teresa was much too perfect, too spiritually self-assured, too much the "living saint."

I could admire her, but only at a distance.

I wish I knew then what we all know now -- that for the last half century of her life Mother Teresa was inwardly tortured by the sense that God had abandoned her. Even as she went about assuring the sick and dying of God's love, she herself felt only emptiness and loss. The more the religious order she founded prospered, the more her private religious life withered. We learn this from a selection of her letters to her spiritual advisers, published this week by Doubleday under the deceptively pious title, "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light."

The title is laced with irony. Having pledged to live for Christ alone -- "I want to love Jesus as he has never been loved before," she confided -- she found only "darkness and coldness and emptiness so great that nothing touches my soul." The language is reminiscent of "the dark night of the soul" that the famous Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, described as a painful purgation. But for Mother Teresa, the night seems to have lifted only once, briefly, before descending again as a permanent condition.

I always suspected that beneath her veneer of self-effacement Mother Teresa was one tough Albanian woman. She had to be, pushing all the way up the church ladder to win permission for her Missionaries of Charity to work among "the poorest of the poor" in India. Hers became a worldwide organization with only one spokesperson, one decision-maker, one figurehead to take credit for the work her colleagues did. Cardinals and bishops glowed in this diminutive woman's presence. When she posed next to Pope John Paul II, as she often did, he was the other person in the photo. This winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace (1979) seemed invincible. But now we discover that she lost the taste for saving souls. "Heaven means nothing to me," she told her confessor.

What are we to make of these personal revelations? Reading them, I am reminded of another hugely popular saint, Therese of Lisieux. She entered a Carmelite cloister at age 15 and died nine years later of tuberculosis. Her reputation for holiness was based on a spiritually cheerful autobiography that was posthumously published as "The Life of a Soul." Among Catholics it was an international bestseller. Only later was it discovered that her own sister, Pauline, then head of the convent, had removed all the sickbed entries in which Therese described her spiritual dryness and how she feared a loss of faith. The unexpurgated version became a spiritual classic.

Like that 19th century saint, Mother Teresa was ill served by her admirers, I always thought, especially by the almost obsequious deference shown her by members of her own order. Pride, after all, is prime among the seven deadly sins, and I often wondered whether Mother Teresa secretly, even unconsciously, relished the adulation she received. Now we know that all she wanted was to live in the presence of God. Instead, she experienced only his absence. She took to calling him "The Absent One."
A number of commentators have concluded from the letters that Mother Teresa lost her faith. They seem unaware that Vatican judges cited the letters as proof of her exceptional faith. That figures: What the church looks for in a saint is not just good works -- for that there are Nobel Prizes -- but solid evidence that the candidate for canonization was transformed, inwardly and utterly, by God's grace.
From the letters I think we can say -- must say -- that Mother Teresa was a special breed of saint: a genuine mystic. The Catholic tradition includes a rich and subtle store of insights into the mystical life. By that I mean the lives of those men and women who seek to experience union with God in this life. Wanting this experience doesn't mean that God will gratify that desire. In any case, the experience is often short-lived. Mother Teresa tells us in her letters that she once felt God's powerful presence and heard Jesus speak to her. Then God withdrew and Jesus was silent. What Mother Teresa experienced thereafter was faith devoid of any emotional consolation.
But the letters show us something else that is crucial in the life of a mystic: They need the council of others, usually those less spiritually advanced, for direction. No one becomes a saint all by herself, though we Americans like to think anyone can find God unaided. In the case of Mother Teresa it was a theologian, Father Joseph Neuner, who showed her how her sense of abandonment mirrored the experience of the crucified Christ himself, who felt the Father had forsaken him. Afterwards, she wrote, "I came to love the darkness."
In the end, Mother Teresa had to rely on faith, hope and charity. These are the virtues expected of all Christians, not just the spiritual elite. She was one of us after all.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mother Teresa, Part 3 had a writeup about Time Magazine's Mother Teresa article. Their posting was fine, but the readers' comments to the posting were particularly good. Check it all out here.
If you don't want to read all 23 comments, and you trust my judgment, you can just read #3, 5, 7, 11, 12, 13, 20, 21.

The indications of her struggles with spiritual doubt and aridity are truly valuable and even inspirational. In a world of overweight “prophets” who prance the stages of high-tech evangelical superchurches shouting fundamentalist doctrine, or pompously robed automatons droning liturgical rite to snoozing masses, Teresa’s practice of the hard-core Christian Gospel remains an absolute beacon in the murk.

If her inner-faith had been marked by constant, rapturous encounters and visions in some cloister, how could she have ever torn herself away to care for the poorest of the poor? Therein lies both the heartache and the ineffable beauty of Teresa’s spiritual journey.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Albums That Didn't Go Platinum (#15 in a Series)

Excitement and retribution. All on the same album cover.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Mother Teresa, Part 2

Carol Zaleski wrote an article for First Things about four years ago, in which she discusses "The Dark Night of Mother Teresa." Zaleski has some good insights, and provides a reasonable interpretation of what was going on with Mother T - and what goes on with us. Check it out here.

"We may prefer to think that she spent her days in a state of ecstatic mystical union with God, because that would get us ordinary worldlings off the hook. . . . [Yet] what made her self-negating work possible was not a subjective experience of ecstasy but an objective relationship to God shorn of the sensible awareness of God's presence. . . . The way Mother Teresa learned to deal with her trial of faith [was] by converting her feeling of abandonment by God into an act of abandonment to God."

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mother Teresa, Part 1

It's old news by now, but I'm running behind in my blog posts. Actually, it was old news already when it came out in August. But I didn't pick up on the story when it was first reported three years ago. It took a Time Magazine cover story to catch my attention.
I've blogged in the past about how much I hate American news magazines, but after reading David Van Biema's article, I must acknowledge there can be good among the bad. Considering the kind of publication this article appears in, Van Biema's profile is surprisingly well-written, insightful, and even-handed.
If you're a follower of Christ and have never felt that God is distant, then you won't identify much with Mother Teresa. But if you've had, or are having, your "dark night of the soul," then it's worth taking the time to read the article. Grab a cup of coffee, and ponder.
"I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God - tender, personal love. If you were there, you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

I'll Drink to That

"I would like a great lake of ale for the King of kings, and I would like for heaven's family to be drinking it through all eternity."
-- St. Brigid of Kildare (451-525)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Coming or Going

I've been doing a lot of traveling lately, for both business and pleasure. Maybe too much. Earlier this morning, I pulled an itinerary out of my briefcase marked, "9/20 ORD" and asked myself, "Why am I going to Chicago on the 20th?" The scary part is that it took me maybe 20 long seconds to recall the purpose of this trip. Could be a sign of excessive travel! Or early Alzheimer's.

Here are a couple things I've been thinking about while traveling:

I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet
At ATL, I avoid the shuttle train between the concourses and take the moving sidewalks, instead. It's an attempt to compensate for a lack of exercise in my daily life. I've been on and off these moving sidewalks so many times that I don't need to think about the transitions from "ground not moving" to "ground moving" to "ground not moving." But here's the kicker: every now and then, one of the moving sidewalks won't be moving. And usually, I'll walk on it, anyway, just for fun. And you know what's weird? I usually lurch getting on and off. My brain is so accustomed to having that piece of metal beneath my feet moving that it doesn't adjust well to the times it's not moving. It used to be that I could close my eyes a few steps before the beginning or the end of the dormant sidewalk and make the transition seamlessly, but lately when I've tried that, I stumble, anyway. Apparently, my brain is now calculating the distance and preparing for the transition even without the proximate visual cues.

I'm sure there's a spiritual lesson somewhere in here about learning to deal with life a certain way and not transitioning well to new realities, but frankly, I'm more interested in the physio-cognitive aspects of this phenomenon. Brains are amazing things.

Vogue, Glamour, Elle, GQ, . . . and Then There's Us
A recent poll of 1500 European hotel managers (see pages 2-3) reported that Americans are the 2nd best overall travelers, behind the Japanese, and the most generous tippers by far. One category that stands out, based on my own recent and upcoming travels, is Best Dressed. The Italians win this one, by far, followed by the French and Spanish. I'm planning to go to Italy next month, so maybe I'll pick up a few duds while I'm there. And perhaps I need to: the Worst Dressed in the poll were the Americans, by far. I've done my own survey on my last couple airport trips, and I have to agree. Just go to the airport and try to find someone dressed with any sense of style. When you do, it'll most likely be a foreigner. What is it about America that requires us to look like slobs when we go out in public? Why is comfort our highest value, and why are we so aesthetically clueless? Is there any connection between poor fasion and poor architecture and poor city design? Is it a coincidence that some of the world's best architecture is in Italy and France, the countries where the people dress the best?

That's all for now. I need to go pack for tomorrow's trip.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Yearning for Intelligent Celebrities

I once heard Alex Trebek of Jeopardy fame on the radio. He was speaking to the National Press Club, and what stood out to me was how smart and eloquent he was, not just "another pretty face."

But there are plenty of pretty faces out there who probably ought to keep their traps shut. They may be good actors, but they certainly can say stupid things (so can I, but I manage to stay out of the magazines).

Case in point: Jodie Foster, as interviewed in the latest(?) edition of Entertainment Weekly (thanks to Friendly Atheist for profiling this on his own blog). Check out this quote from p. 41:

Are you religious?

No, I’m an atheist. But I absolutely love religions and the rituals. Even though I don’t believe in God. We celebrate pretty much every religion in our family with the kids. They love it, and when they say, ”Are we Jewish?” or ”Are we Catholic?” I say, ”Well, I’m not, but you can choose when you’re 18. But isn’t this fun that we do seders and the Advent calendar?”
An atheist who loves religion and practices rituals for "fun." I haven't read the article, but from this risible quote, it appears this portrayer of tough women has marshmallow convictions under that steely exterior. What good is it being an atheist if you're going to practice religious rituals and tell your kids they can choose their own beliefs when they're 18? What good would it be to call oneself a "Christian" and participate in Ramadan, or a Muslim and celebrate Easter? For that matter, what kind of parenting is it that cares so little about guiding children regarding life's most important issue?

It seems to me that whatever you're going to be, you ought to be it, and stop playing around. That naive dreamer Jesus said something along those lines: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9.23).

Sunday, September 2, 2007