Her Good Looks Could Have Sailed A Ship

A new book about Mother Theresa consisting largely of her correspondence with friends and colleagues has caused a flurry of media attention. The reason is that some of the letters document a dark night of the soul that the Calcutta-based nun endured for almost forty years. Much of the commentary has taken the form of relieved sceptics receiving these letters as confirmation of something they always suspected- that faith, even the most robust and vital of Christian lives, is really the product of a mind willing itself into a pattern of thought that defies experience.

Renowned public atheist Christopher Hitchens launched himself into the general consciousness in 1997 with his bombastic anti-hagiography Missionary Positions: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice. In the last few weeks he has had lots to say about the newly published letters. Most of the comment can be summed up with the title of a recent column, The fanatic, fraudulent Mother Theresa.

The renowned English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge became a Christian later in life after decades of agnosticism. Eventually he converted to Catholicism, primarily due to the influence of Mother Theresa. He describes his first encounter with her like this:

I will never forget that little lady as long as I live. The face, the glow, the eyes, the love-it was all so pure and so beautiful. I shall never forget it. It was like being in the presence of an angel. It changed my life. I have not been the same person since. It is more than I can describe.

In the ten years since her death, public perception of Mother Theresa has fractured into two sharply contrasting viewpoints. The first is the traditional view of her as a walking Saint captured by Muggeridge. The second is the new emerging sceptism about this beatified do-gooder. Anything that appears so good from the outside must be rotten somewhere deep on the inside. Much of the response to the letters has taken this form. “Ha ha! She was faking it all along!” is the most common tone taken.

But contrary to this conclusion, I have read the excerpts from Mother Theresa’s letters and discovered a new found respect for this hero of the church. Her dark decades of the soul don’t make me fear her honesty, they lead me to marvel at her authenticity. This new book doesn’t pierce the myth of her godliness, it reinforces the sense that her life is an example to any Christian trying to live out genuine Biblical faith.

When Mother Theresa struggled to love God by loving others in spite of an apparently silent heaven she was testifying to a long and established tradition encoded into the Bible itself, a common experience of believers from King David right through to today. We call these Psalms the Lament Psalms and in a culture that elevates the individual and a church that slips into the same patterns we rarely hear them at Sunday services. But familiarity with these Psalms and their usage would render so much that is written by Hitchens and co moot.

Psalm 73 or Psalm 44 are classic examples of the Lament Psalms. They are songs of complaint where the Psalmist holds God accountable for the apparent failure to deliver on his promises. As part of his covenant with humanity, God promises to deliver certain things. These Psalms rise out of a context of faithful and passionate believers trying to reconcile the reality of their situation with a belief in a God who has promised to be there for them. The lamenting Psalms are not just limited to grief. If YHWH is not holding up his side of the bargain then we must sing out in protest. If God is meant to be near, but trouble is near instead, then we need to voice our concerns. When the wicked prevail, when the righteous are trampled on, when God seems far away, the only authentic response is to cry out to God and plead your case. This is what the Psalmists did. It was such an essential aspect of a faithful life lived in the real world that their prayers were absorbed into the Canon.

The most famous lamenting Psalm is 22. It is the pinnacle of these protest songs and it is the most renowned because it is the Psalm Jesus cries out when dying on the cross.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

It is beyond me to grasp how anyone could interpret Mother Theresa’s lack of experience and discontent at that absence as an act of unfaith in the face of this Biblical testimony to what real faith looks like. The Gospels are clear that Jesus himself felt totally seperated from YHWH. Does it follow that Jesus was a fraudulent fanatic, a faker, a man with a need for a psychological crutch? This is not an impression one can form from reading his interactions in the Gospels.

In the Bible, people lament because of their dire present circumstances that needs to be met with prayer. But the prayer needs to be authentic, not platitudinal. When Mother Theresa admitted to herself and her close spiritual friends that she felt alone and disconnected from God it was a profoundly mature sign of true spirituality. In the Bible (in the actions of Jesus even), the temptation to defiance in the face of desolation is overcome by authentic offering of prayer- these pleas, like Mother Theresa’s are acts of hope and a radical expression of faith.

Many read this new book and see hollowness at the heart of Mother Theresa’s faith. Where they see nothing, the insightful Christian (in fact, anyone at all of insight) should see real substance. Too often Christian faith is allowed to be parodied as a purely intellectual acknowledgment of some abstract claims. “Believing in Jesus” becomes an empty belief that doesn’t lead to any action. It may not be fashionable and it may not be commonly stated but suffering, especially of the wrestling, existential type that Mother Theresa endured is part of the walk followers of Jesus can expect. My friend wrote about her own experience of this recently.

Reading the coverage of her doubts and her anxieties, I was reminded not of a charlatan but a demon. In C.S. Lewis’ masterful novel, the senior demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood thusly:

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Your Correspondent, His will could have sunk it

2 Responses to “Her Good Looks Could Have Sailed A Ship”

  1. A fine article!

    Don’t they have a name for people who lurk around the internet leaving comments which refer to their own posts? Trolls, is it?

    Ahem. Just this once: http://davidwilliamson.blogspot.com/2007/09/true-teresa.html

  2. Taylor says:

    Well written, Sir. Here’s an “Amen” from over this side of the world.