DARKNESS LESS THAN A GIFT
Dark Nights of the Soul shouldn’t last forty years. If they do they are less spiritual crises than marks of something else like clinical depression, personality disorder or sickness. The Vatican and advocates of the canonization of the "saint of the gutters”, Blessed Mother Teresa, are both right and wrong to maintain that all the doubts and struggles in effect don’t matter because they are all part of the faith path and only attest to this singular nun’s brave saintliness. Teresa's ultra negative spiritual journey is now revealed from diaries and notes to confessors. These are admittedly records she wanted destroyed but they got saved and are now collected in Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk's recently appeared, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The effect of this virtual autobiography is almost embarrassing to ideas the world has of this iconic figure.
So we can only say “yes but” to Teresa's apologists because while spells of depression, dryness and silence traverse even the most triumphant path of faith there is supposed to be such a thing as a holy joy and communion with God that is just not in evidence in Teresa’s case. It even appears she died in doubt and had ceased to pray. The extremes of doubt and misery emerging from Mother Teresa’s writings (she describes herself as "in hell") and now popularized via Time magazine: Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith, are quite special, quasi atheistic and also rather modern. The nearest notable, i.e sainted, equivalent would be the near modern St Therese de Lisieux (d.1897) who died young and suffered such health problems and ill treatment from associates it would be natural enough she should experience much darkness.
The scale and time length of Mother Teresa’s struggle with divine absence, with darkness and despair certainly proves her heroism (and perhaps actor’s skill to put on a good show) but little more. The original stated aim of Christianity is “that they may know you the only true God” (Jn 17:13). These days when religious leaders record experiences of divine absence and not knowing, there are increasingly theological spin doctors to sell us the idea (in so many words and perhaps influenced by the heretical medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart) that the less we know the better believers we may be and the more it shows we know about God really. It is even suggested that in the case of Teresa the darkness was somehow God’s “greatest gift”. But was it and should it be?
It’s said Teresa herself came – almost - to love this darkness, the stoniness of heart and mind “my soul like an ice block”, the inability to pray or to find a conventional Catholic comfort in the eucharist. Helped by a favourite confessor, Fr Neuner, she even came to imagine all this was the mark of experiencing (but for a rather longer period!) Jesus’ earthly suffering, his hellish but atoning separation from the Father on the cross and was thus the greatest possible test of faith. At one point Teresa even controversially wrote: “Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony but he wants to go through it in me”.
ALTERNATIVE READINGS OF A SAINT’S PROBLEMS
While I won’t categorically deny the possibility Teresa was specially chosen to undergo her extreme mental confusion and suffering and that it should be thought of as representing an almost unique mystery within the history of Christian mysticism it’s rather unlikely. And it’s unlikely because even saints (as even St Therese de Lisieux) could expect to be given some intimations at their vocation of a calling to be so pioneeringly unique. By contrast we find that the Jesus who, if Teresa wasn’t deceived from the first about him, was early self-revealed to her but who after her main career began inexplicably “disappeared” seems to have given this nun a difficult but needed and quite straightforward task to serve the poor as a missionary. It was a task from which in some respects she then arguably fell away making everything unduly complex through imposition of a number of questionable aims and attitudes.
So there could be other answers/perspectives than the experts are presently supplying and supplied Teresa during her lifetime to the perceived limitations of this candidate for sainthood now exposed as one of religious history’s most quirky exceptions whose un-faith felt like a dirty secret. I shall propose four perspectives of which I think the fourth is probably the most important and spiritually relevant in this remarkable case.
1) TAKING ON TOO MUCH AND NOT KNOWING WHEN TO STOP
The simplest of alternative explanations would be just to say that the conditions in which Mother Teresa laboured would drag almost anyone down. She had volunteered for the extreme in despair city Calcutta and she experienced it. Jesus didn’t laugh on the cross. Agony is agony while it lasts. But Teresa made her assumed burden more burdensome by developing rather bizarrely extravagant aims Jesus had never proposed to her. Once she began to suffer in her work, (as quite inevitably she would), she decided she would like to have loved Christ’s passion more than any individual throughout history. This could be noble but it could also be merely self aggrandizing and actually pride seems to have been an issue for her and with her confessors. Teresa also decided the Passion was the only aspect of Christ’s story she wished to share in. This too was outside the normal line of Christian practice of even saints (St Francis who wished to know Christ’s passion more than anyone and was supposedly allowed to, also experienced great joy and built his life around various facets of Jesus’ life).
The original Christian message was not composed of details of the passion but principally the resurrection and the miracles and believers were meant to share in these. The Passion narrative which could so easily have been filled with morbid facts was treated with a certain discreet distance by the gospel writers. Teresa’s minimalist, Passion Only emphasis arguably represented and also hid a falling away from the evangelical impulse with which - to gather from the alleged “conversations” with Jesus reported to confessors - she had begun her career and in ways that echoed the other saintly Teresas, Therese de Lisieux being patron of missionaries. Jesus supposedly says: “The thirst you had for souls brought you so far – are you afraid to take one step more for your spouse - for me -for souls”? In the crucial call by Jesus in September 1946 to go to the streets there was similar emphasis. Teresa will serve the poor so that they will realize his love and come to know him according to Kolodiejchuk, compiler of this latest shock book. In short, Teresa was to be a missionary to the poor and outcast. But she never really was.
Teresa’s programme of mercy missions and well documented record of personal mental suffering increasingly seemed to ignore this missionary aim to the point that according to Sam Wellman’s Mother Teresa: Missionary of Christ, p 114 "when it was said “ There will be rumors you are converting them [the dying] into Christians in their dying moments. " … she replied, "We do convert people. We convert Hindus into better Hindus. Muslims into better Muslims." If this is true report - presumably it was as even this latest book records: "no faith.. no zeal...[The saving of] souls holds no attraction - Heaven means nothing" - was Teresa ever quite doing what Jesus intended her to do or the gospels rule, which is to preach Jesus? By contrast she as good as re-wrote the Bible. What if St Paul had gone to Ephesus to tell Ephesians to worship their many breasted Diana better? And there is no doubt Teresa’s example here has been devastating for Catholicism which has almost abandoned “preaching the word” in imitation of this because Teresa seemed such a saintly example, how could we need or do more? But the question this raises leads to the next point about Teresa’s general character and motivation.
2) POTENTIAL CHARACTER FLAWS
Since no one, not even saints are perfect and I am not a scholar of Mother Teresa issues to have all the facts to make judgment I offer the following critique with due caution (and respect). But we need to consider if behind the charity it’s possible there could have been serious flaws to Teresa’s character and motivations so that the Jesus who allegedly gave her a vocation but then “disappeared” could be seen as trying to warn her or obliged to withhold blessing accordingly.
There was a cruelty in Mother Teresa amid the charity. One thinks for example of the remarkable judgmental attitudes towards those quite justly claiming compensation for the inexcusable Bhopal disaster. She actually accused them of being unforgiving and misguided as though there was no related corruption in India to deal with or suffering to mitigate. Talk about blessing with one hand and taking away with the other and avoiding the prophetic role which is often to denounce! But then it's as though she was almost content to have people suffer: at any rate she refused gifts of furniture and modern medical equipment that would have improved conditions for patients at her centre. Ambulances that were donated were used to transport the sisters around town, (Calcutta Corporation had to supply ambulances for cases of actual need). The sisters though pampered for transport were nonetheless not favoured with even basic dental care while "Mother", declaring she wished to die among the poorest, regularly received treatment in the best international hospitals flying there as everywhere for everything first class. It was a situation redolent of the behaviour of Indian gurus.
Vast amounts of money donated abroad in charity were not used for medical or other immediate charity purposes in India they could well have served but, if used at all, to set up more religious houses overseas often not serving the poor unless by exercises of prayer. Some visitors reported Calcutta inmates, the very young and the elderly, existed in unnecessarily even controversially dirty and uncomfortable conditions. This situation was long covered up and dismissed because immediate associates were so overcome by the assumed holiness of their leader they could barely face reality, certainly not engage criticism. Again a case of "Mother", (a name she gave herself) managing to oversee something half way to Indian style guru cult and in love, perhaps, with the trappings of poverty for its own sake or to impress. (This is not unknown among people in religion born like Teresa to comfortable circumstances).
In contrast to this austerity at the everyday level were Teresa's periodic associations with dubious rich and corrupt people like Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti. Surprising in another way was how she cheerfully advised Princess Diana to divorce while opposing divorce for other persons less privileged – she actively opposed permitting divorce in Ireland which meant including for Protestant minorities there which represented blind disregard for common human rights in the area. But then, what was she really telling people as regards religion beyond the imposition of certain laws as against abortion by secular governments?
Surprising too was the already mentioned (apparent) lack or loss of all evangelical spirit. The gospels link charity such as Mother Teresa practiced to specific witness to Christ. While obviously sufferers and the dying are not to be exploited and badgered in the way some fundamentalists might do and that we don’t see Jesus doing amid his healing work, that people are supposed to be made at least aware that the assistance they receive is through, for and because of a Christ who is available to them is a point scripturally stressed. (Mark 9:42 even speaks of giving a cup of water in Christ’s name). By contrast Mother Theresa would become the saint to justify a modern policy of compassion only which throws such specific witness to Christ out of the window. Though it is possible there was complicity by her nuns in the surreptitious baptism of infants (which if so would be rather superstitious) so far as one can see the idea seemed to be that if people were sufficiently impressed by what the nuns were doing and curious about Christian faith they could ask and get instruction but otherwise witness was reduced to being available to people. It’s very modern and PC but it’s against the gospels which warn that “not everyone who says Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom even if they claim to do good deeds and wonders in his name (Mt 7.23), In short (apparently) the way of works alone is not necessarily acceptable to God where believers are concerned.
So..how much could Mother Teresa expect to please and have communion with the Jesus of her alleged visions for a work he supposedly wanted her to do for him in his name ? What if Jesus wanted people to know specifically he cared as he had apparently informed her he did? People, it seems, were half forbidden to even know this, encouraged instead to pray to their own gods in line with the desire of the surrounding Hinduism opposed to all singular truths. So it’s a tough question to ask, but among the good works was Teresa maybe displeasing God, betraying somewhat the very lover she was always saying she longed for? I am not trying to suggest like a few extremists that Mother Teresa was a lost soul but are the greater saints of India those Christians who are actually proclaiming the faith and being threatened and harassed and occasionally killed for it today by a vicious resurgent Hindu nationalist movement that beats believers mercilessly and threatens even children in Christian orphanages? This is a very different picture from that of nuns like Mother Theresa who receive worldwide praise for an ecumenical “tolerance” that scarcely mentions Jesus in any challenging way. What was the character and motivation of this woman?
3) REVELATIONS OF MOTHER TERESA’S HIDDEN HOROSCOPE
Mother Teresa’s character was undoubtedly highly individualistic and strong but also by nature unhelpfully disposed (with or without religion) to be skeptical and socially alienated. We can rather graphically know this, if by unusual means, namely the astrological which we can usefully examine since Mother Teresa herself once did so - she let a visiting American read her chart (she had no conventional religious objections to this). But we don’t know if the astrologer informed her that she would tend to feel permanently wounded (Chiron, the wounded healer, opposes her sun from “suffering” Pisces) and that she had the potential to be a depressive with her horrible Saturn square Venus affliction (hard on a woman and sometimes a bit of a suicide’s aspect) and at that a Venus in Leo normally needing a lot of attention and romance, a theatrical presence. Since under the rules of conventional astrology this same Venus “ruled” her sector of career/destiny/reputation it is certainly a clue and testimony to the pride issue for this nun admitted by herself and confessors. It seems there would be, and was,constant unresolved conflict between a Saturnian side of personality that demanded she be “nothing” and even felt guilty of her achievements (or felt they were worthless without Jesus’ presence) while her Venusian side struggled to be very much more than this nothing - even Christ’s greatest lover of all time! - an actor on a large stage such as Mother Teresa did somewhat become. She appears to have performed the role of lover of poverty while the declarations concerning this rather easily combined with regular first class travel and association with wealthy friends while the sisters back home got on with scrubbing the floors and patching their old habits till they fell apart.
The quite specifically religious factors in Teresa’s chart are almost, but perhaps suitably, peculiar. The ruler of her religion sector turns out to be an afflicted Mercury (thought, intellect, communication) in her natal sun sign of Virgo and the insatiable last degree of same. She would worry about everything especially her relation to Ultimacy and things divine (Pluto) given the Plutonic affliction to her thought processes. Her already mentioned difficult Saturn was in materialistic Taurus and the earthy emphasis of her natus (a huge six out of ten planets in earth) though practical has more affinity belief-wise with the patterns of atheists like Hume and Marx and John Lennon than the saints. So the doubting of God and heaven (“imagine there’s no heaven” sang the Saturn and Jupiter in Taurus Lennon) wasn’t too unnatural.
However, in profound contrast to this the saintly side of things for Teresa is also well mapped. The religion planet, Jupiter (her “ruling” planet within the total pattern) is placed in the religion house conjunct the destiny/reputation Midheaven and conjunct the Jesus asteroid. The latter is nevertheless opposed to the Christ asteroid which amazingly too is conjunct Kenos (empty) which is exactly how her Christ made Teresa feel - out of touch and with no divine presence "within". From the Jesus/Christ opposition there could easily arise potential confusion around (not to say separation from) Jesus as person/lover and the Christ of faith such as again her opposition of the mystical planets Neptune and Uranus would likewise favour. Indeed, since Neptune rules any visions and Uranus is shocks and surprises and things of the Spirit in religious contexts, the sudden visionary appearances and later shocking “disappearance” of Jesus are hinted at here.
Beyond even these sufficiently tell-tale signs the reported tormented longing for God as spouse, a longing “repulsed” as she claims, is exquisitely reflected in overwhelmingly powerful do or die Pluto in the house of relationships and marriage opposed to Teresa’s ascendant (her persona) in cheerful, optimistic faith sign, Sagittarius - exactly the situation of the cheerful “mask” she wrote she put out to the world while she was in torment about God and her relation to him to the point it all seemed like hypocrisy.
Where religion was concerned it looks like Teresa needed what any astrologer would call “a lot to work on herself”, a work she had probably refused in crucial early years when she had more opportunity for it so that like a return of the repressed things took their toll later.
Insulting suggestions were made by people like the guru, Bhagwan, to the effect she needed sex but she certainly needed more love in her life and could be expected to feel depressed and limited without the demonstrative shows of it no convent would be likely to provide even if and when it approved her. So it looks like she made super ambition and history defying levels of Jesus love its substitute (expansive Jupiter “bloats” her destiny/career Midheaven). Celibacy gives a helpful independence to especially missionaries but it doesn’t always help the individual and shouldn’t be felt to be the condition of doing great works of mercy. However arguably capping all the more conventional astrological observations I’ve made here I have to wonder (and I say this uniquely since no astrologer to my knowledge has explored this), is the fact that Teresa has an asteroid of hellish malignancy conjuncting her natal sun almost to the minute, namely Vipera. My findings on this asteroid incline me to suppose it could well be taken as symbol for original sin and the snake of Eden itself. I suspect this is the source, or at least symbol, of the hellish “darkness” of which Teresa complained and I seriously doubt she had it as a unique favour from God. Anything to do with Vipera is what one would want to reject, resist or exorcize but it seemed Teresa had no means or method to do this. This perhaps approached another failing.
4) REFUSING THE GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT
According to a saint of the Russian Church St Seraphim of Sarov, the entire point of mysticism, religious exercises, waiting on God etc is or should be one thing: obtaining the Holy Spirit (On the Acquiring of the Holy Spirit, which you can read on the Net). It is a fact that there is scarcely a notable figure in the Bible who doesn’t seem to claim special access to the Holy Spirit force. Arguably you cannot be a saint without this, certainly not a person capable of heroic, miraculous tasks or even a person who can communicate easily with God. The Spirit is said directly to assist weakness, to assist above all the prayer hardest to articulate, to give the famous “speaking in tongues” from which Teresa was so very far removed she complains “the tongue that moves [in prayer] does not speak”. She cannot utter and come to terms with her pain. Working helpless in the void in this way is however what some of these modern Catholic saints in contrast to earlier ones (like Teresa’s forebear, Teresa of Avila who did believe the Holy Spirit descended upon her), are trying to do. But it can’t be done. It’s too much for human strength to bear and so Mother Theresa is like a humanist martyr for her heroic efforts just to keep going. Modern Catholicism is nevertheless encouraging this.
When he went to South America earlier this year Pope Benedict, a bit in the Mother Teresa tradition, met with leaders of different faiths but caused offence by singularly refusing to meet any Christian charismatics whom he simply dismissed as a “sect”. This was felt to be an insult not simply because a form of Protestant Pentecostalism is increasingly widespread in Latin America but because up to fifty per cent of practicing Catholics in South America (from what I recently read on the Net) consider themselves to be Charismatics and have been changing the very forms of liturgy and mass because of it.
I am not trying to suggest that everything charismatic today and in Latin America is good and wonderful (my earlier articles on Brazil and on Christian Manners pointed to some problems) but I think one only has to look at some of the brighter figures of the movement internationally to see where Mother Teresa may have got it very badly wrong by comparison. There is a Protestant Charismatic Mother Teresa equivalent (and there may well be more) and her name is Heidi Baker who has worked amid flood and drought and appalling disease in Asia and the worst parts of Africa, mainly Mozambique and Sudan. Like Mother Teresa she has had visions of Jesus telling her to do this work and only this year she writes:
Jesus has mercifully allowed me to not only sip from the cup of suffering, but also to drink fully from His cup of joy. After the challenges of feeding 50,000 people a day, the flood relief, bombings and monster cyclones, Jesus has brought me joy unspeakable and full of glory this June.
Heidi has also had visions that no Catholic saint could beat for sheer strangeness if you want and like that kind of thing. For example when she was at the end of her tether and assuring God amid a national crisis she could not possibly take in another lost African child, Jesus showed her he would always provide because he was limitless and drew bread to give her from his own body. Heidi feels and draws strength from the love Teresa never felt or found. She speaks of a Jesus whose love is so overpowering and infinite beyond words that just to see his face only once is to be helpless for ever, hostage to a compelling force that makes one do the impossible. Remarkable miracles of provision, apparently miracles of healing including of the deaf and blind (some claim raising from the dead) have accompanied Heidi. There have also been exorcisms as she risked her life challenging aggressive tribal leaders hostile to her work and to the name of Jesus because of devotion to animistic faiths that to Heidi are demonic and certainly haven’t helped anybody in need as she has done but are oppressive authority systems. Heidi has pushed her faith everywhere she has gone and there have been countless conversions of the kind Mother Teresa never saw.
Unless one cares to say and prove against widespread testimony that everything to do with this woman is lies Heidi’s has to be the nearest thing to original Christianity in its Book of Acts power form. And though there is anguish, exhaustion and doubt there is also joy and overcoming, certainly not years of agonized doubting even to the point of wondering if Jesus, God, the soul or heaven exist which is truly radical and/or depressive. In passing I could mention that, (though one wonders how she even has time for it!) Heidi is married so she is not so hampered by the potential loneliness and depression of the celibate Teresa.
Whatever, Heidi’s experience compares radically with a God who supposedly “repulses” Teresa’s need for love the more she longs for him, who throws her away “like an unwanted thing” and seemingly couldn’t even speak to her nicely from the first anyway. I have to question whether some or all of Teresa’s original visions and conversations were much more than products of overheated imagination, mere convent vapourings. It sounds very suspicious that Jesus “gives himself” to Teresa on the cross whatever precisely that means - it would be more appropriate if she had given herself to him. It hardly sounds very Jesus-like or even polite to tell Teresa “you are, I know, the most incapable person [nothing could be less true, Teresa was always super capable and organized!] weak and sinful but just because you are that I want to use you to my glory”. Well, perhaps Jesus said something of the kind and he did give her the vocation but if so he is not getting much “glory” for it. It was perhaps the pride she always condemned yet perhaps somewhat fed, that got the glory, as the world began praising Mother Teresa to the skies and gave her prizes and plaudits few missionaries have ever received not least for an ecumenism that didn’t bother really to preach Jesus at all. Far from being “glorified” Jesus becomes first privately, and now publicly, like some mean minded traitor who treated his would-be greatest lover, very ill indeed.
Teresa’s advocates want her to be seen as a holy example to atheists but one is tempted to ask what person in their right minds would want to know Teresa’s kind of Jesus? What sort of divine “friend” would he be for the knowing?. From a certain point of view the doctrine and message Teresa purveys is quasi demonic, fit for a romantic poet like Baudelaire. Teresa declares if ever she becomes a saint ( she had evidently been thinking about it!) it will be “a saint of darkness continually absent from heaven”. She says she is prepared to be the saint excluded forever from the divine presence, willing to suffer this for all eternity. It’s really too strange - too sick even - and despite the spins about “greatest gift” of divine absence it’s not as though Teresa herself didn’t feel need for a deliverance from it. But instead of invoking the power of the Spirit her solution was to pray to a deceased Pope who allegedly gave her five weeks deliverance in 1959 within her forty year tunnel of horror. Somehow none of this sounds or feels right !
THE NEO-CATHOLIC RATIONALISM THAT CONFUSES MYSTICISM
The kind of monastic mental torment Mother Teresa got caught up in (but which a combination of Virgoan “masochism” and the attention loving Venus in Leo perhaps liked just a little to perform and draw attention to) is aided and abetted by a line in modern Catholicism which, while not openly abandoning the popular forms of devotion based on saints and stories of the miraculous at its core, is strongly, even snobbishly rationalistic. Pope Benedict’s recent Jesus of Nazareth book about which I will write more later and which does have good points nonetheless takes the position that Christianity represents a vast “exorcism” of the world which facilitates the extension of ratio (reason) over everything. But this is clearly not exorcism through the Spirit and the whole visionary, prophetic core of faith is thus subtly set aside and with it any communion with the Spirit (which Benedict dismisses as the business of mere sects) that could have empowered the likes of Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa who didn’t partake in the greater powers of Teresa of Avila. The devout self examining Catholic religious can indeed get left, much as one is left in the liberal sceptical German Protestantism of an Albert Schweitzer, with a purely self propelled heroism as he or she seeks to improve themselves and the world. Mother Teresa deeply “longs” for God but she never finds him near or present or notably assisting (whatever happened to even Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God in Catholic circles?). This is surely a tragedy and a serious fault of religious technique (or belief) and if there are even meant to be saints defined and canonized in the Catholic fashion this surely is some disqualification for it where Mother Teresa is concerned. Unless perhaps one wanted to make her out to be the patron saints of depressives - because she almost certainly was suffering from a heavy dose of untreated depression.
The gospels advise we take thought about what we commit ourselves to. I have no idea how much Mother Teresa prepared herself but I suggest if one tries as she did to take on super large spiritual tasks without the power of the Spirit to assist, the result could be more than difficult. It’s like trying to run a car on near empty. I think I am correct to say that is what Mother Teresa – who was great, saintly and loving in her way but also pathetic- was doing.