Mother Teresa on the couch

It is rare that I am riveted by a news story. Yet this story (and its many variants) had me riveted. It appears that Mother Teresa (the Roman Catholic nun who founded the Sisters of Charity, and who spent fifty years caring for the least of our brethren, mostly in the slums of Calcutta) largely did not feel the presence of the God she served.

What is next? Will we see secret diaries of Adolf Hitler saying how much he loved and admired the Jews? The irony is that Mother Teresa’s feelings, articulated only to a series of confidential confessors over many years, seems to be one of the reasons that she will be elevated to sainthood. It appears that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, being disconnected from the Jesus she believed means she suffered, like Jesus on the cross, so that makes her even holier. Perhaps her experience is somewhat akin to the forty days and forty nights that the Bible says Jesus spent in the desert tormented by the Devil. For Jesus though, forty days and nights was enough. Mother Teresa spent more than fifty years consumed by her humanitarian work while rigidly towing the Catholic line. Yet she did this apparently without the consuming zeal of a religious devotee.

Well knock me over with a soda straw! Yet, some part of me was unsurprised. I have discussed Mother Teresa in bits and pieces in a variety of other blog entries. While I cannot but help admire her and feel astonished by the scope of her humanitarian work, some part of me was also appalled. Perhaps I could understand her if it she found passion in her work, but apparently, that was not the case. She loathed it. Seeing such wretched people day in and day out for fifty years, by her own admission, filled her with immense inner pain and suffering. And yet she soldiered on, put on a happy face and towed the Catholic line all while feeling nothing from the God she worshiped and served.

Just who was Mother Teresa anyhow? Judging from her works the answer is clear. She was a humanitarian the likes of which will probably not recur for many centuries. Judging from the divergence between her public words and private thoughts, she was also something of a hypocrite. I hasten to add that her hypocrisy was not the type deserving chastisement. Hypocrisy is typically manifested as selfish or immoral behavior while pretending the opposite. That was not the case here.

It appears that Mother Teresa was a hypocritical humanist. Humanists like Mother Teresa and me generally do not feel the presence of a personal God in our lives. We believe that relieving the suffering of our fellow humans is nonetheless a worthwhile goal. We believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity and that includes rich and poor, as well as the moral and the reviled. Mother Teresa followed the Catholic faith, but appeared to receive no enrichment from it. Receiving the Eucharist, for example, sparked no closer feelings toward God. She followed and advocated the teachings of the Church but they did not provide her with the passion that motivated her to do her work. Rather than taking care of the wretched out of a feeling of passion, she did her work because she said she said she was called by God to do so.

What does it mean to consume your life doing something that fundamentally disagrees with you? Is this virtuous or insane? If I started cutting myself like many teenagers do I would be up to my armpits in therapists. It is generally understood that actions that are self-destructive are harmful. In her confessions, Mother Teresa acknowledges that her actions wreaked a dreadful psychological toll on her. Her actions helping the poor were clearly virtuous but the 24/7/365 nature of her work suggests to me that most clinical psychologists would say she was also mentally ill.

Perhaps it must go this way if you are angling for sainthood. Mother Teresa went out of her way to not draw attention to herself. She was obsessive about being used as a means for people to find Jesus and Catholicism. If she were to take any pride in her accomplishments, she would perceive this as sinful in itself. The primary criteria for sainthood then seems to be the ability of the human will to persistently engage in actions perceived by the Catholic Church as beneficial yet contrary to our human nature. In other words to be a saint, you have to unlearn or deny yourself the right of personal happiness.

Yet it appears that as much as Mother Teresa tried, she could not stop feeling like a human being. Underneath her saintly demeanor was a thinking and passionate woman. Where she “succeeded” was in ruthlessly repressing her own human nature. This strikes me as tragic.

Some years back I wrote about toxic shame. I was introduced to it by the noted therapist John Bradshaw, who wrote this book on the subject. Bradshaw’s thesis was that shame can reach a toxic level, wherein it colors all of our actions. Instead of being a human being who can take joy in life, many of those inflicted with toxic shame become (in his words) human doings. Clearly, Mother Teresa was a human doing. It is now also clear from her confessions that she took no personal joy in her work. How she ended up this way is something of a mystery. However, if I had to bet, I would bet that her childhood was very rough indeed. A casual Wikipedia search did not return much information on her early life. Her father died when she was eight. She was born in Albania (Macedonia at the time), which is a poor country, known for large families. I would bet that her childhood was harsh and women were not valued very much. I also bet she did not get much in the way of parental attention. For whatever reason, she left home at 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto and never saw her family again. Her motivation for helping others might be a result of the lack of personal attention that she craved during her childhood. Obviously, I am speculating here, but it seems logical.

If so, then clearly many have benefited from her feelings of toxic shame. She inspired a new religious order, which continues to carry on with her work. Nevertheless, to be able to give out such love, yet to have been denied the kind of connection that she needed to feel from her God (and likely her family) strikes me as unbelievably tragic. Mother Teresa lived 87 years but it appears she was denied the love and intimacy she needed to feel like she was a human being. Instead, she became a human doing.

While I think humanitarianism is a noble cause, I do not think it should wholly consume anyone’s life. If it does, it should be because a person is truly passionate about it, not because someone feels they should do it. I suspect if Mother Teresa were alive and Dr. Sigmund Freud tried to psychoanalyze her, even he would throw up his hands in despair.

Mother Teresa for me remains an utter contradiction, at once both holy and someone for whom I feel even more compassion for than the wretched people she served. I hope her utter selflessness in her life earns her great spiritual reward in heaven. The irony is that, based on her own confessions, she would not enjoy such spiritual rewards. She would feel unworthy to receive them because they would dim the glory of the God she worshiped, but for whom she felt no passion.

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