On September 4, 2016, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta to be a saint. A huge crowd, with people from many nations, had assembled on St. Peter’s Square to celebrate the occasion. It was obviously a cause for celebration by Catholics, as it coincided happily with Francis’s proclamation of a Year of Mercy. Mother Teresa had (rightly) become an icon of compassion, and not only for Catholics. She had also become a sort of religious celebrity (the only other individual I can think of as having a similar status is the Dalai Lama, but he is a bit too exotic for Westerners to identify with).
Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, was born in 1910 as Agnes Gouxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje (now the capital of Macedonia). She became a Roman Catholic nun at age eighteen, and was sent to India to be a teacher at a school in Calcutta. On a train journey she experienced a “locution,” an inner voice presumed to be God’s, telling her to go and serve the “poorest of the poor” (not hard to find even today in Calcutta). First she founded a hospice for the dying, who had been discarded like garbage on the streets. This has become the prototype for other ministries for people abandoned by society—hospitals for gravely ill but not immediately dying poor individuals, lepers, orphans, prisoners. Teresa founded a religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, which has branches in various countries. In 1979 Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Celebrities, even if they are saintly, invite critics eager to drag them off their pedestals. Immediately after the canonization the World Hindu Council, representing so-called Hindutva, the nationalist ideology which wants Hinduism to be the state religion of India (revoking its constitutional definition as a secular republic, in deliberate contrast with Muslim Pakistan), found fault with the newly minted saint. The Council (misinterpreting the word “missionary” in the title of Teresa’s order) maintained that her covert intention was to lure her patients to Christianity. This criticism is especially dangerous, because Narendra Modi, the current Indian Prime Minister, has roots in the Hindutva movement. Violent acts against Christians and other religious minorities have proliferated under his government. This time around Modi at once took the contrary position: He thanked Teresa for her service to India and asked Indians to be proud of her international renown.
There have been other criticisms of Teresa—for unhygienic conditions in her hospices (compared to what?), for her view that “suffering is a gift of God” (so much for Jesus), and for her reiterated embrace of Catholic teachings on abortion, contraception, and sexual ethics. The sharpest assault came in a book by Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (2003). Hitchens described her as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” This is not surprising, since Hitchens has been one of the best-known “New Atheists.” His fervor in debunking Teresa’s iconic status is nicely displayed in his approving quote of George Orwell, “Saints should always be presumed guilty until proven innocent” (hardly fair but admittedly witty). (I want to be fair to Hitchens as well. I met him several years ago and rather liked him. I give him credit, though a man of the Left, for distancing himself in the 1990s from his co-religionists for their failure to condemn the inhumanities of socialist regimes. He also endorsed the U.S. intervention to stop genocide in the former Yugoslavia. I will only quote myself, from last week’s blog—“Atheists can be good people.”)
As I have signaled in some of the above parentheses, I’m not impressed by the criticisms, most of them grounded in either a general rationalism (whatever cannot be scientifically established is superstition) or in the now fashionable sexual morality that is offended by conservative Catholicism. (I must really stop footnoting myself, but I think that the “fanatical and fundamentalist” anti-Catholic animus of the sexual libertarians can be explained by the Berger theory of the post-1960s cultural revolution: If you hand out an open-ended gift certificate for a candy store, those who have enjoyed the free candy will naturally be enraged by anyone who would take it away. No, I’m not about to become Catholic, though I find Pope Francis rather simpatico. And no, I have no moral problem with homosexuality, though it is not my preference.) But what really grabbed me by the recent interest in Mother Teresa is something quite different.
The publication of Teresa’s letters ten years after her death showed a side of her character that surprised many of her admirers, though (as far as I can tell) this did not diminish the admiration—if anything, it magnified it. Teresa was afflicted for many years by profound doubts about her vocation, and even about the very existence of God who supposedly pointed her toward that vocation in a life-changing experience during that long-ago train journey in India. She lived with these doubts, and thought that the sense of abandonment they conveyed made her closer to all the abandoned souls she felt called to serve. She too became one of “the poorest of the poor,” abandoned even by God. She understood this as the “dark night of the soul” referred to by St. John of the Cross, the great Spanish mystic, who believed that God spoke most strongly through his absence. Thus she persisted in her ministry with faith in the often absent God. The collection of letters was edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Ukrainian-Canadian priest, who is a member of Teresa’s order and her official advocate in the canonization process; it is called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (2007). The Jesuit James Martin, in a recent book (My Life with the Saints, 2016), calls Teresa “a patron saint for all who struggle in their spiritual lives”—and therefore “a saint for our times.”
I recall that this phrase had been used before to describe Simone Weil (1909-1943), who was born into a thoroughly secularized Jewish family in France, went through the French elite educational system, then fled from the Nazis and was hidden by some courageous farmers in a village. During this time she converted to Catholicism (or at least her somewhat idiosyncratic version of it). She subsequently made it to England, where she starved herself to be in solidarity with all the people in occupied Europe and died as a result. A number of her works have been published posthumously, most importantly Waiting for God (French original 1950, English translation 1951). Her writings circle around the question of faith while God is or seems to be absent: One knows that one is hungry because there is no food—but one should not deny that one hungers for food. In this stance, Simone, very much like Teresa, is a “saint for our times.” The pain of God’s absence is not new. It goes all the way back to the New Testament, where some of the words spoken by the dying Jesus on the cross are reported as “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (This is one of the few passages left in Aramaic within the Greek text, probably to verify that Jesus really asked this shocking question.) There is a long Christian tradition of the incarnation reaching its fulfillment in the utter humiliation/kenosis of Jesus Christ. This tradition is in tension with the widespread belief, especially in Asian spiritually, that sainthood leads to an unshakable tranquility. No such expectation here. Why is this especially relevant for our times?
The Pope and the “New Atheists” agree in thinking that the present age is being inundated by a powerful wave of aggressive secularism, though of course they have different reactions to this assessment—respectively, an urgent call for the “re-evangelization” of the world, and a smug sense of being “on the right side of history.” The empirical reality of religion today is much more complicated. Secularism is an ideology which is rooted in reality primarily in Europe, but which has a constituency in the intelligentsia in much of the world, including the United States. There is indeed a secular discourse without which no modern society could exist—science and technology must operate within it, as does the market economy and bureaucratic government. But for most religious people today modernity and religion relate to each other not as either/or but as both/and. The way this is managed both in society and in the minds of individuals is not a great mystery, but can be described and explained. Modernity does not make religion impossible, but it makes it difficult to take for granted. Put differently, religious faith is a choice rather than fate, and it is mostly accompanied by a penumbra of doubt. Fundamentalists of all kinds (including secularists) reject all doubt and yearn to achieve again the calm certainties that (or so they think) characterized people in pre-modern societies. I have no interest in challenging those who claim to have had religious experiences of such overwhelming power that the reality to which it testifies is certain beyond all doubt. For those not so privileged Mother Teresa or Simone Weil may well be “saints for our times.”