June 20, 2021

Shafts of Light, VIII: Mother Teresa

Passage: Psalm 40

I urgently hoped for the Lord, who bent down toward me and heard my voice and brought me up from the roiling pit, from the thickest mire. And the Lord set my feet on a crag, made my steps firm. And put in my mouth a new songpraise for our God. May many see and fear and trust in the Lord…As for me, I am lowly and needy. May the Master account it for me. My help, who frees me You are. My God, do not delay. (Psalm 40, excerpted from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation from the Hebrew.)

Psalms are true to human drama. Across the 150 Psalms you can find every extreme of emotion: abandoned, astonished, appalled, annoyed, apathetic, awkward, awakened, in awe; fragile, frightened, furious, frustrated; courageous, creative, curious, content, confused. The Psalms cover it all.

Psalms also push up against the inadequacy of our language. How do you describe the world falling apart? “I am low and needy” hardly cuts it, so “I am in the thickest mire,” the muddiest mud, carries the metaphor a little farther. Scholars suggest that “Psalms cover dangerous and difficult times, dislocation and disorientation, when the sky does fall, and the world does come to an end.”[1]

Psalm 40 begins as a prayer that has already been answered. “You heard my voice, Lord” (Psalm 40:1 from Robert Altar’s 2007 translation). But it doesn’t take long for the poet to go back to that pit-like-place, to replay the horror of enemies who desired to do them harm. The primordial sea-beasts that live below the water, the pit of noise, a rushing confluent abyss, the thickest muck and mire: it is reminiscent of the worst of the worst.

Out of that depth, God was rescue. God was an answered prayer.

Mother Teresa too heard that God, our God, who went into the pit, who sank into the mud, who did not shy away from the most mystifying, gut-wrenching, intolerable places of the world. Mother Teresa felt a call from that God: The God who rushes into the face of death, and is in pain with us. She had already been a nun for 17 years, dedicating her life to God, when she heard God’s call, in the words of Jesus, “I thirst.” “I thirst,” is what Jesus says on the cross. The cross, that central symbol of our God entering the world, and suffering with us.

God’s suffering, a poignant clue that we are not alone in our suffering. “Loneliness in suffering, being the great poverty,” Mother Teresa said; as our stained glass windows declare. Being with those in suffering is a calling she invites all of us into.

Many of you are already familiar with Mother Teresa’s story. She began life as a Yugoslav-born Albanian woman. Her first call, when she felt called to become a nun, came at the age of 19, when she moved to Ireland to become one of the Sisters of Loretto. They sent her to Calcutta, in eastern India, near the border of Bangladesh. She spoke Albanian and Serbo-Croatian as a child, but learned English to work with the Irish nuns, and then Bengali and Hindi to serve in India.

Her role in Calcutta was to serve as a teacher, and had taught there for 17 years. She knew the community. She knew the culture. She was present there, among the people. But she was only tangentially connected, for those first 17 years, to the poorest of the poor. She wasn’t serving them. She was teaching more well off students. She knew a deeper poverty was nearby.

Then, she felt this call. She called it her “call within a call.” She told the sisters she worked with that she was called to work with the poorest of the poor. And, as you may have also found, it isn’t always easy to change jobs, even as a nun who is called to work with the poorest of the poor, so it took more than a year to get her out among the ones God was calling her to when she heard the voice of Jesus say, “I thirst.” The people there were thirsty, hungry, dying of preventable diseases, deep in the muck and mire, the pit of despair.

As Mother Teresa’s ministry grew, the intellectuals of Bengali didn’t love that she was showcasing the poverty and squalor of her city. In the first decade, she started a house for the dying: a place where those who were near death could die with dignity, instead of in elsewhere. She got permission from the government to use an old abandoned building where she set up beds for those who were terminally ill, sometimes just days from death, having had no other medical care previously.

By 1979, she had won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work, creating the Missionaries of Charity in 1950 who set up hospices, hospitals, homes for the aged, and soup kitchens all over the world, seeking dignity and hope for those who were lost, lonely or lacking. By 1985, she had set up an HIV/AIDS hospice center, the first of its kind. She died in 1997, and by 2003 her first miracle had been confirmed by the Papal authorities. In 2016, she was beatified as a Saint in the Catholic Church.

Back in 1983, she set up a group of sisters here in Chicago, too. The sisters who had been trained there in Calcutta, went from caring for orphans, the sick, and the needy, to working in a part of our city that was, at the time, a hotbed of violence. The sisters had a home in between a few high rise buildings, and Austin, a man who lived there at the time, said that when Mother Teresa and her nuns walked the streets, everyone put their guns down. In fact, he said, “Maybe that’s what changed my life, by me meeting her.” The Missionaries of Charity still have a place in the city, now residing at 25th and Western, just down from the Taco Bell.[2]

As you probably know, it wasn’t just accolades and praise for Mother Teresa’s work. Even in the early 1980s, she was harshly critiqued.[3] One person called her a “religious imperialist,” preying on the vulnerable to harvest souls for Jesus.[4] Another person called her a charismatic leader who objectified suffering.[5] Some reported her failure to show compassion for the nuns who were dedicating their life to the poorest of the poor: they suffered in silence, had untreated medical ailments.[6] Some said her ulterior motive was simply conversion to Christianity, that she baptised people without consent. In a scathing documentary by Christopher Hitchens, they call her an “ally of the status quo” as if she is helping to keep people suffering the way they do.[7] One person called out the racial dynamics of a white woman serving in India. A few with knowledge of her finances say she did not spend donations in the way they were given.[8]

It seems like a caravan of condemnation. When someone said she was not doing enough to change the systems that created poverty, she said “If some feel God wants them to change the structures of society, that is between them and God.”[9] She was clear about her vision: be present with the poorest of the poor. See the poorest of the poor as brothers and sisters. Mend the loneliness. Bring dignity.

I don’t want to put lipstick on a pig. There are standards of care that should be followed. There are financial obligations when receiving donations. There are ways of respecting the religious traditions of others that are part of being an interfaith neighbor. Christianity is no game, trying to win souls.

But, as a culture, we love to see what’s behind the façade. From reality TV “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” to home improvement TV, “Property Brothers,” we want to know what it’s really like inside. What happens when you film the kitchen table conversations of the polished pop icons? What happens when you literally take a sledgehammer to the dry wall? What’s behind the scenes? And so we shouldn’t be surprised by the New York Times article that came out this past month with the title, “Was Mother Teresa a Cult Leader?” talking about a new podcast that criticizes her industry of care with interviews with insiders who served with her and her sisters.

As a culture, we also secretly love a cringe-worthy fall from grace, our arms akimbo, slack jawed at the news that the next high-level pop star, CEO or saint now has her name slung through mud. Whether it’s Michael Jackson for sexual misconduct, Jimmy Fallon for performing in blackface, Martha Stewart for tax evasion, or J. K. Rowling for transphobia, its like gapers block on the Dan Ryan. We don’t want to see, but we can’t help but look. Criticism of Mother Teresa is part and parcel with the rest of the pantheon of those who have fallen from grace. We’re trying to figure out as a culture how far to go: cancel completely? Make way for redemption? Erase from history? Find ways for accountability?

As a culture, we’ve also watched institutions fail us. Catholic Priests, gymnast-physicians, football coaches, the police, the CDC and FDA, the very water coming out of our faucets. We’re skeptical of institutions that make unambiguous claims to doing good, because we know that’s not possible. Mother Teresa’s institutional failings are all part of that.

So, I think looking at Mother Teresa today helps us live into a little bit of nuance (and, for what it’s worth, my computer is so accustomed to me avoiding nuance that it autocorrected the word nuance to “nuisance”). A look at the complex critique of Mother Teresa might help us to stop being so reactionary. It gets us out of our binary yes/no, all/nothing, always/never mode of thinking. I want us to have high standards when it comes to compassionate care for the poor: I want us to strive for well-trained, culturally-competent Christian missionaries. I want us to be the kind of community that can ask questions like the New York Times’ “Was Mother Teresa a cult leader?” without feeling like we need to shrink away. Yes, its clickbait. But it is also a question that pushes us to consider bigger questions like: what is a cult, what is freedom, what is control, what does it mean to commit to a way of life in community?

I want us to ask these kinds of good critical questions, but I don’t want us to lose the message that Mother Teresa needs us to hear. Because it is easy to forget. Love the poor. Stay with the poorest of the poor. There, you will find Jesus in the most distressing of disguises.

Bill Clinton invited Mother Teresa to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, and she preached to them. “Jesus came to bring good news to the poor… to bring peace, not to give the peace of the world, which is that we don’t bother each other…. He came to give the peace of heart that comes from others, from doing good to others.” We still struggle with that advice. We try not to bother each other. Keep to ourselves. Don’t want to intrude. But, she’s saying, the peace of Christ means drawing near to one another. It means drawing near to each other in our need, in our pain. It means drawn near to the poorest of the poor.

And so, she said to that room full of devout Americans at the Prayer Breakfast, “I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home villages first. And begin to love them. Be that good news to your own people first. And find out about your next door neighbor. Do you know who they are?”[10] She wants us to connect with one another. She wants us to never forget. She says, “Never turn your back on the poor.” “Give until it hurts,” she says. “There is something you and I can always do,” she says. Amen.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter and Patrick D. Miller. “The Psalms and the Life of Faith,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), p. 8.

[2] Yousef, Odette. Mother Teresa's Legacy in Chicago. WBEZ. September 2, 2016.

[3] Sister Lois Spear, O.P., "Mother Teresa and Her Critics," Sisters Today (January 1982): 344.

[4] Richard John Neuhaus, "When Shepherds Go Astray," First Things no. 29 (January 1993): 65.

[5] Loudon, Mary. Unveiled: Nuns Talking. (Vintage, 1993) p. 259.

[6] Lantz, Erika. The Turning: The Sisters that Left. "Love, To Be Real, Has to Hurt." May 18, 2021.

[7] Hitchens, Christopher. Hell's Angels: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. November 8, 1994.

[8] Petrzela, Natalia Mehlman. The Complicated Pasts of Six Trailblazing Women. January 31, 2019.

[9] Timothy G. McCarthy. The Catholic Tradition: The Church in the Twentieth Century (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012) p. 424.

[10] Mother Teresa, Forty Second National Prayer Breakfast Lecture. February 3, 1994.

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