Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sermon: "Is Mother Teresa a Candidate for UU Sainthood?" (Delivered 11-25-07)


The reading comes from a new collection of writings by Mother Teresa entitled, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”. While the words of Mother Teresa below may sound surprising, they are not the product of some muckraker trying to discredit her. The book is edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk who is leading the case in the Catholic Church to recognize Mother Teresa as a saint.
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me, the child of your love? And now I’ve become as the most hated one, the one You have thrown away as unwanted, unloved. I call; I cling; I want: and there is no One to answer, no One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark and I am alone, unwanted, forsaken. The loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable. Where is my faith? Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. My God, how painful is this unknown pain? It pains without ceasing. I have no faith. I dare not utter words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me. I am afraid to uncover them because of the blasphemy. If there be God, please forgive me. [I] trust that all will end in Heaven with Jesus. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul. Love – the word – it brings nothing. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Before the work started there was so much union, love, faith, trust, prayer, and sacrifice. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the call…? [p. 186-187, I have taken the liberty to alter the punctuation because Mother Teresa used dashes in her writings in the place of distinct punctuation marks.]


Earlier this Fall, Leslie G. approached me after a worship service (or was it before a worship service?) and told me that she thought the recent media attention that had been paid to Mother Teresa was very interesting, and that she would enjoy hearing a sermon on her. In the frenzy of Sunday morning, where ideas and suggestions are more likely to overwhelm me than inspire me and those offering ideas are most likely to be met with a blank, panicked stare, I believe I responded to Leslie that I would think about it. But good ideas have a way of rising up, of resurrecting themselves days or months or years later.

What Leslie was referring to when she recommended I preach about Mother Teresa was a great volume of her private letters and diaries that have recently surfaced. These letters are surprising. In them, Mother Teresa confesses that she carried out her dutiful work for decades and decades, all the while feeling the absence of God. In her writings she speaks of the proverbial “Dark night of the soul”, only one that lasts not a night, but almost half a century. She writes of God’s absence, which she felt to such a degree that she, at times, went as far as to doubt God’s existence. I will say a lot more about this later, but this, I believe, is what piqued Leslie’s attention.

The sermon this morning will contain three parts. First, I will offer the briefest of overviews of the life of Mother Teresa, a cursory biographical sketch. Next, we will consider many of the ways that people have reacted to and criticized her life and ministry. Finally, we will engage with the mysterious reality that so much of Mother Teresa’s life was spent in utter spiritual desolation and abandonment, that when she searched for God she found emptiness.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Macedonia in 1910. She was raised an Albanian Catholic and grew up with some degree of privilege as part of a political family. The Balkans in that day were as violent and unstable as they were in the 1990’s due to ethnic and religious strife. At age two, she and her family survived a violent massacre that claimed the lives of many around her. Later in life, her father would be poisoned by his political opponents.

During her teen years, Agnes Gonxha decided to become a nun and at 18 she was accepted as a novitiate into the order of the Sisters of Loreto, a Catholic order that specialized in education. She chose Saint Therese de Lisieux as her patron and asked to be sent to serve in India. In 1928, at the age of 18, she set off with the Sisters of Loreto to serve in India where she would serve as a school teacher for the next 18 years of her life. Then, in 1946 on a train ride to Darjeeling, she had a mystical experience in which she heard Jesus speaking to her, telling her to leave the Sisters of Loreto and begin a new order working directly with the poor and the sick of Calcutta.

She spent the next two years working within the Catholic hierarchy to get permission to follow this calling. (In many churches, things tend to move slowly.) The new organization she formed was called the Missionaries of Charity. They lived among the poor and the sick street people of Calcutta, serving them directly. Their ministry was to the sick, the hungry, and the dying believing that all people were children of God and that God loved even and especially the lowliest.

For the next fifty years until her death, Mother Teresa headed up the Missionaries of Charity. Her order spread and became a worldwide movement with sisters in her order serving the world’s poorest and most destitute in dozens of nations. In 1979, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize. She became recognized as a living Saint and continued her work until her death in 1996. In 2002 she was beatified by Pope John Paul II. Beatification means to be regarded as “blessed” by the Catholic Church. It clears one’s way for canonization as a Saint and those canonization procedures are still on-going as we speak. (Again, the point about things moving slowly in churches.)

It is intriguing to note the way that various people have responded to Mother Teresa’s life and ministry. She was definitely a figure of selfless humility and mostly did her best to stay out of the spotlight. She constantly worried that praise for her was really praise that was owed to Jesus Christ so she made herself small and referred to herself simply as an instrument of God’s love. She sometimes called herself “God’s little pencil.” Perhaps, in the absence of a larger-than-life personality it has been easy for others to project their own ideas onto her. She was neither a prolific nor an especially talented writer. She hoped her private letters would be destroyed, perhaps out of modesty, and later agreed to write books under the condition that her papers would be burnt. (Those who held on to her private papers didn’t keep their end of the bargain.)

To this day, Mother Teresa remains one of the most frequently misquoted figures of the 20th century. If you go looking on the internet, you will find all sorts of sentimental writings that claim her authorship. Most notable is a poem called “Do it Anyway” which was actually written by a guy named Kent Keith. Which is just as well, because it is a lousy poem.

But more telling are Mother Teresa’s many critics. Let me share three kinds of criticism that are frequently leveled against her. The first criticisms come from fellow Catholics, particularly Catholics who embraced Liberation Theology. Primarily Central- and South American, Liberation Catholics drew their inspiration from reading Jesus as a social radical and were also inspired by socialism and Marxist critiques of wealth and society. This school of Catholicism thought Mother Teresa was too much a part of the establishment. Her ministry, they said, amounted to treating cancer with a band-aid. They were calling for a radical reshaping of the social and economic order and thought that direct care of the poor and hungry without addressing the underlying reasons for poverty and hunger was in error.

Mother Teresa was also criticized by those outside of Catholicism. These criticisms came from extreme secularists as well as from religious liberals, and while these criticisms frequently overlap, they are distinct as well.

Leading the charge of the extreme secularists is Christopher Hitchens. Immediately following Mother Teresa’s death, he released a book that was a harsh screed against Mother Teresa. The book carried the tasteless title, The Missionary Position. But the book actually raised a number of important questions, ranging from the quality of medicine and medical ethics practiced in the hospitals Mother Teresa built, to questions about how Mother Teresa raised and used funds, to larger questions about how Catholic doctrine influenced for the worse her care for poor. A full decade later, Hitchens was still at it. In his most recent book about why religion is evil, the best-seller God is not Great, Hitchens finds three opportunities to take further shots at Mother Teresa.

His two most legitimate points of critique involve her flying to Ireland to speak in support of a law that would outlaw divorce, and her quixotic and harmful attempts to improve public health while simultaneously teaching that contraception is immoral. (Is it really unreasonable to suggest that the victim of domestic violence should be able to leave her spouse, or that condom use should be encouraged to stem the spread of AIDS across the Indian sub-continent?)

Religious liberals have also found opportunity to criticize Mother Teresa. After all, she chose to devote her entire Nobel Prize acceptance speech to condemning abortion. While not all religious liberals can be labeled as “pro-choice”, I am confident that most would be able to imagine situations in which abortion would be the best outcome of an unfortunate situation. And few of us would take seriously her claim that, quote, “Abortion is the greatest destroyer of peace.”

Religious liberals should also take issue with Mother Teresa’s adherence to Catholic doctrine on the issue of contraception. When AIDS is spreading rampantly, it is bad health policy following from bad theology to teach that condoms are evil.

We can debate and deliberate these matters as much as we like. We can weigh her decades upon decades of brave, self-forgetting service in the slums of Calcutta against our concern with aspects of Catholic teaching and criticisms of Mother Teresa’s method. We can do this. But, there is no chance Leslie G. would be asking me to give a sermon on Mother Teresa if not for what came to light months ago in her letters and private writings.

What do we do with a Saint who loses her faith? What do we make out of someone who spent her life surrounded with people with leprosy, tuberculosis, festering wounds… what do we make out of someone who willingly chose poverty and despair at its most extreme levels in order to live according to a faith that so often wasn’t there? And why does this appeal to us as Unitarian Universalists?

I think we often fall into the trap of assuming things about other people’s faith lives and belief systems that aren’t exactly representative of the reality of their faith lives and belief systems. For example, while we are the only Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County, we are far from the largest Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County. I would wager that there are more people who are theologically Unitarian Universalist at Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection in Leawood than there are here. And there are probably more people who are theologically Unitarian Universalist at many of the UCC churches in our area than we claim as members of our church.

But what about religious leaders? I think we tend to assume that religious leaders of such a magnitude as Mother Teresa are either completely convinced of their religious convictions or are charlatans and fakers. Whether we are talking about the Pope or the President of the UUA, the Dalai Lama or Jerry Johnston we tend to believe in this all-or-nothing stance. So, what do we do with Mother Teresa?

As we move towards the conclusion of this sermon, let me say just a few words about her crisis of faith. In the tradition of mystical spirituality, the hidden divine who refuses to be known or comprehended is actually a common occurrence. In religious scholarship this is known as “apophaticism.” A mysticism of God’s inability to be known. The proverbial “dark night of the soul” is also a familiar concept. In our own Building Your Own Theology class we talk not only of peak religious experiences – “I have been to mountaintop” – but also “valley” religious experiences, the development of faith that occurs in the depths of grief and agony.

But, in the case of Mother Teresa, my goodness, that is one deep valley. That is one long stretch to feel the absence of God.

The title I gave this sermon, “Is Mother Teresa a Candidate for UU Sainthood?” is a tongue-in-cheek title. But, perhaps what was so appealing and even inspiring to some of us about Mother Teresa’s secret writings is the fact that someone can express doubt about the divine and still continue to live out their faith in a passionate way.

Maybe that is the lesson for us to take away with us this morning: we are not the only faith that leaves room for doubt, that can truly say, in the words of a popular reading from our hymnal that we should “cherish our doubts, for doubt is the attendant to truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge and it is the servant of discovery.”

Those confidential letters by Mother Teresa humanized her for me. I found myself able to empathize with her in a way I had never been able to before. All of sudden, Mother Teresa was not this angel on earth. She was not some larger than life abstraction. She was someone I could stand in the same room with. She was human. Just like us. Just like us. In Unitarian Universalism, we speak of the “Prophethood of all Believers” by which we mean the potential sainthood of all souls. I am deeply thankful for this reminder of human-ness in a life we might think of as so ethereal. How grand is that mixture of humanity and divinity!