Come be my Light, by Mother Teresa

The NY Times featured an article about a new book containing revealing letters written by Mother Teresa (title above). The letters detail that one of the impetuses for her to leave the Lorento convent and live among Calcutta’s poor was a feeling of spiritual emptiness…a feeling she apparently struggled with for her whole life. The NYTimes says:

‘“I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, the Roman Catholic author whose stories traverse the landscape of 20th-century unbelief. “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”’

How do those words feel to you, YARs? Like, what do you think? I’m excited to hear. The NYTimes continues:

“O’Connor suffered from isolation and debilitating illness, Mother Teresa from decades of spiritual emptiness. But — and here is the exemplary part, inspiring even by the standards of a secular age — they both…got on with their work. Mother Teresa, sick with longing for a sense of the divine, kept faith with the sick of Calcutta. And now, dead for 10 years, she is poised to reach those who can at last recognize, in her, something of their own doubting, conflicted selves.”

YAR for the last year, has provided a great opportunity to read what my peers are thinking. I enjoy reflecting on the words. The words in the 2nd paragraph are some that I offer today. YAR is a good tool for organization and reflection. Thanks for writing, everyone.

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11 Responses to “Come be my Light, by Mother Teresa”

  1. ST Says:

    A particularly critical commentary on the work of Mother Teresa… I think that there is a lot being written about her now. Today’s the 10th anniversary of her death.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/05/opinion/05banerji.html?th&emc=th

  2. Ron Says:

    Interesting post and comment. I read the NY Times opinion piece also- interesting, however it is probably more of a reaction to the western media than to Mother Teresa herself.
    Mother Teresa, like Terese de Lisieux, who she took her name from, believed in the “little way” of doing things. Putting love into everyday actions, as opposed to the big way of changing structures and political programs. To her it wasn’t important to change the system that created poverty, but to love and help those who were in it.
    I think this is the way that Jesus taught in trying to bring about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew). It was a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down approach to radically change the social structure through loving your neighbor and acting out of that love.
    Yes, Mother Teresa was human. If anything, these newly released letters help us to relate to her more as a normal human being so that we can aspire to be more like her, rather than putting her on a pedestal and therefore making it seem impossible to attain her level of spiritual achievement. We all go through our desert place- so did she.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic.

  3. tomdunn Says:

    ST, thanks for the post. Knowing that Mother Teresa went through struggles and spiritual emptiness just makes her that much more of an inspiration: she was no different than the rest of us. I have not put any energy into reading what is being written about her, but is the media trying to show this as a “fault” of Mother Teresa?

    I also read the article that you linked too. I can understand where the author is coming from. She has pride in her home city, and does not like the fact that it’s claim to fame is a foreigners mercy. That being said, I don’t think any of the arguments she presents holds any water: Calcutta has a large middle class—be that as it may, that does not negate the fact that there are many people living and dieing in poverty. Other cities have more poverty— be that as it may, that does not negate the fact that there are many people living and dieing in poverty. Calcutta has beautiful buildings….

    All that this author had to say really disturbed me, much the same way that I became upset with the discussion here (http://young.anabaptistradicals.org/2007/05/15/do-we-look-like-jesus/#comment-1551). I get very frustrated by good deeds, and acts of service being discredited or looked down upon for some reason or another.

    All this being said, I need to admit I know next to nothing about Mother Teresa’s legacy, and I really have no grounds besides my gut reaction to respond to the posted article. Take it or leave it.

  4. carl Says:

    Mother Teresa, like Terese de Lisieux, who she took her name from, believed in the “little way” of doing things. Putting love into everyday actions, as opposed to the big way of changing structures and political programs.

    That’s a hagiographic myth. Mother Teresa didn’t ignore political structures and focus on “the little way” - she went out of her way to publicly support dictators like the Duvaliers in Haiti, Enver Hoxha in Albania, and others, all of whom created far more “dying” than Mother Teresa ever served. And she was herself a very clever political operator - she knew just how to work those “structures” when it came to raising money.

    I get very frustrated by good deeds, and acts of service being discredited or looked down upon for some reason or another.

    There’s a long tradition of jokes among Native people that the white men you really have to watch out for are the ones who claim they’ve come to help you. Please come visit me on Pine Ridge some summer, and I’ll show you busload after busload of well-intentioned “acts of service” that don’t help much but their own desire to feel virtuous.

    You’re awfully quick to dismiss an actual Calcuttan’s perspective on Mother Teresa. Interestingly, she makes the same criticism that I most commonly hear from people here on Pine Ridge about white “charity” efforts. Charity organizations typically paint dreadful pictures of the terrible quality of life on the reservation (”poverty porn”), without bothering to publicize any of the positive things that Oglala people themselves are doing for their own community (wouldn’t help the fundraising). Many people have told me that even if some of the issues publicized are real ones, these charity organizations disempower the community by rendering the positives invisible and painting the entire community as helplessly in need of the “white savior.”

    Well-intentioned “acts of service” and “good deeds” are frequently self-serving and even harmful to the people being “served,” and stubborn refusal to even reflect on that possibility is simply irresponsible.

  5. tomdunn Says:

    Carl, you stirred up a lot of thoughts with your post that I will attempt to put into writing. You appear to know more about Mother Teresa than I, so I will not even attempt to argue or start an argument about…..although I would very much like to disagree with you.

    A question that I would like to pose then is this: What is an act of pure, non-political, no-strings-attached, productive, life-giving, Christ-like service? Is it possible for someone like me (privileged in almost every way) to extend a helping hand to anyone without be patronizing, or perpetuating oppression? You can either answer with concrete examples (maybe what you would like to see at Stone Ridge) or some idealist response, but please do answer, this is something I would to discuss.

    Another question that popped into my head as I read you comment: Do you think that feeling you get after helping someone out productive or counterproductive? For me, some of most energizing times in my life are during and after times when I feel that I have really helped someone, or some organization out. I try to check myself, by not getting proud of what I did, but there is no escaping the fact that it feels good to help people out. To answer my own question, I think it is fine to feel this way, as long as it is not your motivation to be helping others, but again I am interested to hear your response.

    In re-reading this comment I realize my questions are directed towards Carl, but everyone else feel free to chime in as well.

  6. ArchaicFuturist Says:

    Perhaps the thing that is so often misunderstood (or willfully ignored) about oppression — by which I include such things as racism, sexism, poverty, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and heterosexism — is that oppression and privilege are intrinsically linked. Privilege isn’t merely the absence of oppression, but a derivative of it. Is it possible to lend a helping hand without perpetuating privilege? Nope. Not unless the person with privilege is continuously , consciously, and conscientiously examining and attempting to dismantle that privilege, both within that person’s own life and in society as a whole. There isn’t a non-political way of doing it, if by “politics” we mean engagement with society as a whole, rather than narrow partisanship. We’ve got to get engaged. Charity doesn’t cut it.

    Everyone talks of eliminating poverty. While a noble goal, perhaps, that strategy will never get to the root of the problem, and “the poor will always be with you.” The only strategy that has a chance of getting us anywhere is eliminating riches.

    Amy Goodman’s interview with Curtis Muhammad. informing this very discussion, was broadcast 9/4 on Democracy Now!

  7. carl Says:

    Hey Tom,

    Thanks for the reply. You ask good questions - I can only give you my limited (and also privileged) perspective, of course:

    A question that I would like to pose then is this: What is an act of pure, non-political, no-strings-attached, productive, life-giving, Christ-like service?

    Well, I don’t think there’s any such thing. We’re all human, none of us are pure. It’s impossible to be non-political (nor do I think that’s a valuable goal), because a refusal to confront an unjust system is de facto support of it. There are always strings attached to everything, because we live in a world full of “strings” and we’re all deeply attached to many of them.

    None of that is to say that an act of service can’t be productive or life-giving! I simply think it is more likely to be so the more willing we are to recognize how impure, imperfect, and complicated it is, and how our best intentions can so easily go awry.

    By no means is this a reason not to do anything (though I have to admit that I am easily tempted in that direction). Ideally, it’s a reason to do everything we do with humility, inner reflection, and a willingness to honestly look at both personal-level and systemic-level realities, and not simplistically attempt to reduce everything to one or the other.

    Is it possible for someone like me (privileged in almost every way) to extend a helping hand to anyone without be patronizing, or perpetuating oppression?

    No, I don’t think it is possible. But the more aware I am of that reality, the more I think that I can both love others and work for justice honestly, free of delusions of purity or certainty of the rightness of what I’m doing.

    I think one of the great challenges of being privileged is to rid myself of the delusion that anything I do, any relationship I ever enter into, will ever be pure or free of the harmful effects of privilege. And then to rededicate myself to doing things nonetheless, and opposing those harmful effects wherever I learn to see them.

    Do you think that feeling you get after helping someone out productive or counterproductive?

    I don’t think it’s as simple as one type of good feeling. I think there are “good feelings” that upon deeper reflection I realize come out of a worldview that elevates me above the person “helped”, and then I think there are good feelings that are based in enjoying a relationship. I would tend to look more for the “good feeling” that comes from a relationship where the helping goes both ways, not just a “good feeling” that comes from being the helper.

    Back to something else Ron said:

    I think this is the way that Jesus taught in trying to bring about the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew). It was a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down approach to radically change the social structure through loving your neighbor and acting out of that love.

    I think you can work from the “bottom-up” with an open eye for systemic realities and a willingness to challenge them publicly (which Jesus did), or you can work from the bottom-up with a blind eye to systemic injustice, happily willing to “help the poor” as long as they behave themselves and don’t challenge the structures that keep them poor.

  8. ArchaicFuturist Says:

    Whoops. That transcript of the Curtis Muhammad interview is here, at Democracy Now.

  9. SteveK Says:

    The media’s shock at Mother T’s “doubts” are funny, really. As if anyone who takes their faith seriously in this day and age doesn’t have doubts. It is interesting that the media is choosing to be the “devil’s advocate” in the process of making her a saint. This is the role of one within the church who comes up with all the reasons one ought not to be a saint. Of course, Mother T was a saint because she acted like God wanted her to despite the doubts. Her doubts make her more of a saint, not less.

    Carl’s critiques of middle class “assistance” of the “needy” is right on, generally. But let me respond a couple ways. First of all, I think that the critique is especially there for “short-termers”. Short term assistence is only good to teach the short termer, as was my personal trip to Calcutta and Bangladesh when I was 19. I don’t think I ministered to many people, but in the process of attempting it, I learned many things.

    But if a person is in a culture long enough to be transformed by it, to become a part of it, they can have a unique point of view which could be very helpful, in a real way. Mother T assisted many people, but more importantly she had a prophetic voice to the world to pay attention to folks that otherwise wouldn’t have a voice. She initiated the transformation of thousands of people to help the poor by becoming poor. To be incarnational. That is where true help is found– not in the bringing of resources, but in standing with those in need to help each other.

    Steve K

  10. Skylark Says:

    Steve—”The media” is not a singular unit. Maybe the majority of the news you’ve seen on Mother Teresa has shown surprise to hear about her doubts, but this doesn’t necessarily represent everyone in “the media.”

    It’s a pet peeve of mine. Since I’m in news myself, I see in my little news bubble how much news people disagree, go off in different directions, criticize each other, etc. To compare, it’d be like going into just Wendy’s and Jack in the Box, and then complaining about what “all fast food restaurants” are doing.

    Now, to switch gears, do you think short-term service workers know they’re getting a lot more benefit out of the work than the people they aspire to help? If so, is that a good reason to go? I know some people who roundly dismiss short-term missions on these grounds. And I also have a friend who is working on becoming a long-term missionary to Latin America who says short-term missions are a great way for people to get their feet wet in missions. It keeps ill-equipped people from the long-term mission field, she says. Is that a good enough reason to keep short-term missions around?

  11. SteveK Says:

    Skylark–

    I think you are assuming that I am making assumptions. When I said “the media”, in context I was speaking of “the media that showed shock at Mother T’s doubts”. Sorry if you don’t like the term “the media”, but it’s a pretty common word.

    As far as short term missions, yes, I think it is helpful as long as the people going are doing it with the intent of growing, not helping. Tony Campolo’s university has a short term missions program that specifically says that. I have been on the “receiving” end of short term missions work, and I think it would have been better if they realized that THEY were the ones in the learning curve there, not the people they were supposedly “ministering” to. When I was very young, I found myself in the position of preaching the gospel to a Mexican church who was enduring persecution. I did not feel that a basic gospel message was appropriate, nor did I feel that I had really anything to say to them. Rather, they should have been teaching us. So I guess, short term missions could be helpful, if the priorities are really communicated to those going on the mission trip.

    Steve K

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