“Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering

This one came completely out of left field. I’m still taken aback by it.

For the last fifty years of her life, Mother Teresa had lost her faith. In private letters to friends and confessors (as documented in a new book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light”), she acknowledged repeatedly that she no longer felt the presence of God in her life. At all. Ever. Not in prayer, not in the Eucharist — never. She was tormented by God’s absence, described her empty spiritual life as one of “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture,” and once described her pretense at faith as “hypocrisy.”

For the last fifty years of her life.

Before I really get into this, I have to say a few words about Mother Teresa. If you have an image of her as the pinnacle of human goodness, the compassionate and charitable woman who selflessly devoted her life to others and founded hospitals and hospices for the desperately poor… I’m going to have to burst your bubble. Mother Teresa was a problematic figure at best, and many of her so-called charitable works were profoundly screwed-up. Despite the enormous amounts of money she collected, her hospitals and hospices offered grotesquely inadequate medical care, revoltingly unsanitary and even abusive conditions, and — pay attention to this part, it becomes important later — little or nothing in the way of pain relief, allowing the sick to suffer and the dying to die in terrible pain. They were essentially warehouses for people to convert to Catholicism and die, and the conversion part was far more central to their mission than either healing or the relief of suffering.

(There are other problems with Ms. Teresa, including making nice with dictators such as Duvalier; taking donations from savings and loan racketeer Charles Keating and not returning it to the people from whom it had been defrauded; her rabid opposition to abortion as “the greatest destroyer of peace today”; her non-consensual baptisms of non-Christians on their deathbeds; founding convents and conversion missions with donations intended for the hospitals and hospices (that also becomes important later); and more. Furthermore, when she herself was ill, she spurned her own clinics, and sought out the best and most expensive Western hospitals available. For corroboration and more details, read “The Missionary Position” by Christopher Hitchens, Aroup Chatterjee’s “Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict,” and her Wikipedia bio, which includes several references to her critics.)

But for now, I’m going to focus on the hospitals and hospices.

I’m going to focus on the lack of pain medication offered in those hospitals and hospices.

And I’m going to come back to her loss of faith.

By all accounts, Mother Teresa was obsessed with suffering. She believed that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus, and is quoted as saying, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” And she once told a man at her one of her hospices that his pain was “Jesus kissing him.” (His reply: “Can you tell him to stop?”) She saw human suffering as a gift from Christ, something that would bring people closer to him.

And I’m beginning to see why. The woman you see in these letters obviously suffered tremendously.

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now 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 … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.”

“Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. — [The saving of] Souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

And there’s more. A lot more.

I should be clear that she didn’t become a secret atheist. She still believed in God and Christ. But the belief was theoretical; a belief in her head, not in her heart. She eventually came to see her suffering over the absence of God in her life as her form of identifying with Christ’s suffering, a yearning that itself demonstrated his presence in her life. Of course, as Daylight Atheism (where I found this story) points out, these teachings “further demonstrate the unfalsifiable nature of religious belief. When God’s presence is felt, that is evidence of God’s existence; when God’s presence is not felt, that is also considered evidence of God’s existence. These beliefs are formulated to be perfectly circular, immune to logic.”

But that’s not where I’m going with this.

Here’s where I’m going with this: The woman was suffering horribly at the absence of God in her life. She began to see this suffering as proof of her devotion. Is it any wonder that she became obsessed with suffering as a necessary part of spiritual salvation?

Not just her suffering, but everybody’s?

These new revelations actually make me have more compassion for her than I did before. Ever since I read “The Missionary Position,” I’ve just been pissed. Her vision of a God who wants millions upon millions of babies to be born into suffering, suffer throughout their lives, and die in pain, like a giant human pain factory, is one I find revolting. And the idea of setting up hospitals where hypodermic needles get reused, and hospices where pain medication isn’t offered, seems to me to be missing the point so astronomically it verges on evil. But this story makes me feel for her, in a way I haven’t since I read the Hitchens book. To center your life around your faith in God, to feel a calling to do Jesus’s work — and then to lose that sense of God being present in your life, just as you’ve started doing the work you felt called to do… that has got to suck. Her writing about her mental and emotional pain is eloquent and agonizing, and it makes me feel intensely sorry for her.

But it also makes me angrier at her.

So she was suffering. So what? She should then take out that suffering on thousands and thousands of helpless others? She was being denied the soothing presence of God in her life — so the people in her hospices should be denied the soothing presence of morphine in their lives? She came to terms with the painful hole left in her heart by God’s absence, by accepting her suffering as devotion — so the people in her hospitals should have painful holes in their arms left by re-used, unsterile hypodermic needles, as part of their devotion?

Who the hell was she to make that decision?

What the hell is the point of founding hospitals and hospices, soup kitchens and orphanages, if you think suffering is beautiful and helpful to the world?

And why should thousands upon thousands of people suffer from the ministrations of an incompetent, half-assed charity — funded by sincere donators who thought the charity was competent and entirely-assed — because her inspiration to relieve the suffering of the poor the way Jesus would got twisted into a dark, self-torturing martyr complex in which suffering became the point of life?

The people who gave money for Mother Teresa’s charities assumed she was using it to alleviate the suffering of the poor. And she let them think that. (See above re: funding convents and conversion missions with money intended for charities.) She took their money, meant to help desperately poor people in this life, and let those poor people suffer, preparing them for the next life at the expense of this one. That — and not the smiling profession of a faith she no longer had — is the most shocking hypocrisy of her life.

From Time Magazine, via Daylight Atheism, who has some excellent commentary on the subject.

“Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering
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37 thoughts on ““Where is my Faith”: Mother Teresa and Suffering

  1. Jen

    I hate when people quote MT about abortion. She said something to the effect of, “Why should tiny Christian white babies die so that you can live your life as you wish?” and the nutty Catholics at my college would quote it endlessly. Abortion, in my mind, is the most basic human right, symbolic of all other rights that the Right try to take away from us. If we can’t even make decisions about our own health care, how can we expect to have sex with whatever people we wish, or put our state funds into helpful programs, or (every other goal of a liberal society)?
    Great post. I know some Christians are fan wanking the problem away (on friendlyatheist.com, Mike C explained how religion explains MT’s lack of closeness as meaning she was really close to God, and he totally knows people who knew her, and she was awesome blah blah blah.) but I do think it is an interesting thing to think about, when the usual level of discourse on the woman is generally:
    Atheist: I actually fundamentally disagree with the sainting of-
    Christian: Shut up! Hitchen’s is going to Hell!

  2. 2

    i agree, it makes her a little more human, however for the rest of us when we feel or understand the absence of god we become aethist, we do not seek to injure others. for the women amongst us when we realise how totally anti women the christian faith is we choose to stand up for our sisters. Either way we do not take our internal confusion and pain and twist it. “That way lies dragons.”

  3. 3

    “They were essentially warehouses for people to convert to Catholicism and die.”
    Gee, Greta, that sounds a lot like Auschwitz with a bit of superfluous frou-frou tossed in.
    I keep saying, the only God is the god within. If you don’t believe in yourself and do what you believe in, then yeah, you ARE damned.

  4. 4

    I’ve always been very leery and suspicious of larger than life religious figures….the Pope, Billy Graham, Jim Bakker, etc. etc. I’m also really leery of organized religion, especially Mormonism, Catholicism or any other “ism.”
    I don’t know much about Mother Teresa. I know she was extremely religious. Whether or not she had a living, spiritual walk with God who knows? Often the extremely outwardly religious are the farthest from God. Flowery talk, fanciful prayers and bringing undue attention to one’s fasting are all frowned upon in the New Testament, which encourages people to pray in secret and to “not let the right hand know what the left is doing” when giving to the poor.
    Hers does sound like a terrible position to be in though..and I agree, at least from what I’ve read in your blog, that the ‘religion’ she’s put forth in the world may not be that worthy at all – in fact a detriment.

  5. 6

    Jesus certainly didn’t denigrate faith, but he made it clear that showy religion was bad, and that not everyone who claimed to follow him would go to heaven but those who DID God’s will, which was – in essence – to love and care for people. MT may have loved the poor, I don’t know; but care for them?

  6. 8

    Good day. Let me explain. I just finished Dawkins “The God Delusion” and it was a bit of a shock in the sense it has stirred me up, made me a lot angrier about a lot of things. It’s the first serious lit about atheism I’ve read. So I went looking on the enet onto your website while stumbling around looking for for interesting stuff. Just interested. I confess I’ve always been an atheist but in my case I never openly admitted it for various personal reasons I just didn’t tell anyone I wasn’t a believer if that qualifies. I’ve never met an atheist or known about it. Do they look wildly different?. Do they have secret signs hand signals to let others know? I don’t mean to take up your time but am just enjoying a chance to spout. I’m a brand new boy in town just sniffing around. I find your stuff very interesting and I’ll be a long time looking.

  7. 10

    I’m having a hard time understanding this. Obviously, she thought God was deeply important. But if she didn’t believe in him emotionally–if this disbelief went on for FIFTY YEARS–why didn’t she just stop? Quit being a nun. Give up the whole pursuit of poverty thing. Find out what she actually could commit to emotionally. I think it would have been a lot healthier for her to stop trying to live a lie and to cease attempting to believe in something that she obviously didn’t.
    And where did she get the idea that because she was miserable, God not only wanted her to be miserable, he wanted EVERYONE to be miserable? That doesn’t sound like faith. That sounds like chronic depression. I was physically ill and in pain every day for five years. I know about chronic depression. It does feel like the whole world, the whole universe wants you to be miserable, and that maybe you should just give in and stop fighting, because this is obviously the way that it’s always going to be. And given her world view, I can see that “the whole world wants me to be miserable” would translate to “God wants me to be miserable.”
    I just don’t see why she didn’t do something about it. I don’t understand why she decided that being miserable was all that she or any other human being could or should achieve. I don’t know why she didn’t say to herself at some point, “I don’t LIKE having to pretend that I believe something I don’t. I’m not happy doing what I’m doing. I’m going to try something else.” And then, you know, DO it.
    It’s the passionate commitment to to a situation that has been proven not to work that gets me. It’s completely illogical. And I cannot understand why a supposedly sane human being would put herself through that.
    I’m outraged by her actions, yes. I don’t see any point in making other people miserable because you’re miserable, though I’m sure she thought she was purifying their souls by harrowing their bodies.
    But frankly, I think that she and countless other people would have been a lot better off and her charities a lot more charitable if she’d seen a decent psychiatrist and obtained some Prozac.
    Agnostic. Can you tell?

  8. 12

    R Cameron:
    Right. Exactly. Human. Not a saint. Human.
    Greta makes the point, in her post, that this new information, parodoxically, made her feel MORE sympathy toward M. Teresa, not less.

  9. 13

    No, she was a saint *because* she lasted for 50 years. Atheism is easy, being an intelligent believer is hard. The real test of a mind is how much strain it can take. In that sense Mother Theresa probably had a tougher head than anyone.

  10. 14

    I actually think Mother Theresa’s life makes perfect theological sense and that I can see why someone would emulate it or see her as a saint. (These are things that make me a weak atheist/borderline atheist, probably agnostic).
    1. Why did she carry on suffering? People are acting as if they know nothing about Christian theology which makes me wonder about the credibility of atheists, especially since most have been atheist their entire lives. MT felt OBLIGATED to live EXACTLY as Christ lived: an austere life with passive acceptance of suffering as a means of demonstrating faith and washing away sin. It took me YEARS to get to this point in my thinking, because I felt obligated to follow Christ’s example. It is a spiritual ultimatum, the most monumental ultimatum imaginable (serve or be eternally damned). It’s not something you “just stop” because you “don’t like it”.
    2. Why make others suffer? Because she truly felt that she was doing her duty as a Christian, was called to do this work, and that others were gaining admission to the kingdom of heaven.
    3. Who is she to decide for others? They went to the Mission of their own accord. They could have gone somewhere else. There is a large Hare Krishna Mission in Calcutta also. Besides, she truly felt this was God’s decision, not hers.
    4. Then why did she seek Western medicine for herself? She was probably pressured by colleagues to get medical attention so that she could keep serving as a PR person for the RCC.

  11. 15

    It is easy to tear down. It is much harder to try to build. If you are dissatisfied with her life’s accomplishments, then you try to feed the hungry, and work for the poor. When you have achieved more than she, you will have my respect. Until then you are merely a dissenter who has done nothing to fix the problems in the world, except to criticize those who try to help.

  12. 16

    Since I have actually fed the poor and provided medical help to those in pain, I will say that I *have* acomplished more than she. Because she did not do that. She kept them poor and denied them release from their pain.
    And I agree whole-heartedly with what Greta Christina has to say here.

  13. 17

    “Atheism is easy, being an intelligent believer is hard. The real test of a mind is how much strain it can take.”
    Oh, man. If Joreth hadn’t commented just now, I would never have spotted that little gem. This is one of the most insulting and wrongheaded things you can say to an atheist.
    When I was little, my fundie grandparents used to foist kiddie bible stories on me. I liked to read, so I read them. One had a story about two roads: a big, wide, flat, easy road that led to hell, and a steep, narrow, difficult road that led to heaven. Of course all the nonbelievers were depicted as sauntering along the wide road, on their merry way to hell without a care in the world, while the brave Xians were slogging determinedly up the narrow road, with God and Jesus helping them along.
    I was a little kid, and I didn’t know what I thought about all this religion stuff yet, but I HATED that story. I mean, were they seriously trying to argue that following dogma is “harder” than, you know, thinking for yourself?
    (And contrary to what sexposfemme said, many atheists have NOT been atheists our whole lives, but have arrived here after much thought and internal struggle. And the atheists I know seem to have a better grasp of the bible and theology than your average true believer.)

  14. 18

    I read the Hitchens book just a few months ago, and did a little more poking around into the life of Ma Teresa to see how accurate it was. This blog only emphasizes what I came to believe long ago: To the same extent that faith in God can be wonderful, belief in a religion can be perilous.
    Thank you for this piece.

  15. 20

    I’m a little shaken. You’re claiming that MT, in a way, intentionally erected death camps under the innocuous guise of hospitals in order to purposely inflict suffering?

  16. 21

    Not simply that, but to make money off of the suffering. The same thing happened in Ireland – the Christian Brothers were getting paid per kid by the Irish government.
    So they maximised the number of kids they got, frequently seperating kids from perfectly good, if poor, homes in order to get the tax money.
    And then, once they had the kids, they built up a whole system designed specifically to abuse them – so that they could point to the kids who would underachieve, or fight back or become angry or sullen and say “look at what we have to work with, give us more money.”
    And of course, those who didn’t come out of it as being damaged, the “success stories” well, they could point to those as their good work.
    You see the thing with faith, the perversity of it, is this sort of thing plays right into the religious perceptual bias – no real difference to miracle healings when you get down to it. The Irish situation went on for decades before the scandal broke.
    And was pretty much the same thing that makes me as an African oppose missionaries, and aid to Africa. The aim of these charities is not to solve problems, it is to make the problems profitable.

  17. 22

    My friend twitted the link to this blog, and I read it more for the excellent style than for its substance. I feel blessed for I never had any reason whatsoever to even wonder where am I on the theology scale. Truly blessed. I just don’t take sides because I don’t need anything from either of them. I’m a single mother who doesn’t need to get married to a representative of any gender, I treat depression with Zoloft, and generally ignore anything I can’t prove via senses or logic. When I see a sufferer, I give.
    I’ve been thinking of the downsides of being blessed in this way, but couldn’t find any.

  18. 23

    I think whatever MT had done, she had done according to her capacity as a human. It’s not easy believing in something so wholeheartedly and in the entirety of mind and without any doubt even for a single minute – let alone for a span of a lifetime.
    Humans are not perfect. To doubt is one of the prime imperfections of humans. I think faith is a neverending battle and one is definitely bound to slip off somewhere along the way. How’d you people feel if you have to run all day long? You’re bound to slow down and even stop entirely. Call it another shot, maybe…soon? Later? Or even, tomorrow? How about never?
    For 50 years MT had lost faith in God… So what? Come judgement day, God will get His payback on HER – and not somelse in her place. She might had pretended, but who can say for definitely that the religion she held was false? And if Christianity is the right religion and many people had been inspired to give more, help more, be kind more and not to just casually abort babies because of her – wouldn’t God be counting her been doing the right things all these times? And inspiring people to be better, kinder and more helpful despite your inner turmoil, is that a bad thing?
    Besides, 50 years is a very long time to keep a faith strong. No human could withstand that kind of stretch without having doubts clouding their faith somewhere along the way. I don’t believe that for the 50 years she claimed to have not had faith, there couldn’t be one tiny and single moment that she actually believed God and had faith in Him. So, keep it real people. Even saints were just human. Whether she was right or wrong, it’s not for us to judge because we are just human, like her, doubtful and flawed.

  19. 25

    The writer of this article should be embarrassed to even call themselves a writer. What an uneducated, dull person, who relies on no evidence at all for her article. And by the way, if you think abortion is so justifiable, why shouldn’t we murder all the poor that are suffering anyway? It’s better to kill innocent babies that can feel everything, that don’t even get a chance?

  20. 30

    I read the article about mother teresa and her works. I feel you are not understood her humane and divinity properly. It is easy to criticize somebody but to do that same activity is very painful. I challenge you all to do the works she had done. Good attitude always look good of the other. You need to change your attitude towards human being and their suffering. You can not judge the intention of the other on any matter. Because we can not understand a human being in its totality. You will not be able to understand your self at least 20%. so think before you judge. Let she live in the heart of the poor and the needy. If you can help people without any profit show it. Actions speak louder than words.

  21. 31

    I have heard this claim about her withholding pain medication before, but I have not seen it substantiated. The charge that conditions were poor in the hospices could be due to the overwhelming numbers of people seeking their help, and the lack of adequate resources.

  22. 32

    Of the overwhelming number of people seeking her aid, most were turned away, they were referred to as `family cases’. The reason the resources were not adequate for the few she did accept was that most of the money she raised went straight to the Vatican and most of the rest went to founding convents elsewhere.

  23. 33

    What annoys me about you is that you seem to speak from a pedestal as if you’ve done anything along the works of what she did.
    She has made 610 missions in 123 countries, and who are you to speak about how bad they were, no doubt living in your comfortable upper-middle class suburban fortress? You think everywhere has the resources and money to make a perfect hospital?
    She has inspired hundreds and has a legacy of charities and community service today. She had a positive effect on the world in terms of actually helping people.
    Even as an atheist myself, I have to say, what the fuck have you done? I’ll quote another guy who you conveniently refuse to respond to
    “It is easy to tear down. It is much harder to try to build. If you are dissatisfied with her life’s accomplishments, then you try to feed the hungry, and work for the poor. When you have achieved more than she, you will have my respect. Until then you are merely a dissenter who has done nothing to fix the problems in the world, except to criticize those who try to help.”
    What seriously pissed me off was Joreth implying that her little help at soup kitchens and administering medical relief is even comparable to Teresas influence on the world.
    Again, this is coming from an atheist. I doubt you’ll respond, as you always seem to conveniently avoid the hard questions and comments.

  24. 34

    @ Chanceux:
    Please note that arguments do not become more true when not responded to. Your case was as true or false at the moment you typed it as it will ever be – its truth value will not improve if Greta fails to answer it (a comment, I note, on a four year old post, made days before she moves this entire site.)
    And if a person believes that medical care should transmit disease, or that the sick and injured should be in pain rather than not, I will feel free to hold myself superior to that person, thank you very much, whatever her reputation. If she couldn’t supply her clinics with the bare essentials of medicine then she shouldn’t have bothered. A “hospital” without clean needles or painkillers or even basic sanitation is not a good deed, it is an inefficient abattoir.

  25. 35

    R. Bauer: thank you for writing what I started to write, but deleted because I couldn’t say it as well.
    I will say that the Missionaries of Charity do a great deal of good work other than their hospitals, sheltering and feeding many people.
    But Mother Theresa’s name is often used as a synonym for charitable perfection, and that’s simply not true.

  26. Jim

    Why do any of you care if a religion you consider ridiculous makes someone a saint? You read a couple of books that don’t seem to have much proof and suddenly you’re experts…what do any of you do for the poor? Writing a shitty blog doesn’t make you anyone special. The net is full of you clowns. The fact is you guys all sit and preach you’re own style of religion and mock others who do the same….Grow up. Live and let live.

  27. 37

    Must be where Jerry Moonbeam Brown learned compassion. Right away he cut spending for the elderly, disabled, and children and education – just to keep the State employee’s pension funds and their taxpayer funded salaries intact.

    Took another $17.00 from me on top of Arnie’s $62.00 reduction. Now I get a whopping $850.40; thank god for the 40 cents! Makes it so much easier to live in CA.

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