Mother Teresa and the Ecstasy of Suffering

This is an excerpt from Young, Sick, and Invisible.

The world praised Mother Teresa for her service to humanity since well before her death. Yet we have now seen the publication of several books and studies showing that the praise she has received may have been unwarranted. Her organization raised millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars—certainly enough to build a state-of-the-art hospital that could have either cured, treated, or at least made comfortable the suffering to which she tended.

Instead, Mother Teresa spoke out about the blessedness of suffering. Suffering brings us closer to God, she said, because the suffering of the sick mimics Christ’s suffering on the cross. In the minds of many Catholics, and other Christian sects as well, suffering confers a type of holiness. While it may seem nice, perhaps beneficial, to so elevate the status of those who suffer, in reality it can be just as damaging as the idea that suffering is deserved. When suffering is elevated to a state of holiness, there is little reason to lessen it. People stop seeing prolonged suffering as something that is happening to people, but rather as a sort of sacrament. If suffering isn’t something that happens to people, to human beings, but rather happens to inspirational objects, then accessibility doesn’t matter. Then access to healthcare and prescriptions and pain management isn’t important. If suffering is good, then what does it matter if it is just the result of illness and disability itself or also caused by poverty and hardship?

What’s more, it cultivates an expectation that people with illnesses and disabilities must conform to a narrative of holiness. They cannot writhe or snivel in pain and desperation, they must become the wise blind guru, or the cheerful wheelchair-bound inspiration. They must keep their chins uplifted and teach us important lessons about human perseverance.
Those of us who are ill or disabled lose our humanity to these ideals. When we refuse to conform to this image of ecstatic suffering, we are shamed. If we speak out about the barriers we face, we are being too negative. If we admit to being unhappy, or even angry, at our lot, we are told by people who have never experienced the same level of pain to “think
positive” or “look on the bright side.” Our suffering is not something we
feel, but something meant to inspire others.

When we abandon religion, we are even greater traitors than those who do so while happy or healthy. A comfortable person might be expected to forget religion, becoming complacent, only to return to God when times get hard. When people for whom times are always hard abandon religion, it challenges a foundational faith narrative. Suffering is supposed to bring us closer to God, to give us understanding of what he went through, to
make us humble. We are supposed to be grateful for this lesson and act as an example to all those who forget faith when times are good. It is never considered how faith itself may have contributed to our suffering.

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Mother Teresa and the Ecstasy of Suffering
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One thought on “Mother Teresa and the Ecstasy of Suffering

  1. 1

    That ghoul being sainted was also on the kiddie news I watch with my girls. To be fair, they also mentioned that lots of people criticised her, so this left the little one confused (I think my “that old ghoul” comment may have contributed), so she asked for more information.
    I explained to them that when they are sick, I give them medication to make them feel better. They know that Ibuprofen will help them over a bad cold and make it bearable. And that Mother Theresa thought that you shouldn’t do that, that you shouldn’t alleviate suffering but that people should be in pain.
    Also, they didn’t take care in their hospitals so people got even worse and many died who didn’t have to die.
    She thought for a moment and said “but why did they make her a saint then?”

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