Mother Teresa's Redemption

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By now, many will have heard about the recent revelations concerning Mother Teresa of Calcutta's crisis of faith.  The book version is now out, containing her private correspondence with her spiritual mentors, titled Come Be My Light.  The caption quote to the TIME magazine article sums up Mother Teresa's spiritual testimony over the last 66 years of her life: "Jesus has a very special love for you.  As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear."

I will not be surprised if some conservative Protestants respond almost with glee, mocking her spiritual darkness as a classic instance of the futility of salvation by works.  This may be right, though any delight over it is both tasteless and callous; her testimony certainly is disheartening from an evangelical view of the Christian faith.  But this is not what is on my mind concerning Mother Teresa.  What most fascinates me is the eagerness of the Roman Catholic Church to publicize a testimony of spiritual despair and darkness from one of its leading heroines of recent years.  Were Mother Teresa an evangelical missionary leader, such private writings would in all probability be supressed.  But Rome cannot publish them quickly enough.  This reality is very revealing, in my opinion, and worthy of reflection.

First, let me say that I already considered Mother Teresa to be a fascinating spiritual icon.  Constantly celebrated for her sacrificial virtue and extraordinary good deeds, she nonetheless never (to my knowledge) articulated the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ.  Mother Teresa in this respect has been something of a hot potato to evangelicals: some admiring her too much to say anything derogatory about her "works-righteousness" and others all too glad to denounce her life as a self-righteous example of classic Romish heresy. 

But reading the TIME article on her "crisis of faith" I think that "work-righteousness" is not the correct grid to place on Mother Teresa's life and legacy.  In this respect, it is important to recognize that there are many streams of Roman Catholic piety.  There is the sacramental indulgence approach, perhaps most common among the peasant class, whereby pilgrims seek spiritual leverage by venerating saintly relics (at a price, of course).  There is the monastic good works approach, typified by the monkish Martin Luther (who said, "If anyone could get into heaven by monkery, I would have been the one." ) There is the penitential approach, probably most common among Roman Catholics in the West today, whereby one maintains a relationship with God (really, the Church) via the mass, confession, and penance.  But there is also the mystical way, pioneered by such luminaries as St. Teresa of Avila, who was made famous by her ecstatic visions of the Lord.  Most Roman Catholics will have bits and pieces of most of these (Luther tried them all of them prior to "discovering" the gospel), with one of them as the leading approach to spirituality. 

Prior to reading some of Mother Teresa's private correspondence, I had thought of her as an intense example of the monkish good works type of Roman Catholicism.  But, in light of these recent revelations, it seems clear to me that this is not really true.  Mother Teresa's writings do not speak of a woman who is seeking merit with God by her acts of service.  Rather, she seems to present a classic instance of the mystical way, and her tortured darkness offers a dire warning of the perils of this approach to God. 

Some parallels between Mother Teresa and the famous mystic St. Teresa are striking.  I am intrigued by the fact that they share the same name.  Did Mother Teresa take up this name as a nun with specific reference to St. Teresa of Avila?  It seems quite possible.  Secondly, the Vatican's almost immediate motivation to canonize Mother Teresa is reminiscent of the earlier Teresa, who was made a saint only 30 years after her death.  (Top mystics are almost automatically looked upon as "saints").  Also, there is the driving theme of Christ's love in both of their writings.  St. Teresa's visions of rapturous divine love are almost erotic; Mother Teresa's certainly seem to be at least highly romantic.  These parallels seem to confirm that Mother Teresa was not a works-righteousness Roman Catholic but a highly motivated traveller on the mystical way.

The result of this seems to be that Mother Teresa thought of her salvation primarily in terms of mystical experiences.  Her mission to Calcutta was reportedly received in a most striking vision in which Jesus Himself charged her: "Come, Come, carry Me into the holes of the poor.  Come be My Light."  The rest of her life seems to have been spent in pursuit of a repitition of this ecstatic high.  Most evangelicals probably read her complaints about Christ's absence as merely reflecting some kind of spiritual depression.  But it is clear from Mother Teresa's correspondence that what she was looking for was another ecstatic visionary experience.  Her idea of salvation was to participate mystically in deity itself.  To have such an experience was to have Christ.  To fail to achieve this mystic height was to be without Christ.

This leads to the main reflections I want to offer in light of Mother Teresa's new book.  The first is that instead of offering a primer on the despair of works-righteousness, she really offers a primer on the perils of mystical, ecstatic Christianity.  In this respect, Mother Teresa should be considered not merely as a Roman Catholic but as a Charismatic.  Why was her faith so dry and dead, as she lamented for over sixty years?  One key answer seems to be that her faith was not rooted in the Word of God, but in experiential ecstacy.  In this, parallels can be seen between Mother Teresa and Christians of many stripes -- many of them evangelicals -- whose faith is driven by spiritual experiences instead of by the truth of God's Word.  How much of the frantic, sterile restlessness of the evangelical culture today is charged by this same drive. 

It is here, in my view, that Mother Teresa's unrelenting correspondence of despair provides a lesson to others.  When Christ promises, "My peace I give to you," he is referring not to fleeting ecstacies but to His shepherd's voice in the Word.  If I had the privilege of ministering to Mother Teresa's desperate search for a living faith, I would have referred to Peter's remarkable commendation of the Holy Scriptures, which he estimated above the most privileged and ecstatic of experiences (in his case, Peter seems to be comparing Scripture to his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration): "We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place" (2 Pet. 1:19).  Even if one has had a true ecstatic experience -- as Peter had on the mount with Christ -- one should seek the brighter and clearer light that shines in God's Word.

My second reflection concerns the Roman Catholic Church.  As I mentioned above, I am sure that most evangelical churches would have suppressed correspendence like that of Mother Teresa's.  Why?  Because from an evangelical standpoint, Mother Teresa's terminal case of spiritual darkness would have sullied her outward testimony beyond repair.  An evangelical understanding of faith (a biblical understanding of faith) is incompatible with the ceaseless dirge of Mother Teresa's inner despair.  She speaks of the total absence of God from her inner life: "Empty... no faith... no love... no zeal," she is described by one intimate.  Imagine a postumous biography of Billy Graham, D. James Kennedy or Rick Warren revealing such a persistent spiritual state.  The effect would be to obliterate their influence in evangelical circles.  Jesus said, "Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (Jn. 8:12).  Simply put, the spiritual testimony of Mother Teresa is directly contrary to the depiction offered by Jesus in the Bible.

But here is the remarkable thing about Mother Teresa.  It is already clear that her private correspondence will have the exact opposite effect within Roman Catholicism.  Her ceaseless spiritual darkness will almost certainly catapult her to the highest echelons of Romish celebrity.  Mother Teresa will be the new St. Teresa, a heroine of mystic redemptive suffering.  After all, the editor of her collection is one of her greatest admirers -- the priest in charge of her application for sainthood.  Her spiritual despair is already being celebrated as one of the highest instances of true spiritualitiy.  Indeed, Mother Teresa is being accoladed for a singular achievement of mystical communion with God.  And this is the ultimate goal of mystical spirituality: to achieve mystical participation in the Godhead.  It is just that the facet of the divine she experienced happens to be the agony of Jesus on the cross when he cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  Indeed, to her fervent admirers, Mother Teresa is already being venerated as one who fits the role ascribed in the Bible to Christ: she exemplifies what it means to be a suffering savior.  Her decades of spiritual torment were a ministry of atonement for the world.  "I am willing to suffer... for all eternity," she wrote. 

Most tragic to me was the analogy drawn by one of Mother Teresa's apologists.  He writes, "Let's say you're married and you fall in love and you believe with all your heart that marriage is a sacrament.  And your wife, God forbid, gets a stroke and she's comatose.  And you will never experience her love again.  It's like loving and caring for a person for 50 years and once in a while you complain to your spiritual director, but you know on the deepest level that she loves you even though she's silent and that what you're doing makes sense.  Mother Teresa knew that what she was doing made sense."  What is so horrific about this analogy is that the comatose spouse is none other than Jesus Christ. 

What kind of savior is this: one we relate to as a faithful spouse relates to his comatose lover?  Yet this is the analogy drawn from Mother Teresa's life, all too accurately, I fear.  She is the selfless savior; Christ is the silent, impotent lover.  Underlining it all was a lack of belief in the all-sufficiency of the finished work of Christ.  In its place was a desperate passion to offer love to an emotionally crippled Messiah.  Whereas the Bible says, "We love because he first loved us" (1 Jn. 4:19), the spirituality of Mother Teresa despairingly cries, "Perhaps if I love Him enough, He will then be able to love me."

If this is the case, Mother Teresa should not be venerated for the towering height of her spiritual achievement.  What she accomplished should continue to be admired on its own merits.  But as a spiritual example, she is to be sincerely and compassionately pitied.  In saying this, I do not mean to declare her as damned; such a pronouncement is beyond my authority or competence.  But reading the pieces of her correspondence, I found myself lamenting that someone so noble as Mother Teresa should be led down such a false and tortuous path.  It simply is not Christianity.  Therefore, as a spiritual guide, her example should be shunned. 

In conclusion, I would suggest that Mother Teresa's testimony should turn us away from the path of subjective spiritual experiences and urge us back to the life of faith in God's Word.   Like her, we should long for the presence of Christ in our lives.  But unlike the soon-to-be-sainted yet truly tragic Mother Teresa, let us seek Christ where He is found.  Paul explained: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say?  "The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)" (Rom. 10:6-8).  Paul tells us to seek Christ in the Word of God.  For as our faith rests on God's Word and trusts in the promises of his gospel, we gain Christ and His light shines in our hearts.

But what of redemptive suffering?  Are not believers crucified with Christ?  Indeed we are.  And believers do experience suffering as part and parcel of our redemption (see Phil. 1:29).  But what a world of difference there is between Mother Teresa's model of redemptive suffering -- that is, the Roman Catholic model of redemptive suffering -- one that would suffer not merely "with Christ" or "because of Christ," but would suffer "as Christ" -- with the spirituality described in the Bible.  The apostle Paul, for instance, wrote much of fellowshiping in the suffering of Christ and of being "crucified with Christ."  But Paul never thought that he was participating in the divine work of atonement.  Instead, Paul could say that Christ lived in him and worked through him, not because of what he was doing for or with Christ, because of what Christ had done for him.  Paul declared himself "crucified with Christ," and yet rejoiced that "Christ lives in me".  Why?  Because, he said, "the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal. 2:20).  Not because of what Paul was doing for Christ or because of Paul was experiencing in mystical ecstacy, but because of what Christ had already done in love for him.  Paul's light-bathed spirituality rested on the finished work of Jesus on the cross.  The light that shone in his heart -- but did it shine in Mother Teresa's? -- was this great truth: He died for me.  Therefore, Paul spoke of life, not death for himself ("the life I live"!), since Christ had died already for him.

Will this be the lesson drawn from Mother Teresa's sacrifical and tragic life?  Not as her papal apologists tell it.  But understood through the lens of God's Word, she offers a warning from which professing Christians of all stripes can benefit.

Posted August 30, 2007 @ 12:11 PM by Rick Phillips
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