Tuesday, June 2, 2009

10-7-2007: 27th Ordinary Time (C)

Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4/Psalm 95/2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14/Luke 17:5-10
Jesus scolds the apostles in today’s gospel -- for having less faith than a measly mustard seed. Having just finished Mother Teresa - Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” I wonder if Jesus should include her in his reproach as well. “In my soul,” Mother Teresa wrote, “I feel that terrible pain of loss…of God not really existing…(t)he loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable – Where is my faith?...there is nothing but emptiness & darkness.” Powerful words these, and quite an admission of doubt, coming from someone most thought of as the embodiment of a serene faith and confident assurance. She wasn’t. And I’m glad.

And so is Christopher Hitchens, militant atheist and author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In his recent review of Mother Teresa’s revelations (Newsweek, September 10), the acerbic Hitchens speaks in persona Christi as it were, echoing Jesus’ words to his faithless apostles, welcoming Mother into his lair of atheists for her honest admission of doubt. For Hitchens, Mother Teresa has paid the price of admission summed up in his rather neat tautology: “the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.”

If you could forgive Hitchens his caustic pen and condescending arrogance for a moment, you might well grant him his point about Mother Teresa being a veritable doubter. It seems to me, though, semantics clouds perception. What does Mother Teresa really mean by faith – hard to say from these letters. And what does Hitchens really mean by doubt? And do the rest of us think that doubt and faith are polar opposites? Perhaps poetry offers an insight into the dilemma:

And now with truth clothe all about
and I will question free
the man who fears to doubt O Lord
in that fear doubteth thee

None of this would be interesting at all, of course, if it weren’t for the nagging fact – a fact of inestimable significance that neither defender nor attacker of Mother Teresa can ignore – “the work” as she called it. The personal and selfless caring for tens of thousands of horribly distraught, dying, maggot-ridden human beings from the world’s worst slums, along with the countless lonely and abandoned souls -- “the work.” “The work,” a living monument to personal responsibility, the caring for the poorest of the poor, was born of her search for the lover she thought had abandoned her and left her in darkness, feeling nothing but emptiness. She came to see, in those for whom she cared, her beloved in distressing disguise; and she found solace, not in prayer or religion, but in their humble company. It is hard to acknowledge that such extraordinary work by such an ordinary woman could be the fruit of atheism, realized or not, though it may indeed have been born from a harvest of doubt.

What is not so important but nevertheless intriguing is why someone like Christopher Hitchens is so obsessed with Mother Teresa. He claims to want to uncover hypocrisy but, perhaps, it is the intrigue itself which captivates him. For what is intrigue, anyway, but the veneer of mystery? “If I ever become a Saint,” Mother wrote, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

For those of us who stand in darkness and struggle with doubt, those words are strangely assuring coming as they do from a now self-confessed doubter. And, who knows, maybe that’s why Christopher Hitchens can’t let go of Mother either, as her legacy lights a path which he rapaciously follows. He best be careful though, lest in following that path he suddenly find himself inside the door of the very institution he has spent a career degrading. Christopher Hitchens – Catholic convert. Now that would be a headline to catch your attention, making any miraculous cure from terminal cancer or the like seem small-time indeed. And it wouldn’t be bad for Newsweek either.

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