Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Legacy of Mother Teresa

Recently on Facebook, noted author Anne Rice linked a  Forbes article about Mother Teresa and allegations of less than sterling care provided by her houses and sisters.  Thiis controversy really isn't new; The medical journal Lancet wrote something similar several years ago. While I haven't devoted time or energy to determining the validity of these pieces, I did write a chapter on Mother Teresa in my upcoming book Facing Adversity with Grace. (I've also written  a book of her quotes, linked to bible verses called Listening to God with Mother Teresa.)

In the upcoming book on Adversity, I wrote:

As we look at the life of Mother Teresa, there something else about her attitude toward suffering that we need to examine, a feature that has generated some criticism from her detractors and that is her so-called “theology of suffering.” It was widely claimed in the medical press that because she believed ‘the most beautiful gift for a person (is) that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ,”[1] she did not do as much as she could to procure medical treatment for those in her Homes for the Dying and even subjected the patients to such practices as cold baths and the withholding of pain medication.
Whether or not they are true, these accusations remind us that saints are recognized for their passionate love of God, not for their infallibility. In looking at Mother Teresa’s life and the mental suffering she experienced, it isn’t difficult to see why she might have developed a particular theology that almost relishes suffering. She knew that she was offering her entire life to God as a gift and she also knew that she was in great mental anguish for most of it. She had to also have been aware that her “dark night” was like that of John of the Cross who, as an antidote to the pain, recommended, “Do the most difficult, the harshest, the less pleasant, the unconsoling, the lowest and most despised, want nothing, look for the worst”[2] for she clearly modeled her life and that of her sisters on that credo.
The problem is that one of the greatest temptations for all of us to assume that our personal experience is universal. We tend to generalize from our specific experiences. This may be what happened with Mother Teresa. Since she experienced her suffering as a blessing, it’s not hard to imagine she believed that similar suffering it would bring blessings to everyone. Because she was able to transform her pain into a love offering to God, it’s not out of the question to think she might assume that would be equally true for everyone else.
From believing that suffering is a great gift that you can give to God, it’s a very small step to wanting to make sure that others have ample opportunity to give that same gift to God. Thus, Mother Teresa might well have had an aversion to painkillers and a desire to implement stringent self-disciplinary practices in order to insure that the people she served were given ample opportunities to offer up their pain just as she did.
Here is where we can use Mother Teresa, not so much as an example of what we should do, but as a caution against what we might be tempted to do. God deals with each of us as individuals, including the suffering that he allows in our lives. We should be wary of extrapolating our unique experience into a generality for all people. Mother Teresa was a remarkable icon of holiness for our time. But she was also human and subject to assuming that the way God dealt with her was the way he deals with all people. This is not to say that her desire to offer up suffering was bad. It isn’t. In fact, offering up pain is one of the major lessons we can learn from the saints. But it’s not our job to see that others have a chance to suffer in order to offer up that suffering. What that means on a practical level in our own families is that while we may undertake certain disciplines (such as rising early for prayer or fasting), it’s not our right to insist that our spouses or children share those disciplines. All suffering, both that allowed by God and that created by our own choices, is always unique to the individual. Because of that, we have no right to try to “help” others find ways to suffer. Rest assured, they will find ample opportunity on their own.



  1. What a great way to look at a controversial topic. This makes good sense.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I believe we have to be aware of where people come from before we criticize them unduly.


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