For many  years I have been of two minds about Bl. Mother Teresa.  What turned me off was a roundtable discussion I had with my friends at university — all of us Catholic at the time.  One said, ‘She doesn’t even dispense aspirin.  They’re just lying there on pallets.  The nuns step over them.’

At the time, I couldn’t believe it, but I’ve kept that in mind ever since.

(The image on the left is a note from Mother Teresa, courtesy of kicks.org.uk.)

It’s extremely rare to read any criticism of Mother Teresa.  This was true when she was alive and equally so since the Catholic Church beatified her in October 2003 (during Pope John Paul II’s papacy).  The beatification bestows the title ‘Blessed’. One more miracle makes her eligible for canonisation as a formally recognised Catholic saint.

Yet, the story behind Mother Teresa is darker than even I would have imagined.  It serves as a cautionary tale for those who wish to play around with contemplative prayer and other mystical practices.  Never mind what Fullerites like Richard Foster, John Ortberg and others tell you.  Mystical prayer is hazardous to your soul.

What ‘Jesus’ said

Mother Teresa notionally communicated regularly with Jesus.  He had harsh things to say about  her as a person, apparently.  It’s not that He criticised what she was doing;  he allegedly criticised her being, her personality.

Time magazine ran a lengthy article on the nun’s self-diagnosed ‘spiritual dryness’ (errgh) on August 23, 2007, ‘Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith’.  Some of what you read below are excerpts from the book Time examined, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), compiled and edited by the Revd Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Catholic priest with the Missionaries of Charity,  Mother Teresa’s religious order.  He is also her postulator (sponsor) for her canonisation.

Mother Teresa did not wish for her correspondence to be retained posthumously, but the Catholic Church, it seems, overruled her request.  What follows is some of that correspondence (emphases mine).  Not all of these are in chronological order.

To a confessor, the Revd Celeste Van Esem:

Jesus gave Himself to me.

To Archbishop Ferdinand Périer in 1947, a prayer dialogue she recounts:

[Jesus:] Wilt thou refuse to do this for me? … You have become my Spouse for my love — you have come to India for Me. The thirst you had for souls brought you so far — Are you afraid to take one more step for Your Spouse — for me — for souls? Is your generosity grown cold? Am I a second to you?
[Teresa:] Jesus, my own Jesus — I am only Thine — I am so stupid — I do not know what to say but do with me whatever You wish — as You wish — as long as you wish. [But] why can’t I be a perfect Loreto Nun — here — why can’t I be like everybody else.
[Jesus:] I want Indian Nuns, Missionaries of Charity, who would be my fire of love amongst the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children … You are I know the most incapable person — weak and sinful but just because you are that — I want to use You for My glory. Wilt thou refuse?

In a letter from 1948, shortly after her arrival in Calcutta:

My soul at present is in perfect peace and joy.

Also from 1948, still recently arrived in the city:

… we went to Taltala Bazaar, and there was a very poor woman dying I think of starvation more than TB … I gave her something which will help her to sleep. — I wonder how long she will last.

Two months later in 1948:

What tortures of loneliness.  I wonder how long will my heart suffer this?

March 1953, to Archbishop Périer:

Please pray specially for me … for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything were dead.  It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.

In 1955, to Archbishop Périer:

The more I want Him — the less I am wanted.

In 1956:

Such deep longing for God — and … repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. [Saving] souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing

In 1958, Pius XII dies and Teresa feels a brief respite of peace as she prays to him for the Sisters:

proof that God is pleased with the Society … then and there … disappeared the long darkness … that strange suffering of ten years.

In 1959, her crisis of faith resumes:

What do I labour for?  If there be no God — there can be no soul — if there is no soul, then Jesus — You also are not true.

To Jesus (at a confessor’s suggestion):

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.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?

To the Revd Michael van der Peet, a spiritual confidant:

Jesus has a very special love for you … [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand.

To Fr van der Peet 11 weeks later:

Christ in our hearts, in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give and in the smile that we receive.

To an unnamed spiritual adviser:

I spoke as if my heart was in love with God — tender, personal love.  If you were [there], you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy’.

You get the idea.  Time recounts a revolving door of spiritual advisers:

Teresa progressed from confessor to confessor the way some patients move through their psychoanalysts. Van Exem gave way to Périer, who gave way in 1959 to the Rev. (later Cardinal) Lawrence Picachy, who was succeeded by the Rev. Joseph Neuner in 1961. By the 1980s the chain included figures such as Bishop William Curlin of Charlotte, N.C. For these confessors, she developed a kind of shorthand of pain, referring almost casually to “my darkness” and to Jesus as “the Absent One.”

It would seem doubtful that Jesus would ever tell someone they are ‘incapable’. Unthinkable and blasphemous is the possibility of some sort of simulated conjugal rapture. (Yes, I know that other saints who were nuns had the same ‘mystical’ experience.  So wrong.)

Yet, had Teresa read the Bible instead of messing with contemplative prayer, she probably would have not had a 50-year crisis of faith.

Some theologians speculate that she had adopted an apophatic outlook — a negative theology — in her Christianity.  Wikipedia explains:

positive theology is always inferior to negative theology, a step along the way to the superior knowledge attained by negation.[10] This is expressed in the idea that mysticism is the expression of dogmatic theology par excellence.[11]

Negative theology has a place in the Western Christian tradition as well, although it is definitely much more of a counter-current to the prevailing positive or cataphatic traditions central to Western Christianity. For example, theologians like Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz), mentioned above, exemplify some aspects of or tendencies towards the apophatic tradition in the West. The medieval work, The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul are particularly well-known in the West.

One would be forgiven for asking how the Catholic Church could have even contemplated beatifying her.  And to think that as John Paul II abolished the post of Devil’s Advocate in 1983, he had to rely on the testimony of an atheist, Christopher Hitchens, to do that job.  Talk about Devil’s Advocate — from consulting a pious priest to an impious unbeliever.  Whatever next?

In any event, perhaps the apophatic tradition played a big role.  Even so, anyone who is in such spiritual darkness for at least half of her life must be viewed accordingly.  She is no saint.

An insider’s view — a former sister speaks

Susan Shields is a Catholic convert who was a Missionaries of Charity sister for nearly 10 years before she left the order.  She gives us an insight into life in Mother Teresa’s community, the needs of the patients and the misplaced generosity of the donors.  Teresa’s was neither a sanctified life nor was it biblical.

On the sisters:

Three of Mother Teresa’s teachings that are fundamental to her religious congregation are all the more dangerous because they are believed so sincerely by her sisters. Most basic is the belief that as long as a sister obeys she is doing God’s will. Another is the belief that the sisters have leverage over God by choosing to suffer. Their suffering makes God very happy. He then dispenses more graces to humanity. The third is the belief that any attachment to human beings, even the poor being served, supposedly interferes with love of God and must be vigilantly avoided or immediately uprooted. The efforts to prevent any attachments cause continual chaos and confusion, movement and change in the congregation. Mother Teresa did not invent these beliefs … but she did everything in her power (which was great) to enforce them.

Women from many nations joined Mother Teresa in the expectation that they would help the poor and come closer to God themselves. When I left, there were more than 3,000 sisters in approximately 400 houses scattered throughout the world. Many of these sisters who trusted Mother Teresa to guide them have become broken people. In the face of overwhelming evidence, some of them have finally admitted that their trust has been betrayed, that God could not possibly be giving the orders they hear. It is difficult for them to decide to leave – their self-confidence has been destroyed, and they have no education beyond what they brought with them when they joined. I was one of the lucky ones who mustered enough courage to walk away.

On the donors:

As a Missionary of Charity, I was assigned to record donations and write the thank-you letters. The money arrived at a frantic rate. The mail carrier often delivered the letters in sacks. We wrote receipts for checks of $50,000 and more on a regular basis. Sometimes a donor would call up and ask if we had received his check, expecting us to remember it readily because it was so large. How could we say that we could not recall it because we had received so many that were even larger?

When Mother spoke publicly, she never asked for money, but she did encourage people to make sacrifices for the poor, to “give until it hurts.” Many people did – and they gave it to her. We received touching letters from people, sometimes apparently poor themselves, who were making sacrifices to send us a little money for the starving people in Africa, the flood victims in Bangladesh, or the poor children in India. Most of the money sat in our bank accounts.

The flood of donations was considered to be a sign of God’s approval of Mother Teresa’s congregation. We were told by our superiors that we received more gifts than other religious congregations because God was pleased with Mother, and because the Missionaries of Charity were the sisters who were faithful to the true spirit of religious life.

Poverty, despite the cash:

Mother was very concerned that we preserve our spirit of poverty. Spending money would destroy that poverty. She seemed obsessed with using only the simplest of means for our work. Was this in the best interests of the people we were trying to help, or were we in fact using them as a tool to advance our own “sanctity?” In Haiti, to keep the spirit of poverty, the sisters reused needles until they became blunt. Seeing the pain caused by the blunt needles, some of the volunteers offered to procure more needles, but the sisters refused.

We begged for food and supplies from local merchants as though we had no resources. On one of the rare occasions when we ran out of donated bread, we went begging at the local store. When our request was turned down, our superior decreed that the soup kitchen could do without bread for the day.

It was not only merchants who were offered a chance to be generous. Airlines were requested to fly sisters and air cargo free of charge. Hospitals and doctors were expected to absorb the costs of medical treatment for the sisters or to draw on funds designated for the religious. Workmen were encouraged to labor without payment or at reduced rates. We relied heavily on volunteers who worked long hours in our soup kitchens, shelters, and day camps.

A hard-working farmer devoted many of his waking hours to collecting and delivering food for our soup kitchens and shelters. “If I didn’t come, what would you eat?” he asked.

Our Constitution forbade us to beg for more than we needed, but, when it came to begging, the millions of dollars accumulating in the bank were treated as if they did not exist.

Have you ever wondered over the years why, with all the donations, we aren’t seeing healthier people where Mother Teresa’s congregation operates?  There should be thousands of cured people, but there aren’t.  This shameful hoarding of cash — for what?  God grants the sisters plenty of money through helpful people around the world and what did Teresa and the congregation do?  Put it in a bank instead of healing and comforting the poor.

She wouldn’t even let the sisters can tomatoes!

One summer the sisters living on the outskirts of Rome were given more crates of tomatoes than they could distribute. None of their neighbors wanted them because the crop had been so prolific that year. The sisters decided to can the tomatoes rather than let them spoil, but when Mother found out what they had done she was very displeased. Storing things showed lack of trust in Divine Providence.

That is pathological, nothing less.  One question — what about storing money meant for the poor and suffering?  Oh, yes, I forgot — suffering is sanctity.  God is pleased.  Irony alert — suffering for the sake of it is not in the Bible.  There is nothing ‘holy’ or ‘sanctifying’ about it.

Did Jesus walk on past lepers saying that they suffered for Him? No. What about people who were possessed by demons?  Did He say, ‘Hey ho, never mind’?  No — He healed lepers, the blind, the infirm, those at death’s door, the possessed.

There is something deeply disturbed and demonic about a nun whose congregation is ostensibly a palliative care provider of sorts to the poor yet gives a sedative to a hungry woman, forbids Sisters from preserving food and forces everyone with whom they come in contact — including themselves — to suffer needlessly.

Mother Teresa was no saint.

Tomorrow: More about the ‘Blessed’ Mother Teresa