Wednesday, August 29, 2007

God... and Two Teresas

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?

— addressed by Mother Teresa to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated

I don't believe in God. I think I have made that clear. I don't agonize over my lack of belief. At most, while my father was still alive, I kept my disbelief under wraps for his sake, for the Anglican priest he was, at least when I was in his company, so that I would not disappoint him. I regret that now. I think that we could have had some great discussions, that honesty would have brought us closer--though by that time I had left England for good, and saw him only rarely, once every couple of years or so, for a few hurried days. I went to church on those occasions, out of respect, and perhaps a kind of nostalgia for the ceremony of it, the sights and sounds and smells...

There had been times, I knew, when my father wrestled with doubts about his faith. He lived with chronic stomach problems, chronic health problems of all kinds as he grew older. My father was a great believer in the unity of mind and body, and one who inevitably attributed others' illnesses to "psychosomatic" effects. He loved that word. It must surely have crossed his mind that his own health problems were a symptom of his inner struggle with God. It's a conversation I now wish that I'd had with him--a conversation that might have shed light on my own lack of faith, my own disbelief in the God he worshipped, and taught others--myself included, as a child--to worship with him.

So now we learn about Mother Teresa. The news media are shocked, shocked... and are convinced that we must share their alarm. I don't. It seems to me that the "dark night of the soul" is something every human being is given to experience in one way or another, and that the more sensitive among us will suffer it for longer. For Teresa, it lasted for decades. I see her struggle and read her words as poetry. It doesn't matter to me that they are centered on doubts about the Christian God. In fact, it seems almost irrelevant to me. I have a friend who has suffered it for years, so far as I know a non-believing Jew with a true heart and a fine intelligence. I believe that some few people are given more to suffer than the rest of us. Perhaps it is in some strange way their choice, but it's sad to think of it that way.

There is, of course, as Teresa put it, "such deep longing for God," for some hard evidence that our lives have greater depth and meaning than might seem to be the case, given a brief and sometimes brutish sojourn on this planet Earth. All the beauty in the natural world and in the greater universe is not satisfying for some, who need to project a reason and a justification for these phenomena on some unseen, guiding hand, an "intelligent" designer who oversees their workings and demands obesiance. Should they seek solace from him/her/it in the form of some returned communication--a prayer answered, an intention approved--and should they fail to hear the answer that they seek, they may well find themselves, as Teresa, "repulsed — empty — no faith — no love — no zeal. — [The saving of] Souls holds no attraction — Heaven means nothing — pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything."

It's a piteous plea, and one that sounds a deep emotional truth about the far end of the spectrum between ecstasy and despair. I do not question Mother Teresa's cry of despair any more than I question the ecstasy of that other Teresa,
Teresa of Avila, whose passionate surrender at once to Thanatos and Eros--at least in Bernini's awesome image of her--is also profoundly moving in its sheer humanity, profance, erotic and saintly in the very same breath. It's all poetry to me, and meaningful as such. I don't need God to explain either one to me. I don't even need the "secular spirituality" that
Deepak Chopra would have us embrace if we have abandoned the Christian faith, which seems to me to share the internal squishiness of some New Age simulacra for religion.

So, thank you for those letters, Mother Teresa. I for one don't need you to be a saint. I need you to be the human being you prove yourself to be. Though, without wishing to be cheeky, and with regard to all that suffering, I think you'd have found more comfort in the Buddha's Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path than in your Jesus on the Cross.


Mark said...

Well put. I appreciated this post very much.

As someone has been and who is currently struggling with the notion of God, Mother Theresa and this blog community have helped me a lot recently. As I said yesterday, I think whatever you cling to to help you love others more perfectly, more thoroughly, and just plain better, go for it. Perhaps there isn't one "way," one Tao. You can climb a mountain from any side, take many different routes, and all paths will still lead to the same pinnacle. For me, there's comfort in the idea of loving people for people's sake, not for any other reason.

Eli said...

That's neat that you know Mark Strand, I'd be very interested to learn about his religious or philosophical tendencies, since his poem seems so detached.

To be honest, I don't have a television, nor do I pick up a newspaper very often, so I didn't know about Mother Teresa until you commented on my site. Personally, it's a relief to know that the feelings I have dealt with in the past and continue to deal with today are shared not just by other people, but by people who are perceived to have such great faith. Like Mark, I think Teresa's achievements in light of her struggle make her faith and her works (neither in the "Christian" sense of the words) even more meaningful. To me, Teresa proves that saintly behavior doesn't have to stem directly from a solid faith in the Christian God.

PeterAtLarge said...

Eli, I can't speak for Mark--as I say, I have been out of touch for years--but I would guess, from his work, that he is a skeptical about religion as yours truly. Cheers, PaL

carly said...

'I don't even need the "secular spirituality" '

Oh, but I think you do, P. and you recommended yours to Theresa, the Noble Truths. For the whole thing is about some kind of truth in a cosmos which seems pointless.

The Tao is simply the unknowable. It's not a 'way' in the sense of a dogma or philosophy or route. The perversion of it, Taoism, is the dogma. Jeez. I wish people could get this stuff right. So many misconceptions out there.

One cannot know anything about what is knowable. One simply accepts that it is unknowable and Tao was the name given it in reluctance, because what's unknowable is indescribable. All we know is there is an unknowable which underlies all things and processes. We cannot fathom it.

Having set that straight, it must be stressed, that it cannot be said that something unknowable doesn't have some intangible, to us, dimension beyond us. Therefore, there may be something beyond us. Anyone who says all that we can see is all there is, period, is just as wrong as one who says there is a supreme being sitting in the sky.

Therefore my friends, reserve your pronouncements about that which we cannot know and trust in it's manifestations with awe and wonder and sublime understanding, so that you may go your 'way' in accord with it and die knowing you did. I don't see anything pointless about that.

carly said...

CORRECTION: One cannot know anything about what is knowable.

One cannot know anything about what is UNknowable.

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