Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Does religion demand suffering?

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Religion is often viewed as a response to suffering and source of solace, but it is not unusual for some religions to have adherents who seem to seek suffering, considering it as a good rather than an evil. In AlterNet Valerie Tarico has an interesting interview with a former member of Mother Theresa’s order:

With a new Pope at the helm, the Catholic hierarchy has set about to polish its tarnished image. Can an increased focus on the poor make up for the Church’s opposition to contraception and marriage equality or its sordid [3] financial and sexual affairs? The Bishops can only hope. And pray.  And perhaps accelerate the sainthood of Agnes Gonxha, better known as Mother Teresa.

In the last century, no one icon has improved the Catholic brand as much as the small woman who founded the Missionaries of Charity, whose image aligns beautifully with that of the new pope. In March a team of Canadian researchers noted [4] the opportunity: “What could be better than beatification followed by canonization of [Mother Teresa] to revitalize the Church and inspire the faithful, especially at a time when churches are empty and the Roman authority is in decline?”

The question, however, was more than a little ironic. The team of academics [4] from the Universities of Montreal and Ottawa set out to do research on altruism. In the process, they reviewed over 500 documents about Mother Teresa’s life and compiled an array of disturbing details about the soon-to-be saint, including dubious political connections and questionable management of funds—and, in particular, an attitude toward suffering that could give pause to even her biggest fans.

Passive acceptance or even glorification of suffering can be adaptive when people have no choice. As the much loved Serenity Prayer says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” This attitude of embracing the inevitable is built into not only Christianity but also other religions, especially Buddhism. But passive acceptance ofavoidable suffering is another thing altogether, which is why the prayer continues, “. . . the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

By even her own words, Mother Teresa’s view of suffering made no distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering, and instead cultivated passive acceptance of both. As she put it [5], “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”  Or consider thisanecdote [6] from her life:

 One day I met a lady who was dying of cancer in a most terrible condition. And I told her, I say, “You know, this terrible pain is only the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss you.” And she joined her hands together and said, “Mother Teresa, please tell Jesus to stop kissing me.”

Mother Teresa’s outlook on suffering played out in her order’s homes for the sick and dying, which doctors havedescribed [4] as deficient in hygiene, care, nutrition, and painkillers. Miami resident Hemley Gonzalez was so shocked [7] by his volunteer experience that he has founded an accountable charity [8] to provide better care. “Needles were washed in cold water and reused and expired medicines were given to the inmates. There were people who had chance to live if given proper care,” . . . “I have decided to go back to Kolkata to start a charity that will be called ‘Responsible Charity.’ Each donation will be made public and professional medical help will be given,” Gonzalez said after returning to the U.S. He also launched a Facebook page [9] called, “Stop the Missionaries of Charity.”

Even her critics mostly believe that Mother Teresa was devoted to God as she understood him and that she was devoted to serving the poor. And yet, it would appear that her institutions have offered a standard of care that would provoke international outrage if it were provided by, say the United Nations rather than an affiliate of the Vatican. How are we to understand this paradox?

Mary Johnson is a former nun who joined Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, at age 19. For the next twenty years, she lived a life of service and austerity among the sisters, which she has described in her memoir, An Unquenchable Thirst [10]. But beneath the stark simplicity of her daily routine stirred a host of emotional, interpersonal and spiritual complexities, including the order’s tangled view of love and pain. Johnson’s thoughtful observations offer a window into the woman who inspired her spiritual vows and who ran her order of women religious.

Mother Teresa has inspired millions to acts of sacrifice or service, much as she inspired you. But even as the Catholic Church moves toward making her a saint, others are saying she was a fraud. Your book suggests something more complicated.

One of the reasons I wrote An Unquenchable Thirst was that none of the images of Mother Teresa in the media corresponded with the person I knew. The mainstream media created an image of Mother Teresa that reflected our desire for a perfect mother more than it reflected who Mother Teresa really was. On the other hand, those who called her a fraud often seemed determined to discredit her because they want to discredit religious faith. I very much admire the fact that Christopher Hitchens, who had been one of Mother Teresa’s most adamant critics, eventually revised [11] his assessment of her.

The Mother Teresa I knew was a remarkably dedicated, self-sacrificing person, but not one of the wisest women I’ve known. Both empowered and shackled by religious faith, Mother Teresa was generous and unreasonable, cheerful and never content, one of the world’s most recognized women and one of its loneliest and most secretive.

As a postulant in the Missionaries of Charity, one of your superiors, Sister Dolorosa, told you, “Mother always says, love, to be real, has to hurt.” Did you believe that? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 April 2013 at 7:21 am

Posted in Daily life, Religion

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