Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Harsh and dreadful love 

The above is a phrase from Dorothy Day.

At the Nation there is an excellent conversation about Mother Teresa with Richard Rodriguez, the gay Catholic essayist and scholar. I often think about the ambiguous figure of Mother Teresa, and was very interested in the recent release of letters expressing her lifelong doubts. The very common hatred of and resentment towards Mother Teresa today is incredibly revealing. I know that she is ambiguous. I know that her financial practices were potentially problematic--she received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and most of that money went straight to the Vatican, not to her work with the Missionaries of Charity.

But the common criticism of Teresa, that she didn't work on the "root" of the "problem", that she treated the "symptom" but didn't try to solve the problem of "injustice," seems to me to prove, very powerfully, that Teresa was right. The idea that going to a forgotten place, washing and comforting forgotten people, holding them as they die, is somehow "not enough"; the idea that this is only permissible if one also engages in some sort of "program" or advocates for some sort of "policy" designed to "solve" the "problem" presented by these people and their suffering; the idea that it is more important to be rid of the suffering poor than it is to be with them in their suffering--these are precisely the ideas that Teresa was rejecting by going to Calcutta in the first place. Before one can worry about "solving the problem" of poverty, one is confronted with the actual poor--even if they are only going to be around for a few days before they die of a horrible disease.

Anyway, here are some bits from the Rodriguez interview:

It's a life-long struggle. It's not unusual in the history of saints in the church that there would be this experience of doubt. Christ himself on the cross experiences doubt. "My God, why have you forsaken me?" That is his last cry into the darkness. Why have you left me alone? This is not a consoling cry...

We think we go to church, temple or the mosque and it's all very clear to us. Especially people who do not have faith, they think that people who have faith have no questions. But in fact as the church teaches us, doubt is very much an experience that lives along with faith...

The Catholic Church is brilliant to publish these letters, though Teresa asked that they be destroyed. The church realizes these are very helpful to the world. The world of religion is in chaos, not because there is too little faith in the world, but because there is too much faith. People are killing each other in the name of God. In Iraq at the holy shrine of Karbala, Shia were killing Shia. It seems to me the world is afflicted with people who have no doubt...

Everything in the world that is most worrisome is this black-and-white sensibility. It has infected religion, brings scandal to religion, it seems to me, that people in the name of God have erased all doubt from their mind and denied the human experience of doubt. That's what the Vatican has done with these documents. I think the real value of these documents is that they teach us that certitude is not what we want in the world...

America now is very, very religious or very, very secular. [The release of the letters] feeds atheists. They say, "See, even she didn't believe."

People like Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens --they are precisely the kind of problem that they present the religious world to be afflicted by. They are people who have no faith. Period. The whole idea of transcendence, a metaphysical reality beyond that which they normally experience, is foreign to them. This is very dangerous. They appeal to the political left when they should have learned its lesson...For thirty years the political left has ceded religion to the political right in America. It has given all expression of religion to right-wing Christianity.

It seems to me what the left needs to do is shy away from this teenage-boy irreverence, these "farts in the chapel" that you hear from Hitchens. It's not persuasive, not intellectually challenging because it does not admit to doubt. Like the fundamentalists, they live in a world of such certitude the rest of us are left wondering, "Where do we belong?"

It seems to me what Teresa was looking for in the face of suffering was the face of God. It's very moving to me that she did not find that face so often but kept on doing it. It's an example of great heroism. If I were looking for a saint right now, she would be it...

The left in America and probably Western Europe have bailed on religion because the church has criticized their lives. I speak as a gay man. I don't know how many times I've heard priests refer to the love I have for another man as a "lifestyle." My own church denies me the central emotion within Christianity; the experience of love is denied me by own church. There is a tendency to retreat, or say that "religion is only a negative force in my life."

I find that in the struggle over abortion, gay marriage, the churches have taken the negative stance in their institutional life. But I find them very consoling. There is much in Christianity that I use, steal, learn from, borrow, depend upon. Its inability to teach me about my experience of love is insufficient for me to walk away from it.

In some way the people in the pew teach the priest--the Church--what it means to love. The left, like spoiled children, having been accused of being sinful by the Church, they decide the Church is really sinful. That's not useful. More useful is to spend a life of service to a Church that is not easily yours...

We are influenced by two things. We think our friends and villains are clearly identified. We live in a world where you are saved or unsaved. This is true on the political spectrum from right to left, believers and non-believers. The other thing is that America is a deeply Protestant country founded by Puritans who believed that financial success was a sign of God's favor...

We are presented with an Albanian nun who spends her life--tormented by doubts--nonetheless serving the very poor, the people we will not touch. What do we do with her? We sit around now thinking whether she was a good woman, or a hypocrite or she lied to herself.

We mock a life like this because we do not understand it. We do not understand the life that is given to poor people, because we are given only to the middle-class fascination and we have told ourselves that we--the middle class--are God's select. So what do we do when we meet a woman of great doubt, great faith, great durability, who spends her life on her knees, wiping the faces of the dying and dead?


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