Mother Teresa, Scott Cairns, and the Holy Struggle

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.

-  Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979

That’s the hook at the front of next week’s TIME Magazine cover story.

And the following article by David Van Biema has me intrigued…

A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever ‚Äî or, as the book’s compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, “neither in her heart or in the eucharist.”

Okay, but then:

Two very different Catholics predict that the book will be a landmark. The Rev. Matthew Lamb, chairman of the theology department at the conservative Ave Maria University in Florida, thinks Come Be My Light will eventually rank with St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain as an autobiography of spiritual ascent. Martin of America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book “a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life,” and says, “It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.”

Not all atheists and doubters will agree. Both Kolodiejchuk and Martin assume that Teresa’s inability to perceive Christ in her life did not mean he wasn’t there. In fact, they see his absence as part of the divine gift that enabled her to do great work.

I’ve been reading Scott Cairns’ latest work, a tribute to… and translation of… early Christian teachers — Love’s Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life. Each page of beautiful prayer and profundity is accompanied by a brief introduction to the writer’s life and sufferings. Their writings resonate with integrity precisely because their faith is so resilient throughout a journey of trouble, loss, rejection, persecution, and doubt… just as the Psalms are shot through with struggle.

So much of contemporary Christian writing is disposable due to the utter lack of struggle in those pages. (I would even go so far as to say that a lot of Christian writing… and art… betrays a fear of struggle, trying to cover up the reality of doubt with superficial cheer and a kind of frantic hodge-podge of scriptures pulled from their context.) Thus, a great deal of “spiritual writing” and “Christian art” seems about as substantial as an infomercial sales pitch. It’s hard to find those guides who speak from experience, and those artists who work from the heart rather than a hysteria of wishful-thinking .

I stand in awe of Mother Teresa’s life, and I look forward to the privilege of knowing the testimony of her trials.

Note: The editor of this collection the editor of the collection will be on the NBC Nightly News tonight.

Another note: I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been a major motion picture unveiled yet, something on the scale of Gandhi. I would hope that any such effort would mine this text for insights.

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