Mother Teresa and the fatal love of suffering

mother teresa and the fatal love of suffering cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

When I was studying for my Masters in Theology, I took some Patristics courses… the early church and apostolic fathers. It was fascinating studying the martyrs like Polycarp, Ignatius and Justin Martyr because they wanted to be martyred. It was such an honor, such a sacrifice, such a guarantee of eternal reward, that they seemed to do anything in their power to get killed for their faith. They took as their examples Jesus who did not open his mouth to defend himself, thereby cementing his execution, as well as Paul who did everything in his power to stay in chains so that he could testify to the top dogs in Rome, which ended with his execution (legend has it).

There is a new exposé on Mother Teresa that has come out from The University of Montreal, written by Serge Larivée, Department of psychoeducation, University of Montreal, Carole Sénéchal, Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa, and Geneviève Chénard, Department of psychoeducation, University of Montreal. The study probes Mother Teresa’s

“… rather dubious way of caring for the sick, her questionable political contacts, her suspicious management of the enormous sums of money she received, and her overly dogmatic views regarding, in particular, abortion, contraception, and divorce.”

What is most interesting though is that the 500+ missions that she opened were described as “homes for the dying”. Two thirds of the people who came to these homes hoped to find a doctor to treat them, while the other third received no treatment and lay dying without appropriate care. The doctors questioned observed a shocking lack of hygiene, unfit conditions, a shortage of actual care, inadequate food and no painkillers. The problem was not a lack of money because hundreds of millions of dollars were raised by Mother Teresa’s ministry, but rather a particular perception of suffering and death. She saw something beautiful in the poor accepting their lot, suffering like Christ, and viewed their dying as sharing in Christ’s passion. She believed the world gained much from the suffering of the poor.

The suggestion is many people suffered and died that didn’t need to. To Mother Teresa, the fact that they were suffering was their highest achievement and this should not be interfered with. The article acknowledges the good that Mother Teresa did. But it pulls no punches in exposing how bad belief can manifest itself in bad behavior.

My suggestion is that this is not unusual, but a dominant theme in Christianity and the church. I have experienced it and even lived by it. I’ve endured things without attempting to change it because it was my duty to suffer long. Rather than take responsibility for my life and become the master of my own destiny, I surrendered my life out of my hands and willingly tolerated pain longer than necessary. If we believe our affliction comes from God and is like Christ, who are we to mess with it?

The inverse is also true: those who unconsciously or consciously embrace this theology invite, allow and encourage others to suffer, even taking it upon themselves to inflict it or not remove it when they have the power to do so.

It’s one thing to suffer well, it’s another thing to invite it and then keep it long after it wants to go. It’s one thing to sit with others in their suffering, it’s another thing to let it continue when you have the power to change things. Christianity can tend to lean in this unhealthy direction.

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