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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  • Don Bryant

    I think there is a syndrome that seeks suffering and is validated by it. The Christian is on friendly terms with suffering in a healthy, 2 Cor 7 sense. We do not flit about life trying to avoid pain as the essential measure of which path we should take. And in following Christ, for his sake and his glory, we certainly will find ourselves on the “outs” with the present world system. But at some indefinable point in there, the suffering can trip a switch if we are not careful and it becomes necessary for self-validation. Pleasure and satisfaction become enemies. At that point we can become and do the awful. We can be unmoved by the sufferings of others and put our own families through experiences which are perverse and dark, exposing them willy-nilly to vulturous circumstance. I find John Piper’s trajectory often too close too this third rail. There appears to be a love and flirtation with martyrdom, a demonstration of how far one will go in being satisfied with Christ alone. Just finished Teems’ biography of William Tyndale, who seems to be a man of balance in this. He was reasonably self-protective and yet fully accommodated to the suffering he must endure in order to translate the Bible into the vernacular. He did not cause others to fixate on his suffering but on the sweetness of his life in Christ.

  • Shary Hauber

    This view I believe is the reason many who have been sexually abused as children are told the experience was for their benefit. “It makes you a stronger person if you embrace the abuse and forgive the abuser.”

  • Joey Reid

    David, I remember a time when your core message was about the cross of Christ, and willfully accepting suffering. This is an interesting (though expected) change of theology.

  • Aviatrix

    The view that suffering is enobling and to be encouraged, extended, or inflicted is misguided at best. Outside a religious context, you’d call someone who delights in, encourages, refuses to ameliorate, or willfully contributes to the suffering of others a sociopath, misanthrope, or sadist. Recognizing that suffering is part of life and calmly facing – even embracing – that which is unavoidable indicates mature self-awareness. But the embrace of unnecessary pain and suffering – especially if done to somehow find favor with a god – is a twisted narcissism.

    It’s not necessary to read the gospels literally to see that the example of Jesus is clearly to comfort the afflicted and heal the sick. Not once is there a tale of Jesus not healing a leper but instead telling him to rejoice in his leprosy as a gift of suffering which would bring him closer to God. I don’t recall any stories of Jesus causing lameness, and he didn’t tell the 5,000 that rumbling stomachs were a gift from God, but instead fed them.

    David, you’ve pointed out, thoughtfully, what Hitch railed about forcefully. Well said.

  • thanks Aviatrix. well said yourself!

  • The martyr idea plays out in various religions not
    just Christianity. The idea is that you pay a small sum into a system so you
    will get a larger return out of the system at some later time. It might be
    paying with your earthly life to get an eternity of bliss in an afterlife or a
    short-term suffering right now for a future and longer happier time later in
    life. In each of these, there is the belief that there is a “system” that
    rewards or values suffering. It is even possible to want to pay into the system
    and suffer without an expectation of a future reward. For some, perhaps love
    for and wanting to please the system is reward enough.

    Of course it is also possible to envision a system
    that is organized around other principles…

  • klhayes

    I think many Christians use it as a reason to not help others. They can tell them that their current state is temporary and their Reward will be great in Heaven. For a group that likes to think of themselves as “pro-life,” this attitude is anything but.

  • Annie Vocature Bullock

    You’re putting a lot of stock by a study written by people with a poor understanding of Christian theology and some questionable sources.

    That being said, I think two points are relevant here. The first is that I think Christian spirituality does actually conflict with what modern psychology considers healthy. I don’t think contemporary psychological thought has any special corner on the mental health, honestly. And that’s why people who live out their Christian commitments so radically are so shocking and threatening.

    I also think there are some clear Western biases at work here in terms of both hygiene and in terms of imagining what medical care at the end of life should look like. Just because in the West we prefer to see those who are dying in septic hospital rooms undergoing procedure after procedure until they finally give out doesn’t mean that’s the way. Do the authors have a good understanding of the Indian context? And did they look beyond India to compare. I volunteered at a hospice for women with AIDS run by a group of Missionaries of Charity and it was exactly as you’d expect any such organization in the United States to be.

    Suffering is a part of life, as is dying. Bearing all things patiently and with joy is a worthy goal.

  • Annie: This is a serious study supported by many scholars and backed by the University of Montreal. They interviewed many of the doctors, local doctors, Indian doctors, who spent hours in these missions. Sure there is theorizing involved, but I think it needs to be taken seriously.

  • wanderer

    I’d like to suggest that hospice is quite different than MT’s homes. Hospice is for people (mainly) who have exhausted medical options and are accepting what comes next. This is describing MOC’s homes to be places where medical care isn’t even offered to begin with!

  • wanderer

    I haven’t been around long, so I don’t know what you’re describing…would you mind explaining?

  • Joey Reid

    Pre-nakedpastor, I was a member of David’s church.

  • Well I’m not saying I haven’t changed or developed in my theology. But I think you either missed the gist of my post or I didn’t explain it well. I believe that accepting our suffering is important. But inviting it and keeping it longer than necessary… I don’t think I’ve ever taught that or suggested it.

  • Joey Reid

    That’s a fair response. I just think there is a fine line between accepting suffering and inviting suffering, and it is easy to get confused about what is actually being said – especially when we are discussing the suffering of others. It is easier to fight against suffering where ever possible and avoid the confusion altogether.

  • I agree with that. But this post was a challenge for me to write because I recognize some of that bad theology in my own. As I admit in the post. Thanks Joey.

  • Joey Reid

    And that is why I thought it was interesting. I appreciate your willingness to keep climbing out on limbs like you do. I have to admire your honesty.

    Although I don’t always agree with you, it’s nice to see someone else who doesn’t always agree with his younger self. I like having you as another oarsman in my boat 😉

  • you too Joey. we need to get together over beers or wine and tell some stories.

  • Christians are such bad people with terrible motives.

    All those hospitals and universities that Christians started out of nothing…well…they are nowhere as god as all the ones that the Hindus or atheists have opened.

  • hehe steve. thanks for the laugh. and for sticking your head out of the sand for a second to say it.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I was raised RC back in the 50s and 60s and suffering was the message I got, the more the merrier. I had some practices that woud bring ecstasy to a penitentate. Often, I purposely humiliated myself in little ways, such as not answering a question I knew the answer to so as to endure the small mockery of that failure. Perpetual guilt was the gold trim to a good soul. One of my repeated fantasies was to be martyred by the pagans from the public schools defending the eucharist on the altar. I had it bad. I could say that twenty years of acoholism was a continuation of self-induced suffering.

    But I don’t think this is the soution: “…become the master of my own destiny…” So much of what brought suffering into my life was steadily reduced through working the Twelve Steps. I began to see that I was the architect of my own adversity and that reality is only in the heart. Nothing happens to me of for me; it all happens within me. Once this became my ordinary perception of life, so much that brought torment and turmoil gradually disappeared.

  • Always a pleasure, David!

    Love you, friend!

  • Pat68

    I stayed in a church for 12 years before finally saying, “Enough!”

  • jeriwho

    And yet the opposite fault glares at us from across American Christianity: the idea that suffering is not at all our lot, should be shunned and avoided at all costs, and is a valid reason to hoard what we have, defend ourselves at any cost and as
    proactively as we think we need to against others, and rely on opiates
    as a matter of course, without viewing suffering at all as anything that
    might in any way or to any extent be worth enduring.

  • Yes, it is part of the American psychology to want a free lunch, to take short-cuts, to borrow money, to win the lottery, to have a pill for everything, and to get eternal life for only believing the right stuff. I wonder if other people think the same way around the world or if it is just Americans?

  • klhayes

    Same with any kind of sexual assault.

  • My esteem for Mother Teresa has wilted after I hear what Christopher Hitchens had to say about her: Pallets and aspirin for her patients, first class Swiss hospitals for her.

  • kesmarn

    There are many points here that are well taken, but — honestly — I am so weary with people constantly attacking Mother Teresa. She took in people who were out on the streets — on the sidewalks — dying. A bed and almost any attention at all were certainly better than what they had been experiencing. The fact that she didn’t construct the Mayo Clinic in Calcutta is irrelevant. She did what she could under the circumstances, and didn’t have a private jet or vacation on the riviera. I wish people would leave the poor dead woman alone.

  • I always find it interesting when critiquing other people’s ideas or actions it is interpreted as “attacking”. I’m not attacking Mother Teresa, and I don’t think the article isn’t either. It points out the good she did accomplish. However, why don’t we look at it this way: perhaps Mother Teresa, if she were looking down from heaven, would say, “Please, if you could learn from my mistakes, which there were, and do it better than me, then please do!”

  • Nick Bell

    Anyone who expects the Vatican to hold off beatifying someone for holding “dogmatic views” on “abortion, contraception, and divorce” clearly does not understand the Catholic Church and is hardly trustworthy to report on anything pertaining to Catholicism. They are blatantly completely uniformed on a Catholic position that is uncompromisingly clear and well known by virtually everyone (at LEAST on abortion). If they cannot even understand the blunt fact that these are considered moral wrongs by Christ’s Church, how do you expect them to comprehend the complexity of Christ’s Passion and redemptive suffering? The answer seems clear: You don’t.

  • Well Nick if you knew your geography and Canada’s demographic you would understand that Montreal is embedded in THE Roman Catholic stronghold of Canada, Quebec… I’m sure they understand Roman Catholicism. Nice try.

  • Nick Bell

    I think we all know that there are a lot of cultural Catholics who don’t understand the faith.
    Just because there are Catholics around does not mean an atheist is going to understand their teaching. In fact it is completely obvious that the person who wrote this lacked understanding of Catholicism. Anyone who thinks that Catholicism, much less the Vatican is against “Dogma” or approves of abortion, contraception, or divorce, clearly displays their ignorance of Catholic belief.

  • You’ve done this before Nick. I appreciate the fact that you are obviously a devout Catholic. But you hold the view that unless you are a devout and educated Roman Catholic then you have no right to critique Catholicism. That’s just plain arrogant and highly self-centered. The Roman Catholic Church used to be the center of the religious world, but that was a long time ago. Those days are gone, and now every living breathing person with a sense of justice has the right to stand up for what they believe is right and criticize those who prevent justice from happening.

  • Nick Bell

    No, I hold a much simpler view. If you’re going to talk about something, know what you are talking about. Especially if you’re going to do it out of a University. This guy plainly demonstrated that he does not know his subject matter. This makes the validity of his assertions suspect.
    That on top of the fact that he draws heavily from a book based on conjecture and lacking a single footnote.

  • You haven’t read the article… that is a summary. The original article is in French, written by three scholars, peer reviewed.

  • Nick Bell

    Do you read French?

  • Yes I can read French… sorta… but that’s not the point. You can read English but refuse to admit that Mother Teresa might have had some issues because they were pointed out by lapsed Catholics.

  • Nick Bell

    Did you read it yourself?
    Larivée specifically is an atheist. I don’t know about the others. Your claim that I was rejecting something because it was spoken by a lapsed Catholic is false. To my knowledge there were no lapsed Catholics involved in this study (I’m not saying there were not, I just don’t know, and as such it could not possibly be my reason for rejecting it). Why can you not seem to take my words to mean what they say (especially on the other article)? I reject it for the reasons I stated. The evidence of the ignorance of [one of] the author[s], and the reliance on Hitchen’s book that lacks any footnotes to support it’s claims.

  • Dennis Irwin

    Ignorant. That’s what Christian’s do….look for ways to not help people. Tighten up.

  • Gary

    Nah Nick…your argument holds no water. You are in essence saying that unless one totally adheres to a view they have no right to refute it. Wow…That is such a self serving bias!

  • Nick Bell

    It’s also completely not what I said. And I already clarified that this is precisely not what I meant. Why do you insist on saying it is?

  • Gary

    You claim that was not your intent…but your words say otherwise.

  • Nick Bell

    Thank you, oh most gracious and infallible Gary! How would I ever know what my own words meant if I did not have you here to interpret them for me? You are truly a blessing to me. A man of wisdom on par with Solomon himself!

  • Gary

    What an ass!

  • klhayes

    Prosperity Gospel, Megachurches and huge “ministries” while people starve, cutting programs for the poor…this is much of conservative Christianity in America at the moment.

  • Dennis Irwin

    The prosperity gospel was before my time……what are you even talking about. I got saved in….what ’96? That crap’s gone except for morons.That’s not conservative Christianity. Tighten up. What…do you think Joel Osteen is respected in real Christianity? Christianity has moved on…and I think you missed it.

  • Dennis Irwin

    “. after I hear what Christopher Hitchens had to say…: If he’s your compass…..

  • All we need to do is to find two miracles attributed to Hitchens and then he can be St. Hitchens 😉

  • Dennis Irwin

    Well….at least he knows for sure now.

  • Nick Bell

    Sorry for the sarcasm, but strawmen are not usually met applause.

  • jeriwho

    I don’t know if such egocentricity is exclusive to America, but there are definitely cultures that do not live with these expectations of a pain-free life or enthrone them. Have you ever read BOOK OF FIVE RINGS, or THE ART OF WAR? Both authors accept struggle and suffering as givens in life. Suffering has been viewed as having a redemptive purpose by many different cultures and many different religions, including Christianity, but also Buddhism, certainly, in all of its variations across Asia.

    The modern view in American churches that all suffering is bad and pointless is just as misplaced as the idea that suffering for its own sake is good, in my opinion. In fact, they both lead to the same thing: despair for those who suffer.

  • Gary

    Strawmen my ass. I have a problem with it too and I don’t really care if you think I “understand” catholicism enough to be entitled to comment or not.

  • Aviatrix

    Will the “real Christianity” please stand up… There are as many “real” Christianity’s as there are preachers, theologians, evangelists, and doctrinarians. The latest crop of big names and small are simply modifiers of the doctrines of those who came before them, who were modifiers of the ones who came before them. Popular Christianity in the US – especially in the Bible Belt – is full of variations of prosperity, name it and claim it, submission and patriarchy, hellfire and brimstone, give till it hurts or you’ll be cursed, and other demanding, exclusive, “me and mine” doctrines which limit charity (in the broadest sense) to only the local tribe.

    And using terminology like “morons” says far more about the attitude of the writer than about any of the specious practices and doctrines being addressed.

  • Aviatrix

    So not believing in a deity means someone can’t objectively critique the work done by a charitable organization because it is religious? Atheist, lapsed Catholic, devout Catholic, mainstream Protestant, Buddhist – whatever – doesn’t preclude anyone from pointing out either good or bad done in the name of the charity.

  • Aviatrix

    Or he knows nothing. You think or hope or believe he knows – but if his opinions concerning deities were correct, he knows nothing.

  • Aviatrix

    Steve, I strongly suspect that if MT’s charities were anywhere close to the standards of those hospitals and universities there would be no negative criticism. It’s not the religious wrapper around the charities, it’s the the things that were and weren’t done, on the ground. But you know that – you pot-stirrer, you! 😉

  • kesmarn

    I think you’re right. Mother Teresa would say that. The article you cited did imply, though, that she took millions of dollars of donations and misappropriated them, with the consequence that the sick and dying suffered terribly. In short — that she was a sleazy “operator.” I realize that may not be your personal opinion, but it seems to be someone’s. I’m just saying that if I had to make the choice to spend 40 years on a deserted island with Mother Teresa or the Koch brothers, it sure wouldn’t be the latter.

  • Nick Bell

    No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you want to comment on the particulars of her care go ahead (given as I said before that you have knowledge of the topic). That’s not what I’m objecting to. The part I find ridiculous is when then move from those externals which everyone can see to the theology that is (allegedly) behind her (allegedly) bad actions. If you are going to talk about theological concepts understand them first. The other details that they said that I listed implied that they do not understand simple catholic teaching, and therefore their understanding of complex catholic teaching is, more than likely, also flawed

  • Gary

    I personally think Mother Teresa’s motives are undoubtedly beyond reproach. I have no doubt her service and dedication is from the purest of heart. I didn’t read this as questioning her motives or character at all, but rather the mindset that places such a high value on suffering that it may result in actually adding to that suffering needlessly.

  • ya. thanks gary.

  • Toni Foul

    Twisted faith is not good. Enjoying unnecessary pain and suffering is masochism.
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  • I agree Aviatrix! Gospel shouldn’t be taken literally. Keep in mind that bible is a religious text — but it’s also a work of literature.
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  • Carol

    “To choose to suffer means that there is something wrong; to choose God’s will even if it means suffering is a very different thing. No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.”.–Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest

    Mother Teresa and her nuns ministered to the dying primarily in non-Western countries where the availability of modern medical technology [and the means to pay for it] are usually non-existent. What she offered was not a “cure” to the poor of these countries, but a dignified death, which modern medical technology, when used unwisely, often robs people of in the First World.

    When correctly interpreted, the Christian spiritual formation on dying is an interior dying of the “Old Adam” or “false self”, so that the “New Adam” or the true “Christic self” can be born in us.

    Unfortunately, mature/orthodox theological and spiritual formation has become exceedingly rare in the Latin/Western institutional churches. Religion has become more of a business than a spiritual Tradition. Many denominations have their own publishing houses that mass market their sectarian educational materials and the strategy for successful mass marketing is to target the lowest common denominator.

    “In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe , where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.” –Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate

  • Carol

    I am no longer Catholic. I “hang out” as an “active non-member” at a local Episcopal Church in NC because most of the people there respect personal boundaries, but, having lived for 18 months in West Africa in the early 60’s, I am an enthusiastic admirer of Mother Teresa and her ministry to the poor in a non-Western culture.
    My criticism of Larivee’s article is that it comes from a wholly Western, First World perspective and is totally devoid of cultural context.
    I do not share all of Mother Teresa’s theological moral beliefs. I believe that, although abortion is always a tragedy, it is sometimes the “lesser evil.” I also believe that the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception and divorce and remarriage has created a pastoral disaster for both the laity and priests who wish to be simultaneously faithful to both their vows of obedience to the Church and the Gospel’s call to be compassionate and merciful.
    I am equally critical of Conservative Protestants who picket women’s clinics that provide abortion services and then complain about their taxes being used to support “those lazy welfare mothers.”
    Mother Teresa was not infallible, but she was incredibly loving to many victims of poverty who would have died unattended in non-Western societies.

  • Jeannie Boen

    Very interesting. I was groomed to be the caretaker in our family. I was taught to always, always put others needs before my own. I live that way. Add in the disabilities I was born with and the chronic pain I live with and I am a living monument to suffering. But I am beginning to question that. Sure, there are places in my life where my needs must come last. I am a single mom after all. But is this always necessary? And I do have substantial health issues and chronic pain. But am I doing all I can to alleviate what I can? This is food for thought indeed.

  • R Vogel

    It’s funny, whenever I bring up this study to people the general response is either incredulity or people acknowledging the failure but considering her motives ‘beyond reproach.’ Mind you these are people who have never met her and whose only experience of her is filtered through the lens of media. In today’s day and age, knowing the power of the media to manipulate, how could anyone’s motives be considered beyond reproach? I think much more needs to be researched on this question, but if she actually perpetuated or failed to alleviate the suffering of others when she had the means to do so, in the name of a twisted view of the religious value of suffering, she is very much in reproach in my opinion. One study won’t settle that issue, of course, but kudos to the researchers who were courageous enough to not consider her beyond reproach. Hopefully others will pick up the challenge and try to unravel the truth behind the façade, whatever that might be

  • Rajma

    I too may judge her when I have made… “my home among the poor,
    and not only the poor, but the poorest of them: the people no one will go near
    because they are filthy and suffering from contagious diseases, full of germs
    and vermin infested; the people who can’t go to church because they can’t go
    out naked; the people who can no longer eat because they haven’t the strength;
    the people who lie down in the street, knowing they are going to die, while
    others look away and pass them by.” When I have lived with these, experienced these and their suffering, as so few are willing to do, perhaps then… But, I don’t believe I have that depth of caring or courage in me. Perhaps it is not so ironic as I once thought that, that which can be too hard to do we often find so easy to judge.