Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mother Teresa - the Atheist Saint?

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties. – Sir Francis Bacon

The first line of my favorite prayer says: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace… Sometimes when I’m inspired to give an impromptu recitation of it, it sounds more like, “Mother of God give me the strength to refrain from strangling this idiot.” But I mean well. I do.

If you didn’t know my propensity for mixing up those words, and instead only knew that the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is very dear to my heart, you might assume that I’m a peaceful and selfless person – one who is a steadfast source of consolation, never whining to be consoled. But as I just explained, you’d be very wrong in that assumption. My fondness for the prayer is a reflection of what I wish that I could be, not what I am. Not even close.

According to the new book about Mother Teresa, her seemingly unshakable faith was more a reflection of what she desired than something she actually possessed, and I’m surprised to see how many people are disturbed by this. Was she a hypocrite? Had she simply taken Pascal’s Wager? Or wait – I have a better idea. How about she was a flawed human being with a complex spiritual make-up who struggled to do what she could best discern in her heart to be the “right” thing to do – even when (especially when?) she wasn’t “feeling the love,” as they say.

I watched Mother Teresa die. I watched her utter her last words before taking her last breath. “I love you Jesus,” she said. Could she really have been entirely devoid of spiritual faith and hope? Highly unlikely. But even Jesus, Himself, despaired on the cross. We all do from time to time.

Some atheists I have known have been more moral and more concerned about others than I am. Perhaps this is because I'm an only child or maybe it's because I'm an Aries (the baby of the zodiac) or it could just be because I'm self-absorbed and therefore self-indulgent. I’m more inclined to weep about the poorest of the poor in Calcutta then to feed and wash them. (I'll send a check or something maybe, but I'm a high-functioning germ-o-phobe -- there's only so much I can do for sick people. I have my limitations.)

But the thing is - that whether or not what inspired Mother Teresa to live, in word and deed, the fundamental spiritual concept that we’re all connected and that we’re all obligated to look after one another as best we can, is what we commonly refer to as “God” or not, misses the point. When someone wakes up one day and feels it’s her mission to devote her life to caring for the neglected and the forgotten – does she really need to name her source? Does she even need to fully comprehend what it is? Her decades of existential crises are interesting to read, but they certainly don’t diminish her devotion to humanity.

I have faith in the abundance of the universe and generally trust that somehow or another I will manage to get by. But I’ve known other people who just blow me away in this regard. About ten years ago I was trying to help these people get a loan to buy a house. They had little income and had pretty bad credit, so among the things they had to do was write explanation letter after explanation letter for every late payment they’d ever made. And the underwriter was not impressed.

One day I said to the woman, “It’s very very important that you make your mortgage payment on time every month. You’re going to do that, right?”

“Staci,” she sighed, “I’ve given it to the Lord.”

“Well – um – that’s nice,” I said, “But ‘The Lord’ isn’t going to write a check for your mortgage payment every month – I really need YOU to do it. You’ll do it, right?”

“It’s in HIS hands,” she answered.

(This reminds me of a funny Onion headline I once read that said people were suing God for “failure to provide.”)

But even with their bad credit, there was something endearing about these people. Maybe it was that they were hardworking and poor or maybe that they had two young children. Maybe it was that only one of them spoke English or that they were blessed with a simple faith and I appreciate that. It also might have had a little something to do with the fact that I had my own mortgage to pay and needed the commission. But whatever it was, my boss and I went to bat for them and the underwriter approved the loan – eventually.

Ten years later, I still sort of know these people – they’ve refinanced once or twice over the years, are still in the same house and have never missed a payment.

See? And you thought Jesus didn’t pay bills – ye of little faith.

My husband doesn’t share my faith in God, but popular opinion notwithstanding, if I had to list ten things that cause trouble for us in our marriage, that wouldn’t even make the cut. (However, this reminds me of one of my favorite comedies of all time – Deconstructing Harry. Kirstie Alley plays Woody Allen’s ex-wife, and in one scene she’s reading off her litany of complaints about their marriage. Among them is that he’s an atheist. And he responds with, “What – so we’re alone in the universe – that’s my fault too?”)

What is apparently odd about us though, is that we have no formal agreement about what we’ll teach our children. If they ask my husband if there’s a God he’ll say, “No.” And if they ask me, I’ll say, “Yes.” It’s pretty much that simple around here, and neither of us is really disturbed by it. Other people are though. People will ask me, “Don’t you think your kids are going to be confused when they grow up?”

And then I add to their horror by shrugging and saying, “I hope so.”

I mean, what would be the alternative? That they grow up to not be all that thoughtful or intelligent or open-minded? My husband and I both grew up in non-religious homes and one of us is religious and one of us is not. I know people who grew up in religious homes – some of them are religious and many of them are not. I’m not naïve enough to think that we can in any way control our children’s spiritual journeys or how they’ll choose to view them or live them out (or not). All we can do is share with them what is valuable to each of us and trust that right or wrong, crazy or sane, our children will benefit from being cared for by us. Beyond that we’ll just have to hope for the best.

If they grow up to be superstitious, I don’t think my husband will be too troubled. And if they grow up to think I’m crazy – I’m okay with that too. Their dad thinks I’m crazy, after all, and we get along pretty well. (Aside from an overly heated discussion we have about Bigfoot from time to time – but inability-to-agree-to-disagree-about-the-possible-existence-of-Bigfoot is a highly specialized form of marital discord – you probably don’t run into people who suffer from it all that often, so I won’t bother to elaborate.)

In the end, all that I really hope for my kids is that my unconditional love and support will provide them the courage, the inspiration and the confidence to follow their own stars – in all matters both spiritual and mundane. Even in the face of confusion. Just like I do. Just like Mother Teresa did.


SUEB0B said...

Staci Schoff! How is it possible that I just happened to stumble into you at BlogHer when you were all "I just got here and I'm nervous and I don't know anybody," and you turn out to be one of my favorite all time bloggers? It just blows my mind. You are SUCH a good writer. I think everyone needs to read your blog.

Anjali said...

I think something would be seriously wrong with a person who works for years in the worst of human condition (extreme poverty and sickness) and NOT question their faith.

Above all else, she was no different than those she tirelessly served -- human. Though, I think, she was the best kind.

Great post!

Staci Schoff said...

Suebob -- be glad you can't stumble into me today, because I would give you the BIGGEST KISS ever!

Anjali -- that is a really great point, I wish I had thought of it...

Anonymous said...

The post was really good and thougt provoking.. But I guess every normal sane person will question their faith when they see or experience the kind of extreme poverty Mother Teresa had seen in Culcatta.And I am really happy to know that shes just as human as everyone else. But the point here is it never stopped her from doing all those work for the poor out there.

May her tribe increase!!


cce said...

You are so right on with your attitude towards your children's spiritual future. Guide them, don't lead, educate don't proselytize. I love that you and your husband share different views on faith and are able to come to a nice agreement about raising children with Humanist values, if they find Jesus as well, so be it. I've grapple with this topic before over at Madmarriage. Let me know what you think.

Monica said...

Want to say I enjoyed this post...because 1)I'm curious about the implications of & reactions to the Mother Teresa revelations (no pun intended) 2) my husband and I don't share the same religious perspectives 3) the agree to disagree about the possible existance of Bigfoot stuff is hilaraious

Lauri said...

the fact that Mother Theresa was not acting as a blinded thembot makes me respect what she did with her life a lot more than if she was doing it for "god" or jesus or who ever religios people act on the behalf of.
PS I am pro big foot, I am sure that my husband is a direct descendant of a yeti.

Rachel said...

Great post! I am agnostic and my husband is *sort of* Christian(IE: he believes christ was what they say, maybe, but he doesn't think homosexuality is a sin, and he does believe in evolution). Anyway, we raise our kids pretty much the same way. He believes that if they don't find faith on their own than it isn't really TRUE faith, and I believe that they should make their own decisions as well, and that knowing their mother and father live peacefully with different beliefs may help them be more tolerant(blah blah blah).

I find that people are surprised when they get to know me and find that being kind and helping others is high on my personal priority list. I kind of feel like a lot of religious folks who do nice things, are only doing it to "Get in good" with god anyway. I mean, a good deed is a good deed, so I can't say I have any problem with it no matter what the motivation(as long as no one is getting hurt).

Sorry, I'm in serious babble mode tonight.

Buy Kamagra said...

Mother Theresa was a huge inspiration for all of us. I think her life can be taken like an example. Love and blessings!

Seeking said...

I believe it all - the Bible, Jesus - lock, stock and barrel, but there are many times I end up believing it only with my head because I have studied so much and found the evidence to prove it true. Sometimes my heart has a huge problem believing it, that's when my intellect has to carry my faith along. This, I continue to help the poor instead of spend on my own fun and go to church instead of sleep in, etc etc. Still, my dark nights never last. I don't know how Mother Teresa continued.