06 September 2007

Letters from the Ledge

Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa's '40-year faith crisis'
I want to read Mother Teresa's letters. She dedicated her life to Jesus, the poor, the sick and the abandoned. And for the last 40 years of her life, she suffered a crisis of faith.

It is not unusual to hear news of the secret life of a celebrated person after their death. That is often the way it is described in popular media, the "secret" life. Besides the obvious profit motive underlying the use of such a tantalizing word, there is surprise--"He was not who you/we thought he was!"--and sometimes anger or a sense of betrayal--"He was not who he said he was!"

There are so many unspoken agreements between the Public and those in its midst who live in the spotlight. They are unspoken because if they were codified, no one would sign the contract. "We, the people, proclaim our right to know supersedes your right to privacy at all times, even after death." It's reported that Mother Teresa requested many of these letters be destroyed when she died. It is easy to imagine the thinking of her friend who decided to disobey her instructions.

Without having read the letters, though, the news of her inner struggle compels me. I don't think of it as her "secret" life but her "private" life. The letters, and other legitimate biography, suggest the larger work of which we have only glimpsed a detail. It's not "the rest of the picture" but it is a fuller picture. I yearn for fuller pictures: to see and be seen. I yearn similarly toward unconditional love: to love and be loved.

Considering "crisis of faith" evokes Simone Weil on "affliction." My first encounter with Weil's work in graduate school took my breath away. I felt and recognized her immediately. And I felt seen, in that special way that certain writers' work allows: the eloquent expression of something I could not find words to describe and did not know anyone else had ever contemplated.

Though in different ways, I believe both Weil and Mother Teresa suffered crises of faith. A crisis of faith is a most profound destitution. It is difficult, in this moment, to appreciate a difference between "crisis of faith," "affliction," and "depression." Perhaps I am standing too close. The words echo down long corridors in my psyche and reverberate in the most ancient rooms of my soul. I know those words and I know the place they define. I am reminded of an image from Adrienne Rich's "On Women and Honor" essay: the vast, bleak ledge where we stand, alone, lashed by cosmic rain when a friend lies to us.

I am not surprised to hear that Mother Teresa's faith lagged. I am surprised by the length of her estrangement. I am moved by the disclosure of her struggle (though I was not moved by her life while she lived) because she persevered in faithful work in spite of it. She lost her faith but perhaps she retained an unconditional love for Jesus and that was enough to sustain her. Unconditional love for Jesus also sustained Sojourner. And even without Sojourner Truth letters in which to discover a crisis of faith, I can imagine her spending some time out on the "vast, bleak ledge."

About "affliction," Weil wrote:
"The man who has known pure joy, if only for a moment...is the only man for whom affliction is something devastating. At the same time he is the only man who has not deserved the punishment. But, after all, for him it is no punishment; it is God holding his hand and pressing rather hard. For, if he remains constant, what he will discover buried deep under the sound of his own lamentations is the pearl of the silence of God."

Maybe it was more than unconditional love for Jesus. Maybe it was the silence of God.

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