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Two British Christians and Mother Teresa

Christopher Hitchens writes in Newsweek about Mother Teresa,

When Mother Teresa first rebelled against the quiet life of the Loreto Sisters in 1946, and sought permission from her superiors to start a new order—The Missionaries of Charity—she was at first turned down and told to stay in her allotted place of humility. The local archbishop, a man named Ferdinand Perier, then found he had a true believer on his hands: a woman hungry for humility and yet fantastically immodest. (“Come Be My Light,” the slightly sickly subtitle of this book, is what Mother Teresa claims, not that she said to Jesus, but that He said to her.) Only after she had wearied the diocese with demands that her ambition be referred to the Vatican did she finally, after two years of pleading and cajoling, get her way. And then, two months after she started her own show in Calcutta in 1948, the demons checked in and, in effect, never quite checked out again. She got what she wanted, and found it a crushing disappointment.

That is, after obtaining her ministry she could no longer feel the presence of God. She felt abandoned by God. She repeatedly asked God to respond, but God did not answer, and she felt she was living in a dark tunnel. Meanwhile she was trying to help the poorest people on earth as best she could.

Christopher Hitchens's cynical analysis may not be correct, but the publication of Mother Teresa's letters suggest a person who is grieving loss of God and unable to escape the feeling of loss and her own needs and desires. Hitchens would like to think Mother Teresa received no answer because there was no God to reply. There is another possibility for failing to feel the love of God, and since it is good news I hope it won't be seen as a criticism of Teresa.

The 18th century British Christian William Law fed the poor and schooled children. He had a fair idea why religious people hurt others and were depressed. He wrote simply, and bluntly,

"They turned toward God, but they did not turn away from themselves."

There is a remarkable, unknown British Christian of the 14th century who described the union with God that Mother Teresa longed to have. In The Cloud of Unknowing, he (or she) wrote,

"Let me say this: everything you think about, all the time you think about it, is ‘above’ you, between you and God. And you are that much farther from God if anything but God is in your mind."

In other words, if you are constantly looking for a response from God, you’re not going to get one. You’re just thinking about yourself and about what you want. Every parent who has ever loved a child understands this – understands that when they are truly loving and cherishing their child, they have forgotten about themselves. If they constantly asked their child, ‘do you love me?’ or if they constantly looked for signs of affection, they could never really love their child or feel loved themselves.

The author of the Cloud is Socratic in his insistence that we know ourselves. Being practical he understands that to truly know ourselves is to know that sometime somewhere we’ve messed up. The way to heal and feel better is to ask forgiveness of the person we’ve hurt, and of God. Guilt or unhappiness or pride will keep us apart from others and God.

The author of the Cloud feels so strongly about this that he says contemplation, and therefore union with God, is quite impossible if we haven’t cleared our conscience. He gently urges his readers to do this, and not be afraid, since “It is not what you are or have been that God looks at with his merciful eyes, but what you would be.”

So how does the author of the Cloud advise us to seek union with God? By putting a “cloud of forgetting” between ourselves and the world and a “cloud of unknowing” between ourselves and God. In the healing silence, we say a simple word whenever a thought distracts us. (The author is realistically and ruefully certain his mind and our minds will wander off, and sure that God is glad when we return. Departure and homecoming are part of contemplation.)

One thing more, and this is the most important part. The author of the Cloud wrote,

“By love God can be caught and held, but by thinking never. Don’t even think how wonderful God is! You must go into the darkness with a kindling love, and only love and nothing else but love.”

The Cloud of Unknowing is one of the world's great mystical texts. The unknown author's purity of intention seems partly affirmed by his disinclination to take any credit for his book.