Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Lonely Nun of Faith

A big story in the news last week was the publication of Mother Teresa's letters in a book titled Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. These letters were published without her permission and, perhaps worse than what was done to R. Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg regarding his private letters, Mother Teresa specifically asked that they be burned. They weren't; instead they were published. Their publication created a scandal not, unfortunately, because of the circumstances by which they became public but because in them she confesses an almost complete lack of feeling of God's presence. She comes across as depressed, feeling abandoned by God and at times even questioning His existence (link).

The general response to these letters by religious people is a sense of sympathy and added respect for Mother Teresa. Not only did she accomplish so much for the neediest, she did so by overcoming deep religious obstacles.

What I find significant is that this phenomenon, what the Catholics are calling a "dark night of the soul," was described by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his classic 1965 essay "The Lonely Man of Faith." The following is from part VI of the essay (pp. 45-49 in the 2006 Doubleday book with an introduction by Dr. David Shatz):

The covenantal confrontation is indispensable for the man of faith. In his longing for God, he is many a time disenchanted with the cosmic revelation and lives through moments of despair. Naturally, he is inspired by the great joy experienced when he gets a glimpse of the Truly Real hiding behind the magnificent cosmic facade. However, he is also tormented by the stress and exasperation felt when the Truly Real seems to disappear from the cosmic scene...

As a matter of fact, at the level of his cosmic confrontation with God, man is faced with an exasperating paradox. One the one hand, he beholds God in every nook and corner of creation, in the flowering of the plant, in the rushing of the tide, and in the movement of his own muscle, as if God were at hand close to and beside man, engaging him in friendly dialogue. And yet the very moment man turns to face God, he finds Him remote, unapprochable, enveloped in transcendence and mystery...

He is everywhere but at the same time above and outside of everything. When man who just beheld God's presence turns around to address himself to the Master of creation in the intimate accents of the "Thou," he finds the Master and Creator gone, enveloped in the cloud of mystery, winking to him from the awesome "beyond." Therefore, the man of faith, in order to redeem himself from his loneliness and misery, must meet God at a personal covenantal level, where he can be near Him and feel free in His presence...

[C]ovenantal man of faith, craving for a personal and intimate relaiton with God, could not find it in the cosmic E-lohim encounter and had to shift his transcendental experience to a different level at which the finite "I" meets the infinite He "face-to-face."
How does one achieve a covenantal relationship with God? R. Soloveitchik continues to offer two ways in which this can happen: prophecy and prayer, the latter which must include also community and halakah (p. 52):
When man addresses himself to God, calling to Him in the informal, friendly tone of "Thou," the same miracle happens again: God joins man and at this meeting, initiated by man, a new covenantal community is born--the prayer community
However, even with these avenues for a relationship with God, man is destined to oscillate between closeness to and distance from God. That is how we were created and halakhah assists us in managing this pendulum of relationships. Yet, continues R. Soloveitchik, people in the modern world have difficulty achieving any type of covenantal relationship with God because they become overly involved with conquering the world -- what he calls Adam I activities.

It seems that Mother Teresa, like most of us, also had trouble establishing a covenantal relationship with God. I will not enter here into a comparative study of religions that, I think, in the end will only confuse the issue. Perhaps more important was her life's goal of helping the poor and needy with their physical needs, a noble Adam I activity. Because of this or other reasons, it seems that in her relationship with God -- even allowing for her being harder on herself than most of us are on ourselves -- Mother Teresa was among the vast majority of people today who sadly have not found the way to establish a personal relationship with God.

I agree with those who don't think that these published letters should detract from the esteem with which we hold Mother Teresa's accomplishments. She was a victim of the modern world, like most of us, and managed to accomplish a great deal despite that.

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