The Silence of God

That Mother Teresa endured a long dark night of the soul will come as no surprise to anyone who read Carol Zaleski's essay on the subject several years ago, but the depth and duration of her spiritual crisis nonetheless has the capacity to shock, and to humble.

Naturally, Christopher Hitchens has something to say about it:

In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: "There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance," he says. "They thought, 'Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I'm not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.' They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired." That, he says, was Teresa.

I think that this is a rather poor analogy for all sorts of reasons, but chiefly because it conflates the experiential and ideological aspects of religion. One can, certainly, experience religious faith as a kind of ideological belief - as the adherence to a compelling and all-encompassing system of thought that explains the world and one's purpose in it. And this sort of belief is arguably analogous to Western Communists' (misplaced) confidence in Marxism generally, and the Soviet Union specifically. But the "mainspring" of religious faith for most believers - and particularly for a mystic like Mother Teresa - is the personal experience of God as a being who loves them and communicates with them, rather than the intellectual experience of Catholicism (or some other specific faith tradition) as a philosophical system that persuades them. This is why most religious people remain religious while being entirely ignorant of anything resembling serious theology, and indeed, why religious bodies can exist and thrive with at best a minimal theological superstructure. The theology is an attempt to make sense of the experience; the experience itself the primary thing.

So if one set out to find a secular analogue to what Mother Teresa experienced in her encounters with the divine, a more appropriate sneering comparison for Hitchens to employ might be to people caught up, not in an ideological fervor, but in a cult of personality - people who believed in the Soviet Union not for Communism's sake but for Stalin's, or in Nazi Germany because they were mesmerized by Hitler. And then her dark night of the soul would be analogous to, say, banishment from the Great Dictator's inner circle, rather than to ideological disillusionment. This analogy would seem to suit some of Hitchens' purposes, since he's forever complaining that the Judeo-Christian God is a totalitarian despot; on the other hand, the thing about cults of personality is that the personality in question tends to be, you know, real, which is hardly a notion that Hitchens is likely to entertain where Mother Teresa's God is concerned.

And his unwillingness to even entertain it is one of the (many) reasons why Hitchens' brief against religion is so thin: An ideologue himself, he finds it easiest to argue against faith-as-ideology, while leaving largely untouched the more difficult and more important question of what we should make of faith-as-experience. Confronting the case of Mother Teresa, who experienced the presence and love of Jesus Christ intensely throughout her young adulthood and (understandably) made these experiences the basis for her career as a missionary nun, Hitchens is like a man who seeks to disprove not only the faithfulness but the very existence of a woman's absent lover by arguing that her mind is held captive by a primitive, oppressive and dangerous theory of eros. Even if such an ideological critique were true (and obviously I find Hitchens unpersuasive on this count as well), it wouldn't get him where he wants to go, because the crucial question - whether the original experience itself is real; whether the now-absent lover still loves her, and whether he exists at all - would remain unanswered, and indeed unaddressed.