First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Mother Teresa and the Absence of God" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

First Unitarian Church of Worcester
Worship Service of September 23, 2007

First Reading
from Psalms 42 & 88

As the deer longs for the running waters,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
Athirst is my soul for God, the living God.
When shall I go and behold the face of God?
My tears are my food day and night,
as they say to me day after day,
“Where is your God?”

Why are you so downcast, O my soul?
Why do you sigh within me?
O Lord, my God, by day I cry out:
at night I clamor in your presence.
I am a person without strength,
whom you remember no longer
and I am cut off from your care.
You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit,
into the dark abyss.

My eyes have grown dim through affliction;
daily I call upon you, O Lord;
to you I stretch out my hands.
Why, O Lord, do you reject me;
why hide from me your face?
I am afflicted and in agony.
Companion and neighbor you have
taken away from me;
my only friend is darkness.

Second Reading
from “Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk
(Selections from the letters of Mother Teresa)

There is such a terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.

There is such a deep loneliness in my heart that I cannot express it.

Within me, everything is icy cold.

There is that separation, that terrible emptiness, that feeling of absence of God.

God is destroying everything in me.

No faith, no love, no zeal.

Heaven means nothing to me, it looks like an empty place.

Sometimes the pain is so great that I feel that everything will break.

The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains.

Lord, my God. The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I wait—and there is No One to answer—If there be God, —please forgive me.

Love—the word—it brings nothing. Before the work started—there was so much union—love—faith—trust—prayer—sacrifice—In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss—of God not wanting me—of God not being—of God not really existing. If there be no God—there can be no soul—If there is no soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

In my heart there is no faith—no love—no trust—I want God with all the powers of my soul—and yet there between us—there is terrible separation.
The work holds no joy, no attraction, no zeal.

Holy Communion—Holy Mass—all the holy things of spiritual life—of the life of Christ in me—are all so empty—so cold—so unwanted.

I can speak to no one and even if I do—nothing enters my soul—If there is hell—this must be one. How terrible it is to be without God—no prayer—no faith—no love—The only thing that still remains—is the conviction that the work is His—And yet—in spite of all these—I want to be faithful—I only ask Him to use me.

If my separation from You—brings others to You and in their love and company You find joy and pleasure—why Jesus, I am willing with all my heart to suffer all that I suffer—not only now—but for all eternity.

“Mother Teresa and the Absence of God” by the Rev. Barbara Merritt

My favorite coffee used to be Celebes Kalossi—rich, smooth, not at all bitter—the perfect Indonesian bean to brew for the perfect cup. So what if it costs $13 a lb. in 1978? It was worth the price—until Mother Teresa convinced me to give it up. I was reading an article, back then, about Mother Teresa. And in that essay she asked all of us who did not live in slums and in extreme poverty, “Could you give up one luxury for the sake of the poor? In solidarity with those who have nothing? If you are a wealthy Indian woman with a hundred silk saris, could you sacrifice one?” I thought her logic was impressive. We who have hundreds of luxuries, could we at least be conscious of those who have so little? She didn’t even say to sell the item or send the money to the poor. But she hoped that one single symbolic sacrifice of one material object of comfort might help us to recognize all we had received and to be more generous in sharing our resources. I looked around my life, at all my various and endless attachments (and I also noticed that there was lots of other good coffee) and at that time I made a promise, “No more Celebes Kalossi.”

I have kept that pledge, but even now when I am shopping at the local coffee roaster’s and I see the freshly roasted Celebes sitting there, I mutter something about Mother Teresa. I buy something else.

I have always been a great admirer of this Catholic nun working in an enormously patriarchal system, she managed to establish a new order that was completely devoted to alleviating the suffering of the poorest people on earth. By the time her life ended in 1997, there were over 300 missions throughout the world and over 1,000 nuns and brothers dedicating their lives to this compassionate work. What I wasn’t aware of (until this new book came out on September 4, 2007) is that after she had her call, after her visions and her assignment from God to do this work, the institutional church put her off for years. There was enough discernment, beaurocratic red tape, delays and procedures that a normal person would have given up.

But Mother Teresa was not “normal.” She was stubborn, dedicated, courageous and doggedly determined. Her letters to her bishop said, “Whatever you say, I will obey.” Only when she didn’t get the answer she wanted, she simply wrote him another letter. Dozens of them. And no argument that he put forward that these things take time appeased her in the least.

I loved the stories in the biographical notes. When a bull in the street threatened her students, she was the one who chased it away. When thieves broke into the convent, she was the one who drove them out. And when riots broke out in Calcutta and hundreds were killed, she describes her response:
“I went out from St. Mary’s. I had three hundred girls in the boarding school and we had nothing to eat. We were not supposed to go out in to the streets, but I went anyway. Then I saw the bodies on the streets, stabbed, beaten, lying there in strange positions, in their dried blood. We had been behind our safe walls. We knew that there had been rioting. People had been jumping over our walls, first a Hindu, then a Muslim. . . . We took in each one and helped him to escape safely. When I went out on the street, only then did I see the death that was following them. A lorry full of soldiers stopped me and told me I should not be out on the street. ‘No one should be out,’ they said. I told them I had to come out and take the risk; I had three hundred students who had nothing to eat. The soldiers had rice and they drove me back to the school and unloaded bags of rice.”

Almost everyone is familiar by now with her extraordinary work with the poor and the dying and the suffering. She has become almost a synonym for the ideal of compassionate service. We use her name as an unreachably high standard of commitment. In her lifetime she was recognized, honored and revered.

What I never gave much thought to was her interior spiritual life. I assumed that her being a devout Roman Catholic nun meant that she and I would have very little in common. I assumed that because she once heard God speaking to her that her visions and sense of union continued throughout her life. I assumed her joyful and cheerful personality was a reflection of a joyful and rich prayer life. Like many religious liberals, I fell for the myth that those who have an orthodox faith and a creeded belief structure are blessed with a kind of comfort and solace that isn’t available to skeptics and nonbelievers.

With the publishing of her letters this fall, we discover just how wrong we all were about Mother Teresa. Not even her closest friends and confidants were aware of her internal agony. Only a few confessional priests were allowed to see what was going on inside.

The important question is being asked (sometimes quite loudly,) “Mother Teresa begged that these letters be destroyed. How can they print what is so very private? How can they violate her trust so publicly?” While Mother Teresa was explicit about her own desires concerning those letters, I am certain that she would have agreed to the decision to publish. Because no matter what she wanted, she always said to God, “If you can use me (a nothing like me) to be of service, to assist another human being—then that is all I want.” She called herself “God’s little pencil.”

Well this little pencil’s spiritual life is now being compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions and to St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. Her letters are like she was: honest straightforward, humble and generous to others. They reveal her willingness to attempt to live the words of the Lord’s Prayer—“Thy will be done.”

She summed up her life’s aspiration: To accept what God gives and to give (with a big smile) what God takes. Now most people try their best to accept what reality gives to us. But personally, when I find that reality/God or truth has taken away my health, my delusions, my wealth, my peace of mind, my plans, my congenital preferences or my car keys—I don’t release them with a big smile—I howl in protest. And I’m not the only howler. (I won’t be naming names, but you know who you are. . .)

The new book, Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light is not, I believe, as good as it should be. The editor is “on assignment!” He is selling her official sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church. His commentary is all attempting to shore-up his case, and his agenda is transparent.

But her own words are stunningly direct. Her spiritual dedication is heroic and her confessions of doubt and failure are deeply comforting to all struggling souls (which means, to all of us) Christian, Jew Buddhist, agnostic, all souls. If I were to choose only five lessons to learn from the interior life of Mother Teresa these would be the five I would want to remember.

First, she was extraordinarily humanistic. She said our assignment as human beings was “to learn how to suffer and at the same time, how to laugh.” She believed that God took real form when one human being helped another. She maintained that the only way for most people to experience God’s companionship is when human beings offer compassion , care and attention. Her work was based on the premise of the inherent worth and dignity of every child of God—including the dying, the oppressed, the physically and mentally ill. When she was with the destitute and the unwanted she sensed God’s presence. She wrote about Christ in all “his distressing disguises.”

“Our poor people,” she said,
“are great people, a very loveable people. They don’t need our pity or sympathy. They need our understanding, love and they need our respect. We need to tell the poor they are somebody to us, that they too have been created by the same loving hand of God, to love and to be loved.”

Her friends described her as full of fun, down-to-earth, authentic in her presence and willing to do anything to help. After accepting the Nobel Prize, when she went to one of her missions, she would also help dry the dishes after dinner.

The second remarkable aspect of her life was her willingness to confess her limitations, her failures and her pain. Especially in this Jewish season of Yom Kipper—her cries for atonement—at-one-ment—with God are profoundly moving. Her spiritual longing was not answered in this life.

She gave up on the world and its material comforts. How fascinating to read that unlike many ascetics who choose “poverty” because wealth makes hem ill at ease, Mother Teresa admitted early on, “By nature I am sensitive, love beautiful and nice things, comfort and all that comfort can give.” Yet she chose a path of complete poverty—the lifestyle of the poorest. And then just as she began her great work, as she answered and obeyed God’s command, all religious and spiritual consolation and comfort was taken from her. The church and its liturgy became meaningless to her. Her prayer life was a disaster. Her companions gave her no solace. And from 1948 to her death in 1997, almost 50 years, the dark night of the soul did not leave her (with the exception of one month and one day, when she felt God’s reassurance.) She never doubted the authenticity of her original mystical experiences and call. Neither did she pretend that she felt God’s presence when she didn’t.

The third lesson is the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of the spiritual life. According to her experience it is possible, indeed inevitable, that if you long for God or truth or love you will by necessity be acutely aware of the absence of God and truth and love. To feel separate from God is in the nature of being in relationship with God. If this sounds contradictory and confusing and bewildering—welcome to spiritual practice 101.

She put it most eloquently. “You have no love, and all you can do is love. Sometimes I find myself saying,’ I can’t bear it any longer.’ With the same breath I say, ‘I am sorry; do with me what you will.’” “Pray for me,” she wrote, “. . . to be in love and yet not to love, to live by faith and yet not to believe—to spend myself and yet be in total darkness. Gone is the love for anything and anybody, and yet I long for God.” Even as she won the applause of the world and the respect of millions, she always felt like a failure—rejected and unwanted by God.

The fourth lesson is exceptionally difficult. She made her peace with the darkness within her. She wrote to Jesus (who she felt had abandoned and forsaken her.) “Please do not take the trouble to return soon. I am ready to wait for you for all eternity.” And after dozens of years of internal agony, she finally accepted the spiritual exile as her gift from God (a painful gift to be sure—but one that allowed her to identify with and serve those who society had rejected and declared to be unwanted and unacceptable.) So Mother Teresa was a humanist. Her confessions are breathtaking. Her experience of the holy was paradoxical and ambiguous. And she made her peace with the absence of God.

But it is the fifth lesson that I find most useful to Unitarian Universalists. She claimed that how you are feeling and what you believe are ultimately unimportant. What matters is how you act. Even in the midst of terrible despair and great spiritual pain, she went out in the world and did what she believed she was called to do. She kept her vows. She went to church. She kept in relationship with priests and bishops. She went on retreat. Apparently, she wasn’t going to let a little thing like having no faith, no love and no prayer life get in the way of being of service, founded new missions and offered encouragement and hope to those who needed the strength.

Are you thinking that Mother Teresa was a little odd, a little mentally or spiritually unbalanced, or some kind of religious aberration who just didn’t understand or grasp the reality that God really did love her (and was close by)? Or do you think that she could not accept that God wasn’t real and she couldn’t even give up the fantasy? I suggest you do a little research in the writings of the mystics. Do a literature scan of what others have experienced as they attempt to seek God and truth and reality, and to be of service to humanity. And not just David’s lamentations in the Psalms.

Rumi, the Persian mystic, wrote extensively on the heartbreak of this spiritual work.
God admits, “I grant that indeed you have become stony and locks have been put upon your ears and hearts. But we have nothing to do with any acceptance. . .our business is to do God’s will and fulfill love’s command. If God asks us to sow in a tract of a sand—we sow.” And the disciple’s response? “How should I not wait bitterly on account of God’s deceit—since I am not in the circle of those intoxicated with God? How should I not mourn, like night, without God’s day?”

Or consider Attar’s description in the Sufi classic, The Conference of the Birds. “Until the falcon reaches his aim he is agitated and distressed. If a fish is thrown onto the beach by the waves, it struggles to get back into the water. Is a lover ever patient? I have read a hundred books on patience and still I am without it.” Attar claims that eventually we will finally come to a place on our spiritual journey where we can say with certainty: “I know nothing. I understand nothing. I am unaware of myself. I am in love (but with whom I do not know.) My heart is, at the same time, both full and empty of love.” This is a perfect description of Mother Teresa’s heart and a way to understand our own hearts, our own struggles, our own journeys into dark nights that can go on for years and decades. And yet, what does that matter if we continue to seek, to serve, to be used to alleviate suffering, to call one another to the noble task of recognizing and working on behalf of every child of God?

At the very end of her life Mother Teresa said that she thought Jesus was “a bit too demanding.” But then, so was Mother Teresa. I read a part from her letter to President Bush (senior) and Saddam Husein right before the first Gulf War. One of her missions was in Baghdad.

I come to you in the name of God, the God that we all love and share, to beg for the innocent ones, our poor of the world and those who will become poor because of the war. They are the ones who will suffer most because they have no means of escape. I plead to you for those who will be left orphaned, widowed, and left alone because their parents, husbands, brothers and children have been killed. I plead for those who will be left with disability and disfigurement. They are God’s children. I plead for those who will be left with no home, no food and no love. Please think of them as being your children.

You have the power to bring war into the world or to build peace. PLEASE CHOOSE THE WAY OF PEACE.

You may win the war but what will the cost be on people who are broken, disabled and lost? In the name of God and in the name of those you will make poor, do not destroy life and peace. . . .let your name be remembered for the good you have done, the joy you have spread and the love you have shared.

We pray that you will love and nourish what God has so lovingly entrusted into your care.

May God bless you now and always.

A good closing: May God bless you now and always.

May we love and nourish what has been put into our care, now and always.



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