Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mother Teresa, Robert Herrick, Faith, and Doubt

Revelations, so to speak, that Mother Teresa often expressed doubts, in letters and other writing, about the presence of God have caused quite a stir. I saw Bill Maher, exuberant atheist, delighting in the revelations on his show. A devout, fundamentalist atheist, and as smug as the late Jerry Falwell, he gloated, quizzing a Christian woman on the panel; somewhat puzzled by his excitement, she noted that doubt is part of the history of Christianity. (She was very polite and did not add, "you idiot." Good for her.) More recently, I saw Richard Rodriguez's piece concerning Mother Teresa on PBS, and he, too, noted the long history of doubt, mentioning "the dark night of the soul" and Christ's own expression on the Cross, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" In other words, Catholics and other Christians--and probably people of other faiths as well--greeted the news as news but not as the proverbial bombshell. Doubt and faith are as close as two siblings; always have been. If anything, the news made Mother Teresa more interesting and confirmed an obvious point: although exceptionally determined, empathetic, disciplined, hard-working, and devoted to helping others, she was human.

Wryly, the Christian on the panel said she would pray for Maher, who said, "You can go ahead and talk, but that doesn't mean anybody is listening ["up there"]. She smiled. Perhaps she was thinking that that was the predicament of a talk-show host as well; you can talk, but that doesn't mean anybody is tuning in.

I thought of the news about Mother Teresa as I re-read the following poem, by Robert Herrick, a 17th century poet, born at the end of the 16th century:

by Robert Herrick

WEIGH me the fire ; or canst thou find
A way to measure out the wind ;
Distinguish all those floods that are
Mix'd in that watery theatre ;
And taste thou them as saltless there
As in their channel first they were.
Tell me the people that do keep
Within the kingdoms of the deep ;
Or fetch me back that cloud again,
Beshiver'd into seeds of rain ;
Tell me the motes, dust, sands, and spears
Of corn, when summer shakes his ears ;
Show me that world of stars, and whence
They noiseless spill their influence :
This if thou canst, then show me Him
That rides the glorious cherubim.

Obviously, viewed in isolation, this poem might not seem to be from the perspective of a "believer." Indeed, it's quite confrontational on the subject of "showing" God--one of its many appealing features. Essentially, it challenges the listener to do some difficult, more like impossible, science and then get back to the speaker. If the results of the field-work are successful, the the listener may then proceed to try to reveal God to the speaker.

I suppose we've figured out some ways to measure the force and speed of the wind, although where "wind" begins and ends is a separate question; the measurements are still estimations, at best. Weighing fire? At which moment would you care to try to weigh it, making sure to separate it from smoke? And precisely how accurate are our systems of measurement? Can you taste the fresh water that has entered the ocean?

So what's Herrick implying? --That if you can't even properly reveal characteristics of the natural world, how then how can you presume to show anybody God? I don't think that's quite the point. He may be suggesting that the ways in which we study the natural world cannot even completely comprehend the natural world; our scientific work on the natural world will never end; therefore, science is probably not the mode by which one discovers God. If Herrick were alive, he might be very impatient with scientists who tout "intelligent design." He would probably ask them, "How would you know?!" It is impossible to "know" God in that way--that may be the point of them poem. St. Denis, I think, asserts something similar in the Cloud of Unknowing. Hope God is there, believe God is there, but don't presume to know God as you would know a little math problem. At one point, St. Denis even suggests that one highly practical prayer is to pray that God exists. In other words, remember how limited and insignificant you and humanity are; regard each day as a surprising gift; recall how little you know or can know, even on your best days.

Herrick's poem doesn't exactly inspire easy, confident belief in God. I'm not sure it would be the first poem Mother Teresa would have turned to in her moments of doubt, even if it were translated into Albanian. On the other hand, she may have found such a poem bracing, partly because it doesn't attempt to sugar-coat things. The poem doesn't seek to prove that God exists, and may go further to imply that we'd be wise to leave that job to God. If you can weigh fire, then maybe we'll let you do some experiments concerning God; otherwise, check that pride and stick with faith. Baruch (or Benedict) Spinoza, my favorite philosopher, seems to think that we can deduce the existence of God but that all of our other analysis will concern only attributes of God. God is the sum of all attributes, and God knows (so to speak) how many attributes there are, and the attributes are changing all the time anyway. In any event, like the news concerning Mother Teresa, this poem is a counterintuitive one, coming as it does from a Christian. It's a poem that gets in your face and in your faith, politely but firmly. Great stuff. Today, at least, it's my favorite poem by Herrick.
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