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Unwholly bound: Mother Teresa’s battles with depression

A psychiatrist’s couch is no place to debate the existence of God. Yet spiritual health is an inseparable part of mental or psychological health: something no psychiatrist should regard with clinical indifference. But what does spiritual or religious health involve? This can’t just include normalized versions of monistic theism – but the entire set of human dispositions that may be thought of in spiritual terms. This is too big a question to answer here, of course, but perhaps a step in the right direction may come from addressing another question:

What does spiritual health not involve?

Here are three things not to say about spiritual health:

  1. The first thing not to say is that there is a single capacity or ‘mental faculty’ for spirituality in the human mind. Nothing could be further from the truth – there is no single spiritual capacity. Consider the numerous and heterogeneous mix of concepts that are considered spiritual or religious. Some concepts refer to supernatural agents (like spirits, gods, or God); others do not. Some concern afterlife beliefs, others ritualistic practices, still others involve sacred objects and holy persons. Some spiritual concepts are elements of our regular cognition, religion or no religion. Things like moral concepts (fairness and proportionality for example) are present in young children, long before they believe in a god.
Image Credit: “Take Back Your Health Conference 2015 Los Angeles” by Take Back Your Health Conference. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
  1. The second and related thing not to say, is that spiritual health is the same general condition for each and every ‘healthy’ person. Again, it is not. There is wide variation in the particular character of people’s spiritual health. For some, belief in God contributes to spiritual health. For others it does not. For certain individuals, membership in a religious community contributes to spiritual health – for others, it can even raise psychological issues!
  1. The third and last thing not to say is that spiritual health is unbounded, unconstrained by human limitations of personality, culture, and circumstance. In the cognitive science of human decision making and reasoning, investigators write of something called ‘bounded rationality’. This concept recognizes situational constraints and personal limits on human decision making. No person is a perfect or Olympian reasoner. We get confused, we may be uninformed, and we make mistakes. Time is often not on our side.

Here, ‘bounded’ spiritual health should be at the center of the issue. A spiritually healthy person is not immune to forms of superstitious anxiety or ritualistic obsession. If spiritual health was perfectionist, spiritually unwelcome attitudes would not abide in people we class as ‘healthy’. The land of spiritual health has a cratered and uneven surface. It possesses peaks of spiritual sense and sensibility. The peaks, however, do not stand alone – they possess ragged edges and ravines…

To illustrate this point, I’d like to take a brief look at someone who, although iconic in her religiosity, may not have been spiritually healthy.

Consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She died in 1997. After her death, a book entitled Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta appeared. It holds a selection of her letters and diary entries, and was edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, a priest.

Image Credit: ‘Mother Teresa Collage’ by @Peta_de_Aztlan. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

The book drew a lot of attention. The main reason? Many of the letters and entries consist of Mother Teresa’s descriptions of her suffering from a decades-long and disabling depression, or chronic form of emotional darkness. Depression, she reports:

Surrounds me on all sides – I can’t lift my soul to God – no light or inspiration enters my soul . . . Heaven, what emptiness – not a single thought of Heaven enters my mind – for there is no hope. . . The place of God in my soul is blank.

Chronic depression steals away whoever a person is. Mother Teresa desired to feel close to her God. Depression was a thief. It took the possibility of feeling close to God away from her. She reports that when she was in prayer in a public place: “People say they are drawn closer to God – seeing my faith. Is this not deceiving people? Every time I have wanted to tell the truth that I have no faith.”

Prayer for many people is crucial to their presumed relationship with God. It helps to make him seem more real, more available. It did not do so for Teresa.

As Mother Teresa aged, she became more circumspect in her writing. However, her thirst for intimacy with God was never satisfied. Was her strife and emotional darkness compatible with spiritual health – bounded, and humanly constrained?

Reports from the Vatican indicate that Mother Teresa will soon be canonized. Alas, the future saint may have suffered needlessly due to an absence of psychiatric medical treatment. Apparently, the Church never considered that option for her. Mother Teresa received pastoral counseling, but it was cloaked in a somber and discouraging theology. Suffering from a felt absence of God, some of her counselors urged, was God’s way of drawing her close to him. This reading of her state of mind understandably did not reduce her misery. Perhaps she would have rejected secularized psychiatric attention, but unfortunately, we will never know.

Mother Teresa’s depression hung on her like an “unwholly weight” – making its full impact felt on a person who spent decades mired in conditions of abject poverty, illness, and death. As an important lesson to remember, it’s far from clear that this saint in Calcutta was spiritually healthy. Bound, or unbound.

Featured Image Credit: Stained Glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1890), Yale University. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. J. Christopher Maloney

    George Graham’s brilliant work on a wide range of topics in the intersection of the philosophy of mind, psychology, cognitive science, psychiatry and theology display depth and sensitivity to the complexity of the profoundly important entangled issues that matter most in our lives. What Graham has to say enriches our understanding of ourselves and others. He returns philosophy to the too-long abandoned deep questions that come to mind when we pause at dusk to ask what may be meaningful in a world ruled by blind physics.

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