When Is a Saint a Saint?


“According to legend, Saint Barbara was executed by her father when she refused to recant her Christian faith. The four sinister-looking witnesses may be the Roman authorities who tortured Barbara in an attempt to persuade her to sacrifice to pagan gods”

Christ…was a religious innovator who opposed the traditional religion of his time and his people…That is why he experienced the transcendent function, whereas a Christian saint could never experience it, since for him no fundamental and total change of attitude would be involved. Carl Jung, Letter to M. Zarine, 3 May 1939, Letters, Vol. 2, p. 268.

On Sept. 14, 2016, the BBC News reported:

Mother Teresa, revered for her work with the poor in India, has been proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis in a ceremony at the Vatican.  Francis said St Teresa defended the unborn, sick and abandoned, and had shamed world leaders for the “crimes of poverty they themselves created.” Two apparent cures of sick people after Mother Teresa’s death in 1997 have been attributed to her intercession.

Recently, an old and dear friend told me he was uncomfortable with what I wrote about Mother Teresa in The Soul’s Twins. In Chapter Three I cite her as a manifestation of the Mother archetype and question the meaning of sainthood. Does sainthood mean spiritual perfection? Is it perfect belief, goodness, and selflessness? Are saints people who Ignore their own feelings and needs and devote their lives to serving others in order to unite with God? Is that healthy? Possible?

By ‘transcendent function’ Jung meant harmonizing one’s conscious and unconscious data to attain their consummation and union, a transforming spiritual experience of oneness that puts an end to divisiveness and allows life to flow on with renewed power to new goals. He believed it was

“a true labour that involves action and suffering…it represents a function based on real and ‘imaginary,’ or rational and irrational, data, thus bridging the yawning gulf between conscious and unconscious.” Carl Jung, CW 7, par.121.

Was Jung right? Does a person who aspires to moral perfection, scrupulous adherence to religious convictions, and single-mindedly serving others deny themselves the opportunity to experience union, oneness, and healing new life—what some deeply religious people think of as salvation?

Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism. Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 329

When is a saint a saint? Can you only be considered a saint if you want to help others so much that you have to torture yourself for the sake of your god-image? Could you be a saint if you questioned the traditional and often one-sided religious beliefs of your time and people? Could you take your personal wounds, emotions, imaginative life, and respect for your truths as seriously as you take the lives and misfortunes of others?

Christopher Hitchens claimed Mother Teresa loved the idea of alleviating poverty more than the people she served. He called her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud” and accused her of ignoring the only cure for poverty—giving women the right to choose what to do with their own bodies and relieving them of the burden of compulsory reproduction.

Writing in Slate magazine in 2003, Hitchens pointed to Mother Teresa’s description of abortion as the “greatest destroyer of peace” in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and her opposition to abolishing Ireland’s ban on divorce and remarriage. India Today reported that “during the deliberations over the Second Vatican Council…MT [Mother Teresa] was to the fore in opposing all suggestions of reform. What was needed, she maintained, was more work and more faith, not doctrinal revision.” (India Today:Ganesh Radha-Udayakumar New Delhi, July 12, 2018)

There is no doubt Mother Teresa selflessly devoted her life to what she believed her God wanted her to do. There’s no doubt she alleviated the suffering of countless human beings. And there’s no doubt she suffered for it. Her ideas of what God wanted of her were shaped by the religious beliefs of her time, and she did her best to act on them.

Was that enough to make her a saint? Does sainthood only come from believing and obeying religious authorities? Were all the beliefs of her authorities healthy? Were they helpful to some and harmful to others? Did her actions come from spiritual ideals or a caring heart? Or both? Did she allow herself to feel joy and pleasure or only pain and suffering? I don’t know, but the fact that she confessed to struggling with her faith for 50 years makes me wonder if she ever accepted and loved herself.

I believe God is Love. I don’t believe love is just about serving others. I don’t believe ignoring our personal suffering serves a god of love. Nor does enabling and prolonging the suffering of impoverished families who are forced by the church to have children they can’t feed. Love is seeing the worst in ourselves, loving ourselves anyway, and treating ourselves and everyone else with caring and compassion.

Was Mother Teresa as good as the church believes? As bad as Christopher Hitchens believed? Somewhere in between? Saint or not, I hope she came to accept and love her humanness. If she did, I believe she would have felt the love for herself that the God of Love feels for her. She certainly deserved to feel that.

Image credit: The Martyrdom of St. Barbara, by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Her new book, The Soul’s Twins, is available at Schiffer, Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit and wherever books are sold. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you, Diane.

    Sensitive, indeed.

    We all want someone or something to trust and believe in. When our idols, religious or political, prove to have feet of clay, it can be devastating. Channeling our fear and pain into outwardly directed social action–whether anger in Hitchens’ case or selflessness in Teresa’s–can provide a measure of relief. In that way they were alike, though their perspectives couldn’t have been more different. Taken together they are yin and yang, proof that life and creation are only possible with the interaction between opposites.

    That will never change. We can’t change the world. We can only change ourselves. We might as well get used to it.

  2. Well, Jeanie, I read your post earlier this morning and it is only now almost 9.30 p.m. that I’m sitting down at my computer. Easier than on an Ipad or phone. But a few times during the day I was thinking about Hitchen’s who I’ve watched on youtube a few times in the last few years. His was a keen intelligence, and amusing at times. He stuck to his guns – though I was pleased to see him outwitted by a Rabbi, twice … no matter 🙂 But he held on to his views and there was something perfectly rigid about him, however entertaining he was.

    Mother Theresa was also a depressive. I think somewhere along the line she admitted that, no doubt due to the suffering she saw. I can’t remember if I read that in her words, or someone else wrote that about her. All I can say is that she acted on her surroundings. She was not an idealist, she acted. And doubt, such as she had with her faith, strengthens it. How one sided to be totally certain – as with Hitch, the one-sideness

    It’s been a debate forever, serve others first or self first and then others if and where and when one can. A question I have battled with. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg. The Dalai Lama is I know of the belief that serving others first is the highest ideal. In my view, the two don’t have to be exclusionary to each other, but a good start to loving others and being compassionate towards others, is to love oneself and be compassionate towards oneself, warts and all .. I can give to another only what I am.

    I didn’t mean this to be this long, and there was something else I wanted to note, but it’s gone out the window for the moment. (I must remember to close them before I go downstairs!)

    Thank you for this very thought provoking post. Oh, yes, it’s good to be stripped of our illusions about people who disappoint us, hard though this is. A way of getting real, not unlike withdrawing projections. Love, and thank you again, Susan

    1. Hi, Susan. Thank you for your many thoughts. And for the added information about Hitchens and Teresa.

      I’ve struggled with the chicken and the egg too and agree they aren’t exclusionary. In fact, they’re inextricably linked. I think that’s true of everything in creation. We struggle in vain when we try to put one pole in any pair of opposites first. Not even the Greek philosophers of the Golden Age knew who mothered Gaia, the mother of the gods! It’s a mystery. 🙂

      I also agree that it’s good to be stripped of our illusions about people who disappoint us. Idolizing and expecting too much from anyone, including ourselves, is a recipe for disappointment. I can think of several people I placed on pedestals in the first half of my life. I did the same thing with God. I always ended up disillusioned and angry….a real problem for perfectionists. But I’ve been learning from experience and now I can usually recognize the pattern and the problem—my own projections—before anyone gets hurt, including myself.

      With love and gratitude, Jeanie

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