MOTHER TERESA’S - VISIONS AND VOICES…SPIRITUALITY OR INSANITY?

 

When we study the biographies of saints, sufis and sadhus and discover that they shared their experiences of talking to God and God talking to them, we ask ourselves,

Were they mystic or psychotic encounters?

Were they an expression of spirituality or insanity?

Such questions become very important for psychiatrists because the answer would decide whether such people need to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital and treated with medications and psychotherapy or supported to find their truth and serve their communities. For secular humanists, agnostics and atheists who do not believe in God, Prophets, Scriptures, angels, supernatural beings and miracles, it is important to have an explanation of such phenomena based on modern science, medicine and psychology.

          In this essay I will present Mother Teresa’s spiritual encounters with Jesus Christ presented in a recently published book Mother Teresa…Come Be My Light (Ref 1) which includes her previously unpublished letters and confessions and compare them with psychotic encounters of one of my psychiatric patients to highlight the similarities and differences between spiritual and psychotic encounters. In my essay Spirituality and Insanity I wrote, “When we compare mystic and psychotic encounters and their analyses by mental health professionals we find that there are some similarities and some differences. The similarities are that the mystic and the psychotic both claim that they are in touch with God and are getting direct special messages from him. They both experience loss of ego boundaries and they are both changed by those experiences. The differences are that in a mystic:

…the experiences are a part of self-hypnosis

…they are completely reversible

…they are associated with a sense of euphoria and well being

…they improve the self-esteem of the person and help the person to integrate their life at a higher level of maturity

and

…they are growth-promoting experiences for the person and the community.

On the other hand the psychotic experiences are associated with a lot of emotional pain and suffering and gradually lead to the disintegration of the personality and lifestyle of the person”. (Ref 2 p 115)

          When we study Mother Teresa’s life we become aware that she was an Albanian by birth. Born in a Serb-Croatian family she decided to become a nun as a teenager, join the Convent and move to India. She lived with other nuns for a few years in Calcutta and Asansol. She was a very caring, kind and compassionate nun who loved Jesus Christ and had dedicated her life to God.

          In 1946, at the age of 36, during her travel to Darjeeling for a meditation retreat she started having a number of unusual experiences. She heard the voice of Jesus Christ asking her to leave the Convent and live on the streets as an ordinary Indian serving the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. . In September1946 she wrote a letter to the authorities of the Catholic Church to release her so that she could serve the poor and the needy. In that letter she writes about the voices she heard in these words:

 

Dear Father,

During the year very often I have had that longing to be all for Jesus and to make other souls---Indian especially, come and love Him fervently, but as I thought this to be one of my desires I put it off again and again…something is calling me to leave all and gather the few---to live His life---to do His work in India. In all my prayers and Holy Communions He is continually asking “Wilt thou refuse? When there was a question of thy soul I did not think of Myself but gave myself freely for thee on the Cross and now what about thee? Wilt thou refuse? I want Indian Nuns victims of my love, who would be Mary and Martha, who would be so very united to me as to radiate My love on souls. I want free Nuns covered with my poverty on the Cross---I want obedient Nuns covered with my obedience on the Cross---Wilt thou refuse to do this for Me?” (Ref 1)

In that long letter while pleading to be released from the Convent she also shares three of her Visions,

“1. I saw a very big crowd---all kinds of people---very poor and children were there also. They all had their hands lifted towards me---standing in their midst. They called out “Come, come, save us---bring us to Jesus.”

2, Again that great crowd---I could see great sorrow and suffering in their faces---I was kneeling near Our Lady, who was facing them.---I did not see her face but I heard her say, “take care of them---they are mine---bring them to Jesus---Carry Jesus to them---Fear not. Teach them to say the Rosary---the family Rosary and all will be well.---Fear not---Jesus and I will be with you and your children.”

3, The same great crowd---they were covered in darkness. Yet I could see them. Our Lord on the Cross. Our Lady at a little distance from the Cross---and myself as a little child in front of her. Her left hand was on my left shoulder---and her right hand was holding my right arm. We were both facing the Cross. Our Lord said---“I have asked you. They have asked you and she, My Mother has asked you. Will you refuse to do this for me---to take care of them, to bring them to me?”

I answered---You know, Jesus, I am ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

(Ref 1 p 99)

All those voices and visions asked her to leave the Convent and help the poor and the sick especially the lepers on the streets of Calcutta. Finally the authorities of the Catholic Church let her go and she started her volunteer work.

          These were Mother Teresa’s spiritual experiences with Jesus Christ. On the other hand let me share the religious experiences of one of my psychiatric patients who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and heard disturbing voices of God that made him despair. He used to be preoccupied with religious matters. He used to tell me, “Doctor! I hear voices of God and of Satan that keep me awake all night long. I try hard but I cannot get rid of them. They are poisoning my soul.” As his clinical condition deteriorated his life started to disintegrate. He had very poor self-esteem. He believed he was ugly and nobody liked and loved him. Unfortunately his condition did not respond to medications, psychotherapy even hospitalization. With the passage of time his religious hallucinations and delusions became more intense, painful and bizarre. One day he showed me one of his poems, which read,

Here at home

Come inside my name is hell

Let me give you pain and agony so you won’t feel well

Over in the distance across the flames of darkness

You can hear a bell

I welcome you into me fear I see you like it I can tell

Up from God in heaven above I was defeated and fell

Down to the striking creation God made

I sit here down on earth a demon of hade

I hate man’s soul and make him to fade

Into the night the dark gloom and shade

Death, destruction, is my name and confusion and death on earth all of it will I claim

The war pains grace in man’s head---take a look around and know you’re my name

The name of satan is of hell, fury furnace reign

God is but a dove, yet I am the dragon and crush his weak wings

 I claim suffering and life, love of greed I sing

I love the danger of battle the screams of man in my ear I love to hear it ring

Against spikes and stakes---God’s people will I crush and fling

Come into me satan and darken my soul

Down here in my hell for inside my home

(Ref 2 p 117)

 

I chose this poem of this patient so that we can see the contrast. Mother Teresa experiences Jesus Christ as a symbol of love and compassion while this patient associates God with hate and destruction. The young schizophrenic was so tormented by his psychotic religious experiences that his parents took him home, hundreds of miles away from the hospital. A few months later I heard that the patient had committed suicide.

One of the fundamental questions secular psychiatrists ask themselves is:

How are mystic encounters different than psychotic experiences?

Silvano Arieti, a famous American psychiatrist, author of award winning book Interpretation of Schizophrenia comments on the differences of psychotic and mystical experiences in these words, “Mystical experiences seem to correspond to what are called hallucinations and delusions in psychiatric terms---it is easy to confuse religious mystics with psychotic patients especially those psychotics who have hallucinations and delusions with a religious content.” (Ref 3)

Arieti feels that when we analyze those experiences closely we find marked differences between them. He writes, “The individual who experiences mystical experiences has a marked rise in self-esteem and a sense of his being or becoming a worthwhile and very active person. He has been given a mission, a special insight, and from now on he must be on the move doing something important---more important than his life”.

This is how Mother Teresa felt after her spiritual encounters with Jesus Christ. She wanted to leave the comforts of the Convent and dedicate her life to the poor and the needy as part of her mission.

Arieti writes, “ In mystical experiences we have a tradition of auto-hypnosis. A subject puts himself into a state of a trance and projects power to the divinity…the hypnosis is time limited and totally reversible.”

Mother Teresa used to fully recover from her trance like states in prayers and continue with her daily routine and socialize with other nuns in her Convent. Her spiritual encounters were significantly different than the psychotic encounters of patients suffering from insanity. Arieti writes,

The hallucinatory and delusional experiences of the schizophrenic are generally accompanied by a more or less apparent disintegration of the whole person. Religious and mystical experiences seem to result in a strengthening and enriching of the personality.” (Ref 3)

Mother Teresa became very successful in her mission and her message of love and compassion for suffering humanity spread throughout the world while my patient finally committed suicide.

          Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind tries to explain mystic encounters from a scientific and neurological points of view and compares spiritual experiences with creative and artistic experiences of poets and philosophers. He tries to explain those encounters based on his theory of right/left brain functioning. He believes that the temporal lobe of the left brain deals with language while the temporal lobe of the right brain deals with sensory, perceptual and aesthetic experiences. He explains that creative and mystic experiences originate in the right brain and when those experiences are sent to the left brain, the left brain does not own them and feels as if those experiences came from the outside and depending upon the personal and cultural beliefs are interpreted as coming from angels, spirits or God rather than the unconscious mind. (Ref 4)

Robert Buckman in his book Can We Be Good Without God comments about the significance of the right temporal lobe and the limbic system of the brain in these words, “ If the limbic system is activated by means of the temporal lobe, a person will have an experience of the spiritual or divine type. God is…literally…a state of mind.” (Ref 5…p 144)

          While I was studying Mother Teresa’s mystic encounters from a psychological point of view I could not resist keeping the social and political conditions of India in mind. In August 1946, because of the political conflicts between different political and religious groups, she witnessed merciless killings of Muslims and Hindus in the streets of Calcutta. Thousand of innocent men, women and children were murdered in the name of God slaughtered on the altar of religion and politics.

          Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, in their book Freedom at Midnight, sketch out the massacre of August 16th, 1946:

 At dawn Moslem mobs howling in a quasi-religious fervor came bursting from their slums, waiving clubs, iron bars, shovels, any instrument capable of smashing in a human skull. …They savagely beat to a pulp any Hindus in their path and left the bodies in the city’s open gutters. The terrified police simply disappeared. Soon all pillars of black smoke stretched up from a score of spots in the city. Hindu bazaars in full blaze.

          Later, the Hindu mobs came storming out of their neighbourhoods, looking for defenseless Moslems to slaughter. Never, in all its violent history had Calcutta known twenty-four hours as savage, as packed with human viciousness. Like water logged logs, scores of bloated cadavers bobbed the Hooghly River toward the sea. Other corpses, savagely mutilated, littered the city streets.” (Ref 6 p 35)

Mother Teresa, who was a caring and compassionate person, wanted to do something to decrease the sufferings of humanity. She was not a political activist or a revolutionary but as an ordinary woman she dreamt of doing something extraordinary. Instead of just focusing on her personal spiritual enlightenment she wanted to serve her community, a community that was divided by hate. She wrote, “ India is going through days of hatred. Here now again I hear in Calcutta there is trouble. Would that the Missionaries of Charity were there to overrule this hatred by their love. You will say, what could you and your few Indian girls do? We could do nothing, but Jesus and we few victims can do wonders…If only one little unhappy child is made happy with the love of Jesus…will it not be worth…giving all for that” (Ref 1 p 54)

          Mother Teresa served Indians the same way Sattar Edhi has been serving the poor, the sick and the needy Pakistanis for the last fifty years. He started with one ambulance and now there are hundreds of ambulances who take poor people to the local hospitals. Edhi also has a basket outside his centre for single mothers to leave their unwanted children. Those children are adopted by Edhi Centre, brought up in safe and secure environment and are provided food, clothes, shelter and education. Edhi’s program has been recognized in Guiness Book of Records as the biggest charity ambulance program in the world. Edhi is a religious man like Mother Teresa but is also a humanist. I call Mother Teresa and Sattar Edhi as Religious Humanists as they get their inspiration to serve humanity from their religious traditions.

Mother Teresa was inspired by the personality of Jesus Christ as she belonged to a Christian religious and cultural tradition. In her prayers and meditations she connected with her hero and ideal Jesus Christ and received a message of love and hope. If she would have been a Hindu sadhu she might have received messages from Bhagwan and if she were a Muslim sufi she would have received messages from Allah. For Greeks it was the message of Muse that was the source of poetry and inspiration. For secular psychologists and humanists it is the charisma of the Unconscious Mind.

          After Mother Teresa started her service to the community her message of love and hope and compassion spread all over the world and finally she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 acknowledging her services to humanity. Mother Teresa’s visions and voices were a significant part of her journey and we need to understand such experiences from secular and psychological points of view so that we have a better appreciation of mystic encounters and be able to differentiate them from the psychotic encounters of people suffering from schizophrenia. Such differences are significant not only for mental health professionals but also for families, friends and community at large. We need to understand the differences between mystics and psychotics as those experiences become a curse for one and a blessing for another and both groups affect their families and communities in their own unique way.

         

 

 

                                      REFERENCES

Kolodiejchuk Brian, Mother Teresa…Come Be My Light…The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” Doubleday Publishers New York 2007

Sohail K. Dr. ..From Islam to Secular Humanism…A Philosophical Journey Abbeyfield Publishers Toronto 2001

Arieti Silvano…Interpretation of Schizophrenia Basic Books New York 1974

Jaynes Julian…The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind…Mariner Books. New York 1990

Buckman Robert…Can We Be Good Without God? Viking Books Canada 2000

Collins, Larry and Lapierre, Dominique Freedom at Midnight Avon Publishers New York 1975

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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