Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Reading Mother Teresa XVI
I should, I suppose, consult some dog-eared, learned treatise. I need to walk only two blocks to find what is, I'm sure, a fine theological library. Shoot, today, who needs a library?--I could simply google "total depravity." It would not be hard for me to learn more about what those two words mean. What I know is that it is the T, the first letter of the famous Calvinist acronym T-U-L-I-P, and what I've picked up through the years.
I don't know what the great theologians speculate about the nature of our human misery, post-Fall. I should check. Undoubtedly, there's more than one opinion. It might be interesting to know how people speculate.
What I do know is what my own human experience tells me, and it's not exactly what my graduate school advisor used to claim. "Jim, I want you to know that I'm a Calvinist too, just not a Christian," he'd say. "When I look at the world, all I see is crap."
It's not that. He was great guy, and I liked him a ton; but he was dead wrong--that's not what total depravity means.
I think Mother Teresa has it down. Listen to this, from a letter to a mentor: "One thing, pray much for me--I need prayer more than ever," she writes. "I want to be only all for Jesus, and not only in name or dress." The year is 1937. The place is Calcutta. Undoubtedly, she wore the habit. "Many times this goes upside-down"--this idea of being only all for Jesus, "--because my most reverend 'I' gets the most important place. Always the same proud Gonda."
The very idea of this most righteous woman, this woman who has, in fact, given her life for the poor and destitute, given up everything--the idea of that woman, Mother Teresa herself, going to war with her own putrid pride is in itself remarkable, isn't it? Almost beyond comprehension. Mother Teresa fought pride?
Yes, she did. We have her words. Every day, every moment, in the caverns of her own heart she fought an infernal holy war.
Yesterday I finished a story, and I was proud of it--proud because it took a ton of work and I thought I'd pulled it off well. I liked it, believed it was good. It was hard frickin' work and it took me too many days to accomplish; but the beauty and joy of creativity is to gather together stuff--an idea, an anecdote or two, a taste of character, an odd event, a few good names, a hillside, some sheep--and then, like a creator, somehow roll it up together and make sense of it. Art, I think, is little more than making something with meaning where there wasn't particular meaning before, order out of chaos. But then we're all really trying to make sense of things; that's why stories will never die.
I was proud of myself in a good sense. I'd made something I thought wonderful. That kind of pride is no sin. That kind of pride has nothing to do with total depravity.
But the moment I think I need to be praised for what I did is the moment that "the most reverend 'I'" struts in, dressed in all his impish finery. The moment I want acclaim is the moment my needs, my wants, my desires overshadow anything else. And it happens. Always. Total depravity, at least in my experience, is that sad human condition.
I don't think I'm alone. After all, even Mother Teresa's "most reverend 'I'" would not stay in the closet.
Total depravity has little to do with some sinful human slime pits or the way the German people fell for Hitler's hate. It's hard to look at Congress these days and not think of sheer sin on both sides. But it's not that. Total depravity is "the most reverend 'I'" shouldering its way into absolutely everything we do or say or believe.
In my book, she's right here too--we all, every one of us, need prayer. We all stand in need of grace.
It's that total.