Were Saints Mentally Ill?

Published January 10, 2008

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Yesterday on ABC morning talk show The View co-host and professional comedian Joy Behar decided not to be her usual funny self. Instead, she tried to get into trouble by making outrageous statements about a serious topic. She succeeded — she wasn’t funny and she’s in trouble, at least with those of us who care about preserving the revered profession of comedians, worldwide.

In an obviously scripted moment, Joy Behar feigned spontaneity: “I’m going to get in trouble for this, but you know what? I have a theory that you can’t find any saints anymore because of psycho-tropic medication. I think that in the old days the saints were hearing voices and they didn’t have any Thorazine to calm them down. Now that we have all of this medication available to us, you can’t find a saint any more.”

Honestly, the monologue is kind of funny. Had I been in the audience and not known what was coming next, I may have chuckled. We expect comedians to exaggerate, poke fun, and take things completely out of context. When a professional funny man talks about serious issues in a comedic way, a person with a sense of humor knows not to take him seriously. It’s precisely the internal contradiction and irony of the moment that makes a joke funny.

But co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck sensed Ms. Behar was up to no good, utilizing comedic form to make a serious point — a pernicious jab at church history, spirituality, prayer, and the possibility of holiness of life in a modern world.

“I don’t think so,” retorted Hasselbeck to Ms. Behar, “Mother Teresa?”

The one sentence comeback was enough to make Ms. Behar drop the façade of comedy and demonstrate her intention of making a serious point: “That’s why Mother Teresa had issues. Let’s not forget, she didn’t really believe 100 percent like these saints who were hearing voices. She didn’t hear voices. So the Church said, 'OK, she does good deeds. Let’s make her a saint.' In the old days it used to be you heard voices. They can’t do that anymore.”

Ms. Behar seems genuinely interested in church history, and particularly in the lives of the saints. That’s great. But apparently she’s not much of a reader. To back up her arguments she mimics (not in a funny way) simplistic and superficial media reports about Mother Teresa’s spiritual diary, published last year. Her personal understanding of these precious mystical writings is … zilch! That’s what happens when talking heads rely on news summaries prepared by show producers (or interns) and then go on television and act as if they were experts.

I can guarantee that nobody — not even vehemently anti-religious comedians like Bill Maher or Kathy Griffin — who reads the diary Come be my Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, would dare suggest Mother Teresa was anything but a woman of rock solid faith. Her spiritual darkness and loneliness, as testified in these existential writings, was a test from God to draw her closer to himself. I would say she passed the test with flying colors, having persevered for 50 years, side by side with the poorest of the poor, in the midst of deep inner spiritual darkness, and always doing it in the name of Jesus.

In true irony, Ms. Behar’s “comedic” monologue — meant to make a serious point — turns out to be rather funny. She tried to use Mother Teresa to prove her point that modern saints (that don’t exist?) don’t hear voices anymore (because they take psychiatric medicine?). But Mother Teresa, in fact, did hear voices and they were not dissimilar to the ones heard by Joan of Arc, the French saint and true feminist who Ms. Behar suggested needed a prescription of Thorazine.

Had Ms. Behar read Mother Teresa’s writings, on which she was basing her affirmations of the holy woman’s “issues,” she would have remembered the little nun’s account of God’s voice: “It was in that train I heard the call to give up all and follow Him into the slums — to serve Him in the poorest of the poor … I knew it was His will and that I had to follow Him.”

Mother Teresa kept a record of “what went on between Him (Jesus) and me during the days of much prayer.” She later referred to her notes as, The Copy of the Voice since 1946. The pages are full of spiritual intimacies, Jesus talking to her soul: “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor, come be My light.”

Of course, not everyone believed her. Lots of good people in Mother Teresa’s time — like Ms. Behar (and many of us) in our times — wrote off her extraordinary spiritual experience as craziness. The bishop of Calcutta, for example, once told Teresa he had no interest in her claims of mysticism. Mother Teresa responded to the bishop in writing, through her spiritual director: “I am glad His Grace (the bishop) is not interested in ‘the voices and visions.’ They came unasked and they have gone. They have not changed my life. They have helped me to be more trustful and draw closer to God. They have increased my desire to be more and more His little child … Why they came I do not know — neither do I try to know. I am please to let Him (God) do with me just as it pleases him.”

Perhaps I’m being a bit hard on Joy Behar. Her skepticism is understandable, especially for someone who doesn’t believe in the power of prayer. On the November 14 edition of The View, Ms. Behar criticized Georgia governor Sonny Perdue for supporting a prayer service for drought relief in the state. She said, “I don’t like to be distracted by prayer when there should be medicine, when there should be science. That’s all I’m saying.” And later, “Well, they need to be praying to people who will fix global warming and take care of the environment because that’s more realistic.” (Sounds like Al Gore now answers prayers!)

Just in case, here’s my own summary of what I’ve just said (made especially for television producers and interns):

Father Jonathan thinks Joy Behar is right, God doesn’t usually speak to people in audible voices and he generally relies on the laws of the universe (of his design) to rain down on crops in Georgia. But sometimes, just so we don’t forget who’s who, God works miracles; it happened in the times of Joan of Arc and it is still happening now — just ask Mother Teresa! Oh, and one more thing … Father Jonathan thinks we should let comedy be comedy; because in these times, we need an honest laugh.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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