Finding Calcutta 3: Sin and the Supernatural

We are in the middle of short series on Mary Poplin’s thought provoking book Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service. This is not a science and faith book – and it is a welcome respite from some of the more “academic” questions we discuss on this blog. Dr. Poplin’s book is a very readable set of short chapters reflecting on various aspects of her time with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and the influence that these experiences have had on her life since her visit in 1996. In Chapters 14 and 15 of her book Dr. Poplin deals with two topics, sin and the supernatural, that are discouraged if not taboo in secular western circles. She discusses these ideas in the context of her work with two sick and helpless infants.

The Supernatural. Ch. 14 brings up the question of miracles, not the miracles of Jesus but every day miracles today, the reality of the spirit world and of the supernatural.  The question here is not so much did God work miracles, but does God work miracles and does he make himself known. In Ch. 13 and 14 Dr. Poplin relates the story of weak, very sick infant, Babloo, with whom she formed a special attachment. She worked to feed him and help him grow and thrive. After a near death episode he began to recover and grow.

After his brush with death I lifted Babloo from his crib and began to walk him around. His eyes searched the pictures above the windows until they became fixed upon the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When Babloo’s eyes met this picture, he began to kick and excitedly smile. … I looked at the picture and thought little of it; it was just a coincidence. … Yet every time we walked by the windows he searched out the picture and had the same reaction.

When I was confident that this was a sure thing, I showed some of the sisters, who were very happy about it. Sister Delphinus exclaimed with great enthusiasm that this meant that Babloo would be a great saint. (p. 78)

What is your first reflexive reaction to such a story? Belief? Skepticism? Disbelief?

Is your first impulse to rationalize away the incident?

I have to admit, my first reaction to such a story is always skepticism. It is an ingrown reflex that arises, I think, from two factors, first the culture of western secularism that disregards anything supernatural, and second, the concern that I not be fooled or duped. The second reason is, I think, legitimate. Some level of care and skepticism is warranted. But the first is a real reflexive reaction of our culture, and this is a problem. Dr. Poplin continues:

Now I realize that in the West, one is at risk for reporting such things and even more at risk for believing in miracles. Certainly it is not part of the academy, which even in many religion departments has come up with alternative explanations for the miracles of Christ. Nevertheless it happened, and I have seen other miracles in other places, such as in Argentina where one of the longest-running and most powerful revivals has been taking place for over seventeen years. (p. 79)

In the West, and especially in the educated West, we simply dismiss such claims.  Dr. Poplin goes on to ask what the effect of this instinctive or reflexive disbelief might be:

Why are the “developing nations” in Africa and South America and Asia seeing revivals, signs and wonders so much more than the United States or Europe?  why are these events not reported, researched, or discussed in mainstream Western culture? I find it odd that universities, quick to research anything, do not study miracles. Essentially miracles do not fit our prejudices. We tend to either ignore or discredit anything that does not fit our current worldview. I am convinced, like many others, that many simply do not believe the totality of the gospel. We have too little faith – Mother called it spiritual poverty. (p. 79)

We are the worse, so Dr. Poplin suggests,  for our natural skepticism and disbelief.We cannot see, appreciate, or experience the fullness of God’s work in the world.

The Reality of Sin. If belief and appreciation for the supernatural is a casualty of Western society, so too is the concept of sin. In chapter 15, entitled “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us“,  Dr. Poplin describes an experience and revelation she had regarding sin while working at Shishu Bhavan. There was an infant there who was badly deformed and who seemed to be always miserable. She was not drawn to this infant as she was to Babloo, and generally cared for others. Yet one day this infant threw up, and with no one else around she began, out of a somewhat reluctant sense of duty, to clean him up.

As I was cleaning, I heard a muffled sound from the infant in my arm. Tears were pouring out of his eyes and the only sound he could make was a convulsive sob.

As I looked at him, I saw in myself what Jeremiah called the “desperate wickedness of the heart.” I realized I had approached this task with a spirit of repentance and impatience. … I must tell you that the moment I saw him weeping and realized the wretchedness in my heart, I knew it was sin. There was no doubt in my mind that this is what Christ meant when he said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts.” (Mt 15:19) I asked Christ to forgive and change me. In those moments as I rocked the baby I could feel Christ’s work inside of my spirit as surely as if he were sitting next to me. (p. 83)

One of the key truths taught as part of the Christian faith is the reality of sin. Sin is not something imposed upon us, a consequence of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but something that arises from the inside of the human heart, from the core of human existence. One of the features of the Missionaries is a recognition that sin comes from within. “They do not look outside to see the cause of the world’s problems; they look inside first.”

Dr. Poplin goes on to relate an experience she had returning to the US and telling this story.

Sin is not a common expression these days and just the mention of it can incite anger, even rage, in people. Once I told this story to a group of teachers. For a moment there was silence, broken by a young radical woman who in a loud voice exclaimed that I had hurt her feelings. “Why are you using religious language? Tell us what you have to tell us without it,” she exclaimed. After she had gone on for a while, she paused. I pointed out that in the radical theories she had just professed, there is a principle which posits that no knowledge is neutral and that the “secular language” she wanted to hear from me was not neutral either. (p. 84)

Sin is a misunderstood and under appreciated concept in our secular western world. It is misunderstood even within the experience of many Christians. We are the product of our circumstance, our history, our genetics, and our chemistry. Frankly, it sometimes seems that the story of Adam and Eve is used to distance us from the reality of our sin. Through Adam sin entered the world – so what can I do? This is somewhat flippant, and does not do justice to the depth of the doctrine of original sin in the church. Nonetheless I don’t think we have a proper appreciation of our individual internal sinfulness.

Dr. Poplin concludes the chapter:

Denial of the pervasive presence of sin may be the fiercest struggle for a Christian living today in the West. (p. 86)

What do you think?  Are sin and the supernatural the deepest struggles for you?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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