Being exposed to cable TV during my break, I saw Matthews hold a fight between Christopher Hitchens and Bill Donohue on the subject of the Mother Teresa letters. No reason, no light, just mashed potatoes everywhere. What Donohue had to say was too predictable to bother. Hitchens too but his predictable line holds some interest. Seeing no reason to believe any of what was said, I read the book, something I doubt any of them had done before they expounded on the subject.
Growing up in a very liberal Catholic family and having left organized religion a while back, I’d never been enamored of the Mother Teresa cult. While preparing this post I asked my old, Irish, Catholic mother if she had any books by or about her and she was surprised I’d think she might. Having been familiar with the stories and some of the actual people who risk and lose their lives to provide medical, educational and political aid to those who do the even harder work of living the life of abject poverty, we had other heroines and heros. Many of them had religious and political positions we agreed with. Mother Teresa didn’t. Mother Teresa wasn’t any feminist or liberal, after all. Her position on reproductive rights and the rights of women alone would have been enough to ignore her on most issues.
Still, you respected her intentions, regretted her unfortunate medieval religious attitudes and, as more became known about what was actually happening in the institutions she had built, you worried about her limits as an administrator. It’s too bad that those institutions didn’t have more effective administrators and financial officials who knew about modern medicine, palliative care and accounting.
The vulgarity and hypocrisies of the cult that built up during her last years, while unprecedented in the sugar and aniline dye content, wasn’t unprecedented in its motives. Those are depressingly, always with us. But, to some extent, that was a self-generating thing and I didn’t think it was fair to blame all of it on Mother Teresa. I saw her as a fairly uneducated person who had done and continued to do good if imperfect work but who was oversold and was in over her head. If she was the prisoner of that machine in the end, I don’t know. The only person who could possibly know is dead.
Reading her record of the spiritual sterility of her inner life wouldn’t be a great shock except to people who have never read much of the literature of religion. Long stretches of even a complete lack of belief is fairly unremarkable in a person who ends up as a religious figure. Writings by people who take up full time prayer and meditation is full of periods of emptiness. While hardly alone among religions, Zen Buddhism dedicated to the emptiness. Getting past the elaborate idols we carry with us seems to be a part of getting past those dry patches. Maybe those idols, the entirely inadequate representations of infinitely more, have to be killed before progress can be made.
Mother Teresa’s life, mixing the large amounts of time involved in active charity with what I’d guess was a rather old line set of expectations derived from the romantic literature of the cult of the saints, might not have provided her with the tools or time necessary to simplify those expectations and to overcome the limits they impose. She might have been too busy to devote sufficient time to look past the kind of experience she expected and so ended up in the desert between the expectations and what you can find. Maybe her traditionalism wouldn’t allow her to get past her preconceived ideas. Maybe giving up the conventional expectation seemed too impious to her. Reading her letters I didn’t find what Hitchens said was there but something outside of what I’d expected or could have expected. Maybe the joke is on those of us who look for an experience of personal transcendence. It could be that this isn’t the way for everyone. Maybe Mother Teresa found an impersonal spiritual life, the point of which couldn’t be personal fulfillment. Who knows, maybe that was the better way?
The contrast between the letters that are full of darkness when put against her decades of what must have been long stretches of depressing, heartbreaking, boredom and the minute upon minute upon year after year of sheer unpleasant drudgery raises the really interesting question. How did someone who obviously wasn’t getting much inner satisfaction or her expectations met, live the life she did? The letters aren’t a lot of help. I didn’t find an explanation there. Maybe she didn’t know how she did it.
We remember the Mother Teresa of the period after the pudding-headed hack Malcom Muggeridge made her a cult figure complete with photo-effect halo. A lot of the cloying sanctimony and uncritical adulation stems from that last period of her life. But there wasn’t just that going on. While the MT cult was entirely annoying, Hitchen’s Missionary Position, full of his own inner sterility and bigoted savagery wasn’t sufficiently objective to act as a corrective except for those who didn’t need one. It’s interesting now that Hitchens who was then insisting, rightly, that her actions be the standard for judging her and not her reputation is now ignoring the actions in favor of these letters which suit his new position as the hatchet wielding evangelist of neo-atheism. Hitchens is now telling us her own view of herself is the decisive factor in judging her life.
But it is exactly the actions in all their ambiguity that make her at all interesting. Who would read her letters if she’d spent her life sewing vestments and making hosts or, indeed, sitting on the papal throne? And of the various Mother Teresas the interest is found in the pre-fame Mother Teresa. How did someone who wasn’t fulfilling the prescriptions of the hedonistic school of cynicism, imagining herself as an exalted investor saving up in the mother of all Christmas Accounts, keep on with the daily grind? She doubted that there was going to be a glorious reward for what she was doing.
And it wasn’t as if she was exactly stuck. She wasn’t highly educated but, certainly, in the post-war period when the position of workers in Europe and North America was greatly improved, she could have enjoyed a far different life than the one she had. As a nominally religious and presumably anti-communist Albanian she could have emigrated here or in Western Europe, worked in a factory, married if she wanted to, gone out to the movies and watched the Hollywood lives of the saints and gaudy religious epics, leaving behind the bodily decay of terminally ill strangers. How did someone who was in a position to chuck the depressing grind of taking care of dying people one after another after another... and go for a bit of fun in life keep on with it when rewards weren’t in sight?
The period after fame struck isn’t useful for thinking about that but the window between the war and the glamor of living sainthood is. It’s there that the real interest lies, but these letters are no help.