Mother Teresa with an armless baby girl in Kolkata in 1978 / ASSOCIATED PRESS   

Mother Teresa’s canonization has turned holiness into a sexy topic as never before. Writing about this sainted nun has become a timely hobby for a number of new “experts” good at masticating relentlessly what has already been written to death about her for decades.

Some of them appear incapable of understanding also that plagiarism is theft even when sugar-coated and that hunting for quick quotes in Google Books and cutting and pasting from Wikipedia do not amount to original contribution. A proliferation of these attention-seeking scribblers has been noticeable especially since mid-March this year when Pope Francis announced he would declare Mother Teresa a saint on 4 September.

If writing about Mother Teresa’s holiness is sexy, trashing her sanctity is apparently equally tempting. In 2013 the media went berserk covering three Canadians’ “ingenious” discovery that the nun was “anything but a saint”. No reporter apparently bothered to read what exactly the Canadian “sages” had found out about Mother Teresa. The obscene level of publicity this non-news event attracted seemed to have taken by surprise even the authors themselves one of whom wrote to me that their work is simply a review of literature, adding that they had said nothing new but simply had used quotes from existing publications.

In recent lectures in Tirana, Albania, and London I have expressed the concern that the challenge for Mother Teresa scholarship in the wake of her canonization will be not to forget the private woman behind the public nun. Unfortunately, the indications are that this is happening even before the canonization has taken place. This is especially the tendency of the uncritical mass of the nun’s new fans. Incapable of fathoming how complex a person she was, they have only nauseating praise for the Vatican’s newest saint.

I have written at length on the role of the media in sanctifying Mother Teresa and tuning her into the Holy See’s pin-up nun, especially from 1968 onwards, in a number of research articles since 2004 and especially in the 2007 monograph Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?. More recently, I have returned to this topic in the interview titled “Putting Mother Teresa under a microscope”, which MercatorNet ran earlier this year, and in a piece published in The Conversation this week.

In this article I concentrate mainly on two aspects related to the theme of Mother Teresa’s sanctity that are either completely ignored or superficially treated by her old and new commentators, whether they are bending over backwards to praise her or remain committed in their almost irrational hatred for her. The first aspect is that Mother Teresa the saint did not always receive a saintly treatment from the Church. The second one is the curious remarks she used to make from the late 1940s onwards about the kind of saint she thought she would become.

The quotes I use throughout this piece to illustrate both themes come exclusively from Mother Teresa’s own letters, excerpts of which first appeared in two articles penned by her colleagues Albert Huart and Joseph Neuner in 2000 and 2001 respectively before the main bulk of her private writings appeared in a volume with a misleadingly pious title Come Be My Light in 2007. Given Mother Teresa’s persistently repeated explicit wish to have these most intimate writings destroyed, I have criticised from the first their publication as an act of betrayal on the part of the people behind it on both ethical and copyright grounds.

Harsh treatment 

Regarding the first theme, while nowadays Mother Teresa’s supporters within the Church cannot find enough praise for this saintly missionary, they remain surprisingly reticent about the abuse she encountered in the hands of some of her Loreto superiors. Mother Teresa took the decision to part company with Loreto in less than two decades after she had joined the order in Dublin at the end of 1928.

The reasons for this are many and complex. I will concentrate in this piece only on two: firstly, her objections to the type of missionary work conducted by her fellow Loreto sisters as well as other orders in Calcutta and across India at that time and, secondly, the efforts she finally decided to make to hopefully find a cure for her spiritual darkness that, in my view, had been bugging her from the moment of her father’s unexpected and mysterious death when she was about nine years old.

Mother Teresa apparently had been unhappy with the type of work Loreto community was engaged with from the first she arrived in Calcutta in 1929. Convinced that Loreto superiors were incapable of change, on 10 September 1946 she came to the conclusion that her relationship with the order had reached a point of no return.

Mother Teresa would remonstrate in some of her letters that she had not gone to India to educate the daughters of the rich which apparently was a priority for the Loreto order in Calcutta. Unware that Mother Teresa came from a nation that had been in contact with and accepted Christianity much earlier than most of the European peoples, some of her Irish superiors discriminated her against on the grounds of her being, as I have written elsewhere, “not European enough”. Having found it difficult to accept her as an “equal”, one can imagine what her superiors thought of Mother Teresa when she unfolded her own vision of what missionary work should be like in the new independent India for Christianity to have a chance to survive.

In view of the above, it is hardly surprising why Loreto superiors, from 1946 onward started calling Mother Teresa names one would not normally associate with nuns. They dubbed her, Mother Teresa notes in her letters, “mad” and a “proud fool”. They had no qualms also to claim that she was connected with the devil. In Mother Teresa’s own words, as a result she became “the laughing stock of so many, especially religious”.

To tarnish Mother Teresa’s image, her superiors even accused her of having an “inappropriate” “unhealthy relationship”, a euphemism for an affair, with Celeste Van Exem, a Belgian Jesuit priest, because of the “frequent and long conversations in confession”. This, according to the Loreto superiors, made their perusal of Mother Teresa’s letters to Father Van Exem “expedient in the Lord”, although they were aware that she wrote to and met with him strictly in his capacity as her spiritual director.

Her Loreto superior continued to badmouth Mother Teresa also after she had left Loreto formally in August 1948. In 1950, for instance, she tells the Archbishop of Calcutta Ferdinand Périer: “Mother General is afraid that I am a great danger to the Loreto Nuns, so she has forbidden everyone to have anything to do with me. Every means has been used not to render any help to me; every time a new comer comes there is anxiety felt at the Entally Convent.” A year later she wrote again to Périer: “I have become something terrible for Loreto. I am well compared to the devil, and the work as his work, and so on”. There is evidence that some Loreto nuns spoke ill of Mother Teresa also to Loreto students even after she had left the order.

In spite of this vitriol, Mother Teresa never spoke ill of Loreto in private or public. This is one of the reasons why, while she was being tormented by some superiors, she also was much loved by many Loreto nuns. She was especially happy to receive messages of support from them after she had left Loreto.

Mother Teresa enjoyed always the respect and sympathy of Loreto nuns also stationed outside India. She would stay with them when she visited other countries as if nothing has happened between her and her superiors in Calcutta.

Loreto was dear to the end to Mother Teresa also because of the gratitude she felt towards the order’s Superior General in Dublin, Mother Gertrude Kennedy, for her support and constructive advice when she was negotiating the terms of her departure from Loreto with Archbishop Périer and the Vatican between 1946 and 1948. Mother Gertrude was instrumental in comforting Mother Teresa during that time of unbearable duress she was put under by her Calcutta superiors, advising her not to speak to them. In July 1947 she also ordered Mother Teresa’s return from the Asansol Loreto community, 140 miles away from Calcutta, where she had been banished by her superiors since the start of that year as a “punishment” for the above-mentioned alleged illicit liaison with Father Van Exem. Equally important is Mother Kennedy’s role in persuading Mother Teresa to ask from the Vatican not the indult of secularization (turning from a vowed nun into a laywoman), which was her preference, but the indult of exclaustration (living by her vows).

The fact that Mother Teresa was interested in applying for the indult of secularization indicates that she was very determined to leave Loreto. Moreover, her preference to turn into a secular nun, I argue in a work in progress, also shows that she apparently hoped that, by leaving behind the comfortable Loreto compounds and setting up the Missionaries of Charity, she would be in a better position to find the elusive Jesus. In this respect, the members of her religious order, as well as the poorest of the poor, would play a crucial role in dispelling her gnawing doubts about God and Jesus.

That Mother Teresa saw members of her religious family, and the unfortunate people who were abandoned by everyone, as being instrumental in her quest to find Jesus, is clear from some of her private writings from the late 1940s until the final years of her life in the late 1990s. A 1951 letter to Archbishop Périer reads: “I want to become a real slave of Our Lady, to drink only from His chalice of pain and to give Mother Church real saints.”

A “saint of darkness” 

In a letter, also to Périer, in the following year, we find perhaps one of the earlier cases where she uses the word “saint” in relation to herself: “I want to become a saint, by satiating the thirst of Jesus for love and souls.” Having reiterated the point already made in the above mentioned 1951 letter, about her other “big desire to give the Mother Church many a saint from our Society”, she then writes: “These two are the only things I pray for, work and suffer. Please pray for me, that I may fulfill His desire as regards our Society and myself.”

Mother Teresa employs the word “saint” in connection to herself for the second time in a letter to Archbishop Périer in 1957. This letter is of particular interest because it is one of the first cases perhaps where she makes a direct reference to her spiritual darkness in communication with such a high profile church authority:

I want to be a saint according to His Heart meek and humble, therefore at these two virtues of Jesus I will try my best.

My second resolution is to become an apostle of Joy, to console the Sacred Heart of Jesus through joy.

Please ask Our Lady to give me her heart, so that I may with greater ease fulfil His desire in me. I want to smile even at Jesus and so hide if possible the pain and the darkness of my soul even from Him.

Mother Teresa was happy to see her religious order grow and she would often refer to her Sisters as saints. In 1958, for instance, she wrote to her American friend and biographer Eileen Egan: “The new Sisters are just blooming into saints. All of them are such a joy to me. Looking at them I can double the amount of work.”

Mother Teresa had a sainted word also for the “human debris” she and her Sisters looked after. In a 1958 letter to her friend Lawrence Picachy, later Archbishop of Calcutta and Cardinal, for instance, she wrote: “My people in Kalighat* are living martyrs and yet not a word. A young boy who suffered horrible pain, at last he said, he was sorry to die because he had just learned to suffer for the love of God”. In another letter she sent also to Picachy the following year, having included her by now staple statement, “I want to become a saint according to the Heart of Jesus, meek and humble. This is all that really matters to me now”, she then lists what she has in her: “The darkness, the loneliness and pain, the loss and the emptiness, of faith, love, trust…” Of particular interest in this letter is that she pleads with Picachy to “destroy any letters or anything I have written…. I beg you destroy everything”.

By then Mother Teresa was becoming increasingly famous in India and beyond. This means that she was understandably concerned that if people, other than her spiritual colleagues and friends, got hold of such spiritually intimate writings, she could well be accused of being a hypocrite preaching to others to be pious while her faith was anything but solid.

In my work in progress I contend that in the 1960s Mother Teresa appears to have started to realise that her spiritual darkness was a lifelong condition. The person who apparently made her realise this more than any other spiritual director was Joseph Neuner. This is why in 1962 Mother Teresa wrote to him the following telling lines: “If ever I become a saint, I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from heaven, to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

Speedy work

As a social scientist professing adherence to no religion I will leave it to theologians and Mother Teresa’s unquestioning admirers to comment on the latter part of the above statement. What I find of particular interest is the time it took the Holy See to complete her canonization, especially compared to that of some other well-known sainted Catholic doubters.

While Mother Teresa was beatified and canonised only six and 19 years respectively after her death, in the case of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), for instance, it took the Vatican 32 years to beatify her and another eight years before she was declared a saint. The admirers of John of the Cross (1542-1591) had to wait 84 years for his beatification and another half a century for the canonization. The beatification of Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), whose name Mother Teresa took when she joined Loreto order, came a quarter of a century after her death with canonization following in two years.

While Mother Teresa shared with these mystic saints an intense darkness, unlike them she was never cured. And yet the Vatican is declaring her a saint faster than any of the above. Is this a sign that the Holy See is becoming more tolerant about a sensitive issue like spiritual darkness? One wonders.

Note

* Mother Teresa means the Home of the Pure Heart (in Hindu Nirmal Hriday) where she and her sisters care for the sick, destitute and the dying. Mother Teresa set up this centre in 1952. 

Gëzim Alpion is a sociologist at the University of Birmingham, in the UK. He is the author of Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?  

Gëzim Alpion

Gëzim Alpion has a BA from Cairo University and a PhD from Durham University, UK. Based at the University of Birmingham, UK, since 2002, Alpion’s main publications include Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?...