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6 Things to read to get to know Mother Teresa

Undated picture shows Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa

TEKEE TANWAR / Stringer

NEW DELHI, INDIA: Undated picture shows Nobel Laureate Mother Teresa whose Missionaries of Charities Order runs hundreds of orphanages, hospices and leper homes throughout the world from its base in Calcutta, more than four decades home of the 86-year-old Albanian-born nun. Mother Teresa died 06 September in Calcutta at age 87. (Photo credit should read TEKEE TANWAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Elizabeth Lev - published on 08/27/16

A word of warning -- she's dangerously compelling

The long-awaited canonization of Mother Teresa has sparked a renewed interest in her astounding life. Her name has become synonymous with selfless love and service to the poor, sick, disabled and dying. “I’m no Mother Teresa” was once a frequent refrain as we backed off from tasks that seemed too demanding or humiliating, and her fast-tracked road to sainthood seemed a no-brainer. Since Friday would have been her 106th birthday, this is as good a moment as any to re-introduce Mother Teresa, the diminutive nun who changed the world.

In preparation for the tours I am leading over her canonization weekend, I have been reading extensively about Mother Teresa. My study was motivated by my own discomfort: How could I—who spent my entire life studying beauty in warm, well-fed, wonderful Rome—speak about the saint of suffering?

Many Aleteia readers will know Mother Teresa’s writings well, or even have met the great saint personally, and this piece is probably not for you. Nor is this an exhaustive list of literature on the saint. I am writing for those who, like me, had little real knowledge of Mother Teresa, and although daunted, would like to take this opportunity to foray into her life, words and work. A word of warning, she is dangerously compelling—her “little path” is so persuasive that you will find yourself applying her words to your own life, whether you like it or not.

My entry into reading about Mother Teresa was a brief book by David Scott, The Love That Made Mother TeresaIt provides a smooth introduction, telling some of the most famous stories, reminding us why there is so little biographical information (she really didn’t like publicity) and outlining her work. Scott also points readers to more researched books once one is hooked.

His clear explanations of the criticisms leveled against her were very enlightening. First, Teresa, like many great saints, made people uncomfortable because they were comfortable, and secondly, she was utterly opposed to abortion, just at the moment that Roe v Wade was being touted as a victory for both the poor and for women.

As an art historian, I was captivated by Scott’s insight that by placing her home for the dying next to a temple to the goddess Kali (in antiquity, a cult of human sacrifice), Mother Teresa “found a central metaphor for the suicidal corruption of civilization in her day,” as western society demands abortion and assisted suicide as its tribute.

Scott’s book also features a quotation that now comes to my mind daily, “Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at. Do it for peace.” It’s that simple, and yet surprisingly difficult.

The Simple Pathcompiled by Lucinda Vardey, describes the six components of Mother Teresa’s success: prayer, faith, love, service and peace. It showcases prayer beautifully: how to pray, why pray, who should pray (everybody!). The addition of abundant commentary, however, can occasionally leave the reader feeling distanced from the saint. On the other hand, moving testimonies of how Teresa changed people’s lives are a welcome complement to the saint’s own words.

Ready for Mother Teresa’s undiluted voice, I next turned to A Gift for God: Prayers and Meditations of Mother Teresa. Very short and broken into chapters that reflect her greatest concerns, it opens with “Love begins at Home”—Teresa’s constant refrain that there is no point in worrying about suffering in faraway lands if we are unable to love those around us. She often sent volunteers back home from her hospices and leper colonies, telling then that now that they had learned to love through the poor, they must go practice that love in their own families. Succinct, as was her wont, this book underscores her practicality, her simplicity, her deep faith and her firm belief in the power of love.

No Greater Loveis a more extensive anthology of Teresa’s exhortations to her communities, and her thoughts on prayer, love and service. The book highlights how her ministry was among the first to embrace victims of AIDS, which she called “the leprosy of the west.” On Dec 25, 1985, she opened a home in New York “as a gift to Jesus on his birthday.” Constantly seeking the face of Christ in suffering souls, Mother Teresa embraced the stricken well before the entertainment industry, finding AIDS victims on the streets and in jails and giving them the love of a home.

The authorized biographies are many, the first being BBC journalist Malcom Muggeridge’s effort to follow Mother Teresa around with a camera crew in 1969, which resulted not only in Something Beautiful for Godwhich drew worldwide attention to Mother Teresa and her work—but also in Muggeridge’s conversion to Catholicism. Mother Teresa, by Navin Chawla, a self-described “near atheist” who was inexorably drawn into Teresa’s orbit, Katherine Spink’s recently revised edition of her own Mother Teresa, which includes the last years of her life, and Eileen Egan’s perspective as a Catholic relief worker in Such a Vision of the Street are three more examples of helpful works.

I read Chawla’s and Spink’s biographies and found them both inspiring in different ways. Chawla, as a civil servant in the Indian government, gives invaluable insight into how Mother Teresa evangelized without openly challenging other religions. He recounts her interaction with Hindus and Muslims and her ability to preach without words. His account shows how we can say more about Christ with gestures than shouts. Chawla includes several lovely drawings of her hands clasped in prayer, perhaps a response to the 1986 German Planned Parenthood article “Mother Teresa, the Woman of My Nightmares,” which described her raising her “clenched fists” in prayer (yes folks, they really are that evil).

Kathryn Spink’s book is denser and more detailed, yet somehow a little wanting. There is much to praise, especially her fascinating discussion of Mother Teresa’s mission to the poverty of the west and her beautiful chapter on “Contemplatives in the World.” A certain “first world” coolness to Teresa’s pro-life engagement, however, downplays the saint’s role as one of the charter champions of the pro-life movement.

Discussing Natural Family Planning as taught by the Missionaries of Charity, the author insists on calling NFP “the rhythm method,” when indeed Mother Teresa was among the first, in 1967, to start teaching the Billings method, which is both scientific and efficacious. She fails to discuss Teresa’s battle to save the unborn children who were fruit of the wartime rape of 200,000 Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers in 1970-71 in the chapter dedicated to the subject. Only later in the book does she mention the campaign, but as told 18 years after the fact by Teresa-hater Germaine Greer, who brutally blamed the saint for trying to save the unborn from abortion.

Spink includes a lovely photo of Mother Teresa meeting President and Mrs. Reagan in 1981, but leaves out how deeply she influenced him — to the point that the president of the United States wrote a pro-life proclamation citing the saint, and established national Sanctity of Life day.

The author’s disingenuousness continues to 1994 when Mother Teresa attended the National Prayer Breakfast under the Clinton administration. Her speech focused entirely on the evils of abortion and was directed to the stony faces at the presidential table, including First Lady Hillary Clinton. “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want,” said Mother Teresa in her best “drop the mike” moment.

Spink, instead, envisions the occasion as one where Mrs. Clinton and Mother Teresa found common ground on the life issue, resulting in the founding of an adoption shelter in Washington DC (which closed soon after). What she does not mention is that Hillary Clinton, who is an avid supporter of abortion, sent a pro-abortion delegation to work against Mother Teresa seven months later at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development, attempting to coerce the world into accepting abortion as a basic human right.

It seems no coincidence that the following year Christopher Hitchens wrote his sordid essay “The Missionary Position” against the saint, drawing on themes already brought out in Anne Sebba’s 1982 hit job on Teresa. Sadly, I found the Hitchens’ book checked out with three people on the waiting list at my Boston library, while all the other books were readily available.

These harshly critical works exemplify the strong temptation to respond to holiness with revulsion. Faced with the holiness of Teresa’s life and the hard questions it poses to our own, the coward desperately seeks the negative as a way of avoiding her challenge. If you want to “Come and See,” as she invited those who wanted to peek into her world, look to the true Teresa, not the false caricatures created by lesser people.

Teresa’s world and mine finally met in Come Be My Lightedited and commented by Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, MC, postulator of her cause for canonization. In her private writings, readers deepen their understanding of her “call within a call” and her vow to never refuse Christ anything, but we also enter into her hidden suffering. This was not so much her illnesses, nor the dire surroundings in which she lived, but the inner darkness and intense loneliness which settled upon her from the moment she started her work.

Reading these letters describing Jesus in his “distressing disguise” of the poor, I started to see Caravaggio’s work in a new light. We tend to look at the light in his paintings—a beam calling St. Matthew or a ray illuminating the Martyrdom of Peter. Mother Teresa made me look at the darkness, the encroaching, enveloping shadows, that threaten to overwhelm all. In that tenebrism, light finds the sinner (Matthew), the humble (Madonna of the Pilgrims) and in the Seven Works of Mercy, the needy of the streets. Mother Teresa could speak to both the exalted and outcasts, but her words and example throw a new light on beauty as well.

This should come as no surprise. It was, after all, the great Pope Benedict XVI who said that “art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.”

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