Friday, August 31, 2007

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa of Calcutta died on September 5, 1997. In less than a week, we'll see the 10-year anniversary of the event. Many people seem to think of her as a social worker, but this contemplative nun was just that: a contemplative nun.

I think her failure to drop into one of the dominant culture's pigeonholes is a big reason why her chief claim to fame in today's news is the recent publication of her letters. These letters show that she
  • lost her faith and was a hypocrite (secular view), or
  • had a major-league dark night of the soul (informed Catholic view)
I'll get back to that.

Mistaking Mother Teresa for a social worker is understandable. She, and her order, have cared for the very poor in Calcutta for decades. They've also set up similar operations worldwide, including a home for AIDS patients in San Francisco, California. What sets them apart from social workers is their motivation.

One of her critics, Christopher Hitchens, said that "It was by talking to her that I discovered, and she assured me, that she wasn't working to alleviate poverty," he said. "She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said, 'I'm not a social worker. I don't do it for this reason. I do it for Christ. I do it for the church.'"

Shocking, and quite true. She wasn't the standard-issue social crusader, out to free the masses from their oppressors. British interviewer Polly Toynbee was particularly impressed that Mother Teresa lacked the rage or indignation of many social critics. Mother Teresa "did not find it necessary to attack the economic or political structures of the cultures that were producing the abjectly poor people she was serving. For her the primary rule was a constant love, and when social critics or religious reformers chose to vent anger at the evils of structures underlying poverty and suffering, that was between them and God..... The business given by God to her and her group was simply serving the very poor with as much love and skill as they could muster."

An interview with Malcom Muggeridge revealed that "Mother Teresa had virtually no understanding of a cynical or godless point of view that could consider any human being less than absolutely valuable."

"The Hindu priests at a Kali temple were unhappy when Mother and the Sisters began their work at Nirmal Hriday in Kalighat close to the temple. Then something happened that brought about a complete change of heart. Mother heard that one of the priests of the temple was dying of an infectious disease and nobody would touch him. She collected his emaciated body in her arms and brought him to her home. The local people asked her to stay. A Hindu priest of the temple said to her with folded hands, "for thirty years I have worshipped the goddess Kali in stone, but today the goddess Mother stands before me alive." (quotes from

Mother Teresa is now Blessed Mother Teresa, as of October 19, 2003. In 2002, Monica Besra, an Indian woman, was cured of a tumor through the intercession of Mother Teresa. Ms. Besra says that light coming from a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa cured the cancer. Some doctors insist that it must have been the medical treatment she was receiving.

Following Catholic rules, one verified miracle puts a person in the "Blessed" category. Another verified miracle, and Mother Teresa will be an officially recognized saint of the Catholic Church.

Back to those letters

I'm not at all surprised that Mother Teresa had times when she did not feel God's presence, when she felt spiritually dry, and felt that God was ignoring her. It's called "dark night of the soul." Many saints, and many others, go through it.

The phrase, dark night of the soul, comes from "The Dark Night," by St. John of the Cross, which described and discussed this part of a soul's growth.

For some people, lack of an uplifting, "spiritual," feeling means it's time to find a new religion. Catholics, at least those who pay attention to what the Church teaches, don't work that way. "Faith isn't what you feel, but what you will."

Mother Teresa's faith was running on her will, rather than her feelings, for something like a half-century. In the two thousand years that the Catholic Church has been cataloging the biographies of saints, this stands out. As a devout Catholic, I have no intention of anticipating the decisions of the Church, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Mother Teresa is found to be responsible for a second miracle.

If some of this seems familiar, you're observant. I wrote about Mother Teresa and Princess Di on Monday, August 27, 2007.

Background: Much of the information for this post came from the Answers.Com article onMother Teresa and EWTN's Mother Teresa.

"MOTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA - Official Site of the Cause of Canonization" requires pop-ups for viewing, so some browsers must be re-set before using this site.

And then there's the "People's Princess," "Princess Di."

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