Pundit Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, believes Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor but of poverty. Her own words, as reproduced in a 2007 book about her life, serve only to support his claim.
Far from being an unbiased record of her correspondence, Come Be My Light is an attempt to fortify Mother Teresa’s reputation against recent attacks by journalists, former staff members, and the citizens of Calcutta.
Not content merely to anchor the words of Mother Teresa by placing them in their historical contexts, editor Brian Kolodiejchuk often cuts in with his own efforts to leaven her credulous sentimentality.
Despite his obvious love for the subject, however, Kolodiejchuk includes even those letters which cast Mother Teresa in an unfavorable light – and there are a great many of them.
Reading this book can easily leave one with the impression that, far from being a brilliant tactician, Mother Teresa was merely a useful idiot – a fund-raising superstar more by accident than by design.
The most interesting fact of her letters is not the revelation about Mother Teresa’s spiritual barrenness, but the record of her initial exchanges with the Archbishop Périer. Absent his approval, Mother Teresa could not have appealed to Rome for permission to begin the new religious order she envisioned.
Périer expressed deep reservations about supporting such a request, believing it to be based on a mixture of thoughtless sentimentality and self-will:
“I shall do the will of God; but that must be clear to me. You may think that it is all very easy, when there is somebody to endorse the responsibility, but for the one who has to be responsible it requires discretion, prayer, constant and fervent prayer, and readiness to abide by the will of God as manifested to him.” (64)When Mother Teresa pressed him further, Périer replied in part:
“By representing your request and defending it before the Holy See, I assume a great responsibility. Not only can I be the cause of the ruin of many vocations, but I may also be the cause of leading souls in the darkness by rashness.” (69)After receiving another of her entreaties, Périer expressed his concerns to her spiritual director, Father Celeste Van Exem, that Mother Teresa was being driven by a kind of selfishness.
And it seems he was right.
Her entreaties lacked any real detail – statistics, for example, or even an accurate description of living conditions in Calcutta – that would back her claim a new order was necessary. In fact, Mother Teresa demonstrated virtually no understanding of the culture she wished to influence.
She expressed her concern for the poor of Calcutta through constant allusions to the “dark holes” where they lived, and she referred to them as “victims of God’s love” on more than one occasion.
She set herself upon the course of establishing a community of nuns who would be just as impoverished as the people they served:
“Our Lord wants Indian Nuns, victims of His love, who would be so united to him as to radiate his love on souls – who would lead Indian lives, dress like them, and be His light…” (73)Rather than elevating the status of the poor, Mother Teresa clung to an idealized dream of how she might join their ranks for the greater glory of God. (Except that she didn't join their ranks; she became a globe-trotting celebrity while her under-trained, ill-equipped subordinates did all the heavy lifting.)
When Périer asked her why an existing order could not work in the slums, Mother Teresa had this to say:
“No. First, because they are European. When Indian girls enter these order – they are made to live their life – east, sleep, dress like [Europeans]...They have no chance of feeling the Holy Poverty.” (76)
“You know, Your Grace, the number and need your poor have of a kind hand, how they leave their children to sin and spend their innocent live in the streets. How many died without God – just because there was nobody to say one word about His mercy. – The sufferings of their body make them forget the sufferings their souls will have for all Eternity.” (77)As her own depression set in, Mother Teresa’s capacity to empathize with her charges began to decrease. Her earliest letters showed a greater concern for the physical well-being of the poor than did later entries. Eventually, she lost all concern for how they lived and focused only on how they died.
This revelation could help explain why Mother Teresa’s Homes of the Dying served only to warehouse the sick in unsanitary conditions until they were too weak to protest against baptism into the Catholic faith.
She had adopted a pose of holy ignorance – an enforced naivety – that allowed her to reject empathy for others and disclaim responsibility for her own administrative failures.
Mother Teresa faced criticism in 1994 when Dr. Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, a well-regarded medical journal out of the UK, conducted an investigation into the quality of medical care at her home of the dying in Calcutta.
He was especially disturbed by the sisters’ lack of medical training, which made it hard for them to distinguish between curable and incurable diseases. People who could be treated were essentially warehoused with those dying of terminal cancer or even of contagious diseases. Moreover, pain management was non-existent.
Rather than making improvements, however, the Missionaries of Charity allowed their standards to slip even further.
In an August 2005 article for the New Statesman, reporter Donal MacIntyre laid bare the truth about how care homes run by Mother Teresa’s order were little more than cesspools where people with disabilities were held captive:
“Earlier in the day, young international volunteers had giggled as one told how a young boy had peed on her while strapped to a bed. I had already been told of an older disturbed woman tied to a tree at another Missionaries of Charity home. At the orphanage, few of the volunteers batted an eyelid at disabled children being tied up. They were too intoxicated with the myth of Mother Teresa and drunk on their own philanthropy to see that such treatment of children was inhumane and degrading.” (“The Squalid Truth behind the Legacy of Mother Teresa”)Mother Teresa had retreated from despair and burn-out – from a situation where practical demands had outstripped her ability to meet them – into a world of abstraction where only blind devotion to a specific creed could save the soul.
As a result, she publicly supported policies that led directly to greater suffering among the people she had pledged to help, discouraging the use of prophylactics that could have prevented unwanted pregnancies and slowed the spread of AIDS and other STDs.
For Mother Teresa, indifference – and yes, she actually used that term – was of central importance to the work of her order.
Susan Shields, a former Missionary of Charity sister, told of how this translated into unnecessary suffering for the nuns themselves:
“The efforts to prevent any attachments cause continual chaos and confusion, movement and change in the congregation. Mother Teresa did not invent these beliefs - they were prevalent in religious congregations before Vatican II - but she did everything in her power (which was great) to enforce them.” (Free Inquire Magazine, Volume 18, Number 1)
Mother Teresa engaged in a 50-year campaign of self-flagellation, and expected those around her – except, of course, for the likes of “Baby Doc” Duvalier and rip-off artist Charles Keating – to partake.
The cause of her blind spot for them is obvious: she felt herself unworthy to judge harshly those whom she saw as her betters.
Kolodiejchuk records that Mother Teresa died of heart failure on the night of November 5, 1997, during a power blackout in Calcutta. Her BiPAP machine - a luxury afforded none of her charges, who were even forced to use a communal toilet (without privacy walls or curtains) - had failed.
Her legacy was one of unnecessary suffering for anyone with the bad luck to fall under her power.
ADDITIONS AND CORRECTIONS:
The term "fluid-borne diseases" has been changed to "STD." (Clare)
MOC may have answered to the bishop or archbishop in its area, rather than directly to the Vatican. (Milehi)
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