News & Views » Headcase

A dubious saint?

The imperfect life of Mother Teresa


Mother Teresa was beatified by the pope last week in ceremonies at the Vatican. This makes the nun who died in 1997 only one documented miracle short of becoming a saint in record time. The people of Rome have been celebrating in advance by attending a rock 'n' roll musical about Mother Teresa's life. (It does not feature ABBA's "Mama Mia.")

In case you're a pagan who's been living in a cave, Mother Teresa became the global symbol of selfless service through her work in the slums of Calcutta. She was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for founding the Missionaries of Charity which feeds 500,000 families, treats 90,000 leprosy patients and educates 2,000 children a year in Calcutta alone. Her order, founded in 1950, began expanding in the '60s to other countries.

I can regard Mother Teresa as a saint, but not for the reasons typically given. She was far from perfect. It was disconcerting, for example, when she accepted a large donation from the notorious Duvalier family of Haiti. One could excuse it with her own logic -- that the money would help the poor, no matter its source. But did she have show up in Haiti, singing the family's praises?

She campaigned fiercely against a referendum in Ireland to lift the constitutional ban on divorce and remarriage by women, saying there would be no "forgiveness" for anyone who voted for it. Yet she happily excused her royal companion Princess Di's divorce. When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize she weirdly called abortion the greatest threat to world peace. She would not allow adoption of orphans by women who favored abortion or divorce.

Even her street ministry itself has come under attack by a former assistant, Susan Shields, who left the order because of the crushing poverty in which Mother Teresa required her sisters to live. Although the ministry attracted many millions of dollars, members of the order had to beg for food at times, were not provided dental and medical care and were only allowed one bucket of water to bathe.

Mother Teresa thought poverty was fundamentally ennobling and that suffering was beautiful. As Christopher Hitchens documents in his controversial book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, she would not allow the dying pain medicine because pain, too, was ennobling. Indeed, the clinics of her order are more about dying than healing. She always said her purpose was not to eliminate poverty but to expand Catholicism.

And yet, despite her antediluvian politics and iron-fisted rule, who can doubt her sincerity and the relative value of her work in a world that mainly ignores the poor completely? Holding a leper in your arms is no small accomplishment for the human heart. Remarkably, a challenge to her own devotion was revealed recently with publication of her letters. They describe her initial call from Christ and her blissful communion with God that followed for months. But the bliss suddenly disappeared after she was granted permission to establish the Missionaries of Charity. The letters reveal her anger, her lapses of faith and lifelong depression that her blissful communion never returned.

To work so diligently while suffering such a long dark night of the soul is amazing. The committee considering her sainthood, which actually interviewed Hitchens, rightly concluded that enduring a lifelong test of faith was part of her saintliness. But how to explain her "shadow," those beliefs and behaviors that seem so archaic and punitive?

I believe the responsibility in part lies with the patriarchal nature of the church. We live in a time when people are trying to recover the feminine principle in spirituality, frequently characterized as the divine mother. A few years ago, I was disappointed when my own spiritual teacher, Mother Meera, made some homophobic remarks. It also turned out that she had quite a lucrative enterprise in India and that her household was fraught with very human conflict.

It's a principle of Jungian psychology that one's conscious style always produces its compensatory opposite in the unconscious. In the case of Mother Meera, this meant that despite being totally hospitable to gay people -- serving them breakfast in bed in her own home -- she reverted to the patriarchal position of her "official" culture in an unconscious way. This especially happens with people who are psychologically inflated -- such as believing you are a living goddess, as Mother Meera does. (I never bought that, despite her immense spiritual power.)

Mother Teresa's situation is not very different. Abandoned by God but acting on behalf of the poor in ways that were punitively self-sacrificial, she created a shadow of great proportions: a saint celebrating the devilish Duvaliers. Losing the bliss of divine communion, her God became the patriarchal church and its most conservative positions, which she recanted here and there in her lived experience.

As an object of devotion herself, Mother Teresa's life can remind us of the need to stay as fully conscious as we can, to let those oppositional aspects of the psyche interact fully instead of becoming too one-sided. Yes, even the saints are struggling with disbelief.

Cliff Bostock's website is

Add a comment