Sisters of Mercy and the sisterhood of no mercy


For a tiny Albanian woman who devoted her life to ministering to the poor, Mother Teresa of Calcutta has proven to be a controversial new saint, though not so much within as outside of the Catholic Church. Throughout her life she has riled many, mostly on the left, who consequently and unsurprisingly saw red when she was first elevated to the status of a blessed, and today, to that of a saint.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly seemed to so enrage so many about Mother Teresa. Her staunch pro-life views were orthodox Catholic, even if she rubbed them in the faces of assorted worthies from the United Nations General Assembly to Hillary Clinton, the same way the assorted worthies rub their pro-abortion views in everyone else’s faces. The left doesn’t like alternative views to challenge their orthodoxy, but that’s nothing new. But most of criticisms and attacks did not, at least not directly, focus on her views about the sanctity of life, family planning or reproductive rights – whichever way you prefer to frame this discussion. For someone who had spent her entire life working in the Third World slums, she has been accused of imperialism, hobnobbing with and accepting donations from unsavoury characters, being a petty dictator and control freak, and glorifying poverty and suffering as opposed to actually providing decent medical care and other tangible support to the poor and the sick. As one of her most trenchant critics, the late Christopher Hitchens, wrote years ago, Mother Teresa “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” Hitchens summed her up as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”.

What surprises me about this controversy, without getting into a debate about the various specific charges levelled at Mother Teresa, is the vehemence with which non-Catholics care about who the Catholics consider worthy of recognition and emulation. Most people outside of the Catholic Church, after all, don’t recognise the idea of sainthood, and the fact that the Church designates some individuals as saints has zero impact on the lives of non-Catholics. We don’t live in a theocracy where everyone, believers and non-believers alike, are forced to venerate holy people. In fact, in the free market of charity, those who don’t like the way Mother Teresa ministered to the needs of the poor, the sick and the dying are perfectly free to set up their own secular or differently religious bodies to help the needy in what they would consider to be better ways. As one of Mother Teresa left-wing haters recently acknowledged, “I was brought up to work for change, for social justice. But I cannot in conscience criticise a woman who picked people off filthy pavements to allow them to die in dignity. To my knowledge, there’s still no one else doing that.” Don’t like Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity? Then found your own Mother Hillary’s Missionaries of Charity.

I find Mother Teresa fascinating for an entirely different reason, namely that a woman who would become a saint, but one who even during her life was already a symbol of Christian charity and God’s mission to the “poorest of the poor”, has spent almost her entire life in a “dark night of the soul” – feeling spiritually lost, not able to feel and hear God in her life, suffering doubt and emptiness. Only her confessors and spiritual advisers were aware of her daily struggle throughout her life to find meaning. As she wrote back in 1957,

In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me?  The child of your love — and now become as the most hated one. The one — you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer . . . Where I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.  Love — the word — it brings nothing.  I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

To me, Mother Teresa is the patron saint of darkness. She shows that perfection is not a trait we should expect even from saints; that we all face unseen struggles; and that heroism and sacrifice are possible even under the most adverse of conditions.

This morning I listened to one Missionaries of Charity sister sharing her recollections of Mother Teresa. One quote stayed with me in particular: Mother Teresa liked to say that there is a great hunger for bread in many places around the world, but that everywhere, even where there is plenty of bread to be had, there is an ever greater hunger for love.

You’re a fan of Mother Teresa? Then help to continue her work. You think she was a “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”? Then do something else to help those without help. But love her or hate her, share your love, your time, your attention, your concern with your family, your friends, and with complete strangers. It is terribly easy to make the world just that tiny fraction a better place, one smile, one kind word, one good deed at a time.