November 1996

Suffering into Joy: What Mother Teresa Teaches about True Joy.  Edited by Eileen Egan and Kathleen Egan. Servant Publications. 156 pages. $5.99.

Suffering into Joy is not the first Mother Teresa title from the Egan sisters. Their other works on the founder of the Missionaries of Charity involve the Beatitudes and prayer. Further, Eileen wrote a comprehensive biography of Mother Teresa, Such a Vision of the Street, about a decade ago; she has also traveled and worked with this unique woman over many years. In other words, the Egans know their subject.

This latest work is a sturdy, pocket-size paperback. Interspersed throughout the narrative here are biblical quotes and the words of Mother Teresa herself, the handsome design, with easy-to-read typography, prompts the reader to pause and reflect after each clearly delineated section.

The Egans begin their encapsulation of Mother Teresa’s work with Eileen’s introduction to her in Calcutta during a 1955 Catholic Relief Services visit. At that point the Missionaries of Charity were less than a decade old. The point of mentioning Eileen is not to aggrandize her role in Mother Teresa’s mission; in fact, the intent is almost the opposite: Eileen, a seasoned relief worker, admits that she was almost overwhelmed by the deprivation of those who ended up at the Children’s Home and the Home for the Dying in Calcutta. Mother Teresa, however, as is shown throughout this volume, had an extraordinary ability even then to focus on each individual she served among the poorest of the poor. The Egans quote her: “They are Jesus. Everyone is Jesus in a distressing disguise.”

Eileen notes how she overcame her initial fear and repulsion, and returned to serve India’s poor in the footsteps of her mentor. This volume also describes how Mother Teresa’s example has prompted more than 500 teams of Sisters to continue her work — spiritual service, not just social work — in over 100 countries, including the U.S.; moreover, the Missionary Brothers of Charity was formed in 1963. In addition, the Egans show how Mother Teresa asks us to adopt a Suffering into Joy disposition throughout our days, not just in moments of self-conscious do-goodism.

Because Mother Teresa has so totally devoted her life to serving others, it is sometimes easy to forget how she has suffered in her own private life. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, she left her widowed mother and two siblings in Albania early in this century to join the Sisters of Loreto and teach in their schools in India. She did not “visit with” her mother and only sister again until 1990, when they were in their graves, because Albania was a closed country for many years.

Mother Teresa expects the same boundless faith in God from her followers that she herself exhibits; in fact, she turned down offers of health insurance for them in Paris and $500 per month stipends from the late Cardinal Cooke in the U.S. (Her response in the latter instance was, “Do you think God is going to be bankrupt in New York?”) The intent is not to endanger the lives of her associates; rather, she wants them to live as the poor live. When others, such as a group of priests in Peru, criticized her modus operandi, urging her to attack the “root causes” of poverty, her reply was matter-of-fact: “The work of tomorrow? There are many people who can do that…. But for us that person needs a shelter now.”

In an indirect way, Mother Teresa has attacked the larger issues behind poverty; her acceptance speeches for such awards as the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize and the 1992 Peace Education Prize of UNESCO have put the plight of the poor directly in front of world leaders who can take large-scale political action to ease their suffering. Even more directly, she wrote George Bush and Saddam Hussein imploring them not to start what became the Gulf War; although they ignored her, she was there at war’s end to help the children who were victims of that conflict.

Mother Teresa is now in her mid-80s, and her health problems are mentioned in this book. Although we will not welcome her passing when it comes, in true Suffering into Joy fashion, she calls death “going home to God.” This volume is a fine testament to her service and inspiration here on earth.

- Patty O’Connell



Eyewitness to Jesus.  By Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’Ancona. Doubleday. 171 pages. $23.95.

This book may start a revolution in thinking about the Bible and all early Church history. Eyewitness to Jesus by Thiede and d’Ancona is about three miniscule pieces of papyrus of the Gospel of Matthew that had sat little-noticed for decades in a display case in Magdalen College at Oxford. This “Magdalen College Papyrus” was re-dated by Thiede, a German papyrologist (one who studies ancient manuscripts).

He dated them to about A.D. 60, decades older than the oldest previously known text. The importance of this, the authors say, is that the Gospel of Matthew “might have been written in the lifetime of the apostle himself.” Eyewitness to Jesus quotes one Oxford scholar who sums up the discovery this way: “It means that the people in the story must have been around when this was being written. It means they were there.”

The modernist dictum has been that the Gospels were written perhaps a century or more after the death of Jesus. The modernists’ position is that all kinds of legends and fantasies crept into the Gospels: The Church imposed her vision on the Gospels; they were myth, symbol, propaganda.

“If the Gospels are assumed to be unreliable, then the theorist becomes our only guide to the life of Jesus,” Thiede and d’Ancona write. “It follows from this that almost anything can be — and has been — said about Jesus. If Jesus was not an Essene, then he was a Buddhist; or a proto-feminist and a worshipper of the goddess ‘Sophia’; or a Marxist Revolutionary; or a politically correct left-winger who would feel at home on a university campus.” This makes Eyewitness to Jesus a bombshell. By asserting that the Gospel of Matthew was finished before A.D. 62, it implies that its sources are first-hand accounts, not distortions, folk tales, or propaganda. Indeed, it implies that the Gospels were circulated when other living witnesses were alive to confirm, correct, or rebut the accounts.

What makes it more impressive is that Eyewitness to Jesus is based not on vague theories or literary guesswork but on analysis of the papyrus and the handwriting on it. We follow along as Thiede and other experts examine the Magdalen papyrus, and similar fragments of ancient papyrus, and begin thinking in new ways about them. For an average reader, such as I, this academic detective work is surprisingly gripping.

For instance, the Magdalen papyrus has very regular Greek writing, so papyrologists can deduce how many letters were written on missing lines. In one such fragment, the words meaning “on to the land” of Lake Gennesaret, found in today’s Gospel, are missing. Thiede, however, deduces that this helps prove the authenticity of the fragments. The town of Gennesaret was literally wiped off the face of the earth by the Romans when they crushed the Jewish revolt. Thus “on to the land” was needed by later writers to avoid confusion when referring to the then-obliterated town, rather than to the take itself.

I felt drawn in by debates over single letters, fragments of letters, or other signs, even unintended marks or blots. There are examinations of the papyrus with an epifluorescent confocal laser scanning device. There are comparisons to other tiny fragments, including some from the “Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Thiede and d’Ancona show us a Christianity whose traditions are much more reliable than the modernists suppose. The verdict: The Gospels are first-hand narratives by the first followers of Jesus. This verdict doesn’t “prove” the Gospels. “No scientist can say the Gospels are true,” Thiede and d’Ancona write. “But he or she can form a judgment as to whether they are authentic.” Even so, many people “may see in the redating process an unexpected convergence of faith and history….”

This book is a thriller — for anyone, even a skeptic with an open mind about what happened in Judea c. A.D. 30-33. Eyewitness to Jesus could play an important role in helping people reconnect with the Gospels, and the Church that grew out of them.

- Jim Tynen





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