January 2008By Mary McWay Seaman
Mary McWay Seaman has served as book critic for The Celtic Connection newspaper in Denver and the Missouri Historical Society's Gateway magazine. She writes from northern Colorado.
Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta. Edited with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C.. Doubleday. 416 pages. $22.95.
Personal struggles with faith fuel great literature and grand theater, especially when the chronicles concern high-profile figures. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., director of the Mother Teresa Center and postulator of Mother Teresa's cause for sainthood, has pulled together one such account with his unusual new book, Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light. A mixed bag of biography, correspondence, journalism, and history, this noteworthy volume unveils its subject's clandestine affliction. For the last 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa (1910-1997) suffered a sense of abandonment by God, a "darkness" that began just after her order, the Missionaries of Charity, was launched in India in 1948. This literary mosaic assembles pieces of her private correspondence, her personal essays, and her public addresses with the author's reports and interpretive analysis. Kolodiejchuk's technique proves effective in building a context around her letters, although Mother Teresa's plaintive eloquence could stand alone in many instances. Her letters to trusted clergy startle with revelations of an inner spiritual agony and sing with simplicity in their entreaties for guidance. The interpretative discourse, though far from pedantry, periodically slips into redundancy.
The biography of this renowned, somewhat mysterious figure fraught with contradictions makes for absorbing reading. Mother Teresa was a public persona who craved privacy, a world traveler who was ill at ease at conventions, an effective administrator who struggled with paperwork, and an indefatigable leader who embraced humble tasks. The former Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu was a hardworking, religious child born in Eastern Europe to Albanian parents. She became a teaching sister in the Irish Loreto order and was working in Calcutta when she received a call "to satiate the thirst of Jesus by serving Him in the poorest of the poor." Kolodiejchuk's masterful journalistic hand documents the years of paperwork and miles of red tape required to establish the Missionaries of Charity. Readers will readily commiserate with Mother Teresa's efforts to work through bureaucracies that bind up so many large organizations. Blessed with a natural talent for organization and leadership, she set about petitioning priests, confessors, the Archbishop of Calcutta, the Loreto Superior General, and the Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Religious in Rome in a tedious campaign to get the Missionaries of Charity onto the streets. Her letters to Archbishop Périer of Calcutta are quite assertive. She, like all effective managers, responded to structural matters intuitively with a written proposal and a business plan. Interestingly, Mother Teresa avoided an intricate managerial model in her new order, preferring each member (including herself) to be hands-on as "a carrier of God's love." Adding a fourth vow of charity to those of poverty, chastity, and obedience, she focused on education for poor Indian children and aid to the sick and dying. Hospitals in Calcutta refused admission to terminal cases, so securing a shelter for these patients became a priority. Mother Teresa's missives exhibit the impatience that marks individuals with exceptional time-management skills; indeed, her relationship with time, laden with frustration, inserts itself repeatedly throughout the book.
After leaving the peaceful security of the Loreto girls' school, Mother Teresa plunged headlong into the abyss of want and perversion on Calcutta's streets. Page after page documents her perpetual sorrow with the miseries of the poor, the "least of all God's creatures" living in unimaginable "holes." She required her sisters, who received nurses' training, to beg for supplies and money in order to better identify with the poor. The begging aside, Kolodiejchuk is careful not to portray the Missionaries of Charity as an ascetic order. Their founder labored alongside other members in a dangerous, depraved environment, and she knew that hard work on the streets depended on strong backs supported by regular meals and adequate sleep.
Surrounded by her congregation and multitudes of the desolate, Mother Teresa agonized alone in her personal vale of tears. Kolodiejchuk explains her "interior darkness" as a "privileged way of entering into the mystery of the Cross of Christ." He delves into this concept with discussions of mysticism and its gifts of "spiritual ecstasy" and tests of "spiritual dryness" based on the lives of some saints.
Many Catholic readers will remember the 1950s as an apex of religious fervor propelling devotions to many saints. Outward signs of faith -- scapulars, medals, and Rosaries -- were ubiquitous during these post-war years. Holiness was tied to suffering, and the intrinsic value of suffering in seeking salvation was held in high esteem. Readers who lack grounding in this history may find themselves alternately fascinated and perplexed by Kolodiejchuk's explorations into saints' mystical experiences. In some cases, the author's interpretive measures concerning specific hagiographies are immensely helpful. However, a few detours into ponderous, ethereal explanations may prove unsatisfying to readers striving to grasp the elements of spiritual mysticism. Such commentary is mirrored in the lofty theological counsel offered to Mother Teresa, whose pleas ache with longing for simple encouragement and specific regimens to dispel her despondency. One senses gaps in her edited letters, and there are traces of patronizing tones evident in several responses from confessors dismissing her plight as a sign of God's favor. Mother Teresa's troubles were kept from all but a few clergy, and she never allowed them to cast a pall on her cheerful performance or to grow into a physical or mental debility (as in clinical depression). She eventually accepted the dour darkness as a longing for God and a sign of solidarity with her rejected poor. In 1979 her heroic work was honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace. By the time she was in her late eighties, Mother Teresa's missionaries labored in 77 countries, many of them well beyond the borders of Christendom.
Kolodiejchuk includes considerable material on Mother Teresa's observations of affluent countries and their moral and social ills. Her famous speech on abortion reverberated around the globe: "I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing, direct murder by the mother herself," and "I find the unborn child to be the poorest of the poor today -- the most unloved -- the most unwanted, the throwaway of the society." She identified poverty in social and spiritual manifestations, beaming in on the unwanted and uncared-for in wealthy communities.
The central concern surrounding this bittersweet book, of course, is the publication of material that Mother Teresa offered in confidence to her superiors. She repeatedly begged for her personal correspondence to be destroyed, and her words indicated hope that her requests would be honored. Readers may struggle to understand why her personal shroud of anguish is now laid bare before a world so voyeuristic that even the most innocuous thoughts, words, and deeds of famous people are savaged by misinterpretations. Kolodiejchuk sums up his justifications for denying Mother Teresa's requests for privacy in this sentence: "Her spiritual directors decided to preserve these documents for future generations, offering a precious testimony of Mother Teresa's unique holiness." This may be so, but such a position pales beside the majesty of a singular truth: It is by her fruits that we have known her, and it is by her fruits that future generations will fully receive her precious testimony. Requiescat in pace.