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Mother Teresa: Guided by Those She Guides

Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa — The Spirit and the Work

By Eileen Egan

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 448

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Robert Coles

Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School and Research Psychiatrist at the Harvard University Health Services. An Episcopalian, he is a Contributing Editor of and regular columnist for the NOR.

Saints are larger-than-life sinners, we’re often told — with the proviso, of course, that God has specially beckoned them. Yet, after reading this fairly long, exhaustive, but eminently readable (and touching and compelling) book, one is likely to wonder whether Mother Teresa (who, like Doro­thy Day, would be the last one to think of herself as a saint) has the requisite amount of sinfulness to be in the running, so to speak, for that exalted place in the history of Christendom. For, in truth, she seems to have been, from the very early years as a Yugoslav child of Albanian ancestry, a rather sensitive and virtuous person, called from the start, maybe, by her Lord, who would soon enough be­come, without question, her Master. She has given her life to God, we all know by now, and found her own original and daring manner of serving Him, utterly and directly in the company of the world’s poorest people — the thousands and thousands of men, women, and children who live on Calcutta’s streets, with Death their constant, intimate com­panion.

Unlike others, she left behind her the safety that a building provides. Not that she has been, ov­er the years, without buildings; her “order” has be­come, by now, a worldwide institution. But she started (the book is especially edifying and inspir­ing in the telling) as her own version of a street per­son, so to speak, and the vision she had was as sim­ple as Christ’s vision has always been: go unto the lame, the hurt, the blind, the poor, the hungry, the “despised and scorned,” the apparently lowly, and minister unto them — try to feed them, clothe them, shelter them, heal them, and just as impor­tant, be healed by them, learn from them, be guid­ed by them.

Guided? I use that word because I once heard Dorothy Day use it, in connection with her parallel (though lay) effort on behalf of America’s ex­tremely needy. Not being without an obtuse and self-important side, I had to rush in with my psy­chologically pressing question: what did she mean, what could she possibly mean by that word “gui­dance”? (My kind has its own dreary way of show­ing incredulity, and it is done tersely, indeed: re­peat the word, and very important, raise the voice to a lilting, demanding, if not insinuating, crescen­do, while raising the eyebrows.) Here was Dorothy Day’s reply: “Oh, I think we need one another to find God. I think the people we feed here feed us; and they guide us — toward God.” Silence. I scratch my head in my own silence. I was a medical student, believing in a tough, skeptical materialism. What possible “guidance” (and I still had psycho­logical in mind as the qualifying adjective, not spir­itual) could these down-and-out Bowery folks offer Dorothy Day?

Had I stated my doubts (I didn’t, I guess be­cause I retained a modicum of old-fashioned cour­tesy, a gift of my parents to their wayward son), I am sure Dorothy Day would have been in no way offended — in fact, would have prayed hard for me. As for Mother Teresa, she has been praying hard for all of us for a long time — and one won­ders why she never seems discouraged, given the cruel enormity of the challenge she took on, long ago — the fate of Calcutta’s sickly, semi-starved in­habitants. Whereas the rest of us moan from a dis­tance — or reach for our solutions (which tell so much about ourselves), namely worldwide birth control on the cheap “for them,” and abortion clinics as a back-up, and what we call “education” (often meaning so that “they” will know how to use the contraceptives and know how to go to the clinics for abortion or sterilization or whatever) — she could only try to be with them, give them food, attend their aches and pains, their all-too-ser­ious wounds, and always, pray for them, and yes, pray for herself as the one who needs them ever so badly — because it is they whom Jesus told us He would especially watch, and (who knows?) it is they among whom He might well “reside” even now.

For those interested in a fairly comprehensive account of a renowned nun’s life, this book will be quite satisfying. The personal side of that life re­mains, in certain respects, obscure, dimly lit on purpose by the reticence of the book’s subject, a woman who has little interest in the egotistic dis­play we have almost come to take for granted as “normal” in this era; and dimly lit, also, because the biographer, too, lacks the egoism that affects so many of us writers — our determination to flex our muscles, display ourselves in all our fancy (ov­er-blown) intellectual paraphernalia as the ones who could poke and pry, and by golly, find out this and that, thereby satisfying the reader’s lust, yes, but also making the reader a co-conspirator of the peeping-Tom writer.

What Eileen Egan wants for us is that we come to know (to experience insofar as words can generate such felt awareness) a deeply Catholic woman’s lived piety as it has been given us by the grace of God, whose life and passion, one constant­ly assumes, descended upon her early on, never to let her go. With such a purpose in mind the author is careful to offer us all the details we need, with thoughtfulness and precision, in order to appreci­ate a particular nun’s constancy, her fierce deter­mination, her visionary ambition. Mother Teresa has a magnificent political sense, a large-hearted shrewdness, and an inspired dramatic gift that have been great assets in her struggle, and have helped convincingly instruct so many of us privileged Westerners. The Nobel Prize, after all, is an enormously compelling occasion of moral theater in action — a moment when the tough, canny secular West (watching itself carefully, and not a little puffed up) points its finger with pride.

The danger, of course, is that those fingered will be not only affected but infected, touched gravely, dangerously by the pride Ecclesiastes men­tions unforgettably, not to mention St. Paul in his letters. So, without using the word pejoratively, one applauds Mother Teresa’s “performance” in Stockholm, and too, in the nations that, upon her receipt of the award, took her up, to use an expres­sion, with newly awakened enthusiasm. That she has disappointed some of her listeners is to her credit. She has not budged an inch to accommodate them — and of course, they will quickly move on, find others to uphold, then leave. Her great dig­nity and her discerning brilliance have permitted her the ironic achievement, in her old age, of tak­ing sharp and accurate aim at the worst possible kind of poverty — a poverty that is hell itself, and makes even Calcutta’s kind seem less harrowing and melancholy. For Mother Teresa, that seeming­ly fragile, quaint nun, that thoughtfully appraising and utterly tenacious servant of His, has also fig­ured out the direction of many of us Westerners, who are so affluent and educated and self-assured — figured out that we are headed nowhere all too fast.

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