Read an extract – Mother Teresa Beyond the Image

By Anne Sebba


As you fly into Calcutta today, cit of twelve million and growing, you are welcomed by a giant hoarding which announces this as the city of Tagore the poet, Ray the film maker and Teresa the nun. Extraordinary as it may seem, she has become a tourist attraction. Of the three, it is Teresa who is the best known internationally and it is she who has made Calcutta famous anew in the West. That the hoarding is sponsored by the United Bank of India should surprise no one; just one more contradiction in a truly fantastic story.

If the dram of the world is its paradoxical nature, nobody exemplifies this better than Mother Teresa, the diminutive, wrinkled nun of Albanian parentage. Universally praised for her humility and devotion, she is also adept at dealing with world leaders and financiers and has a canny instinct for publicity. How easily can these two aspects coexist in one person? The West has responded to her social work but what she is about is religion, specifically Jesus Christ, and this fact, so often overlooked, means that there is misunderstanding at the very core of her success. The work is not the vocation, Mother Teresa says over and over again, prayer, prayer is the vocation. At the same time, Mother Teresa is a skilled exponent of many late-twentieth-century marketing techniques from the brand management of her blue-bordered, white saris to the soundbite quotes the utters. And she is not afraid to negotiate; her sisters are taught how to bargain with travel agents before they learn any theological intricacies.

There are few living saints in our increasingly materialistic age yet Mother Teresa, as champion of the world’s poor, has until recently been universally acclaimed as a rare example. She is, so transparently, someone who eschews the values of our age where success in life is measured by the number of trappings acquired and in so doing she offers us hope that spirituality, not materialism, will triumph; hope that there are higher standards we can aspire to; and hope that maybe one day all the children in the world will be fed.

Since 1990, however, the mood has been changing. In that year, following a near fatal heart attack, she tendered her resignation as leader of the Order, the Missionaries of Charity, that she founded forty years previously. But her sisters were unable to elect a successor. In spite of continuing ill health, she remained in charge, prompting criticisms that her Congregation is undemocratic, that she had failed to groom a strong candidate to take over and that she was being retained as a figurehead to ensure the continued flow of large donations.

The fiercest attack came in November 1994 from a Washington-based English journalist, Christopher Hitchens, in a television polemic that dubbed her ‘Hell’s Angel’. He accused her of personal hypocrisy, consorting with dictators, administering dubious medical treatment, consorting the media and – perhaps most serious of all – blindly objecting to all forms of family planning. Abandoned babies and the terminally ill, society’s most vulnerable and helpless, were there, he said, to supply the occasions for charity and the raw material for demonstrations of compassion In India. Hitchens later defended himself against the charge of bias by admitting that the programme set out to grab people’s attention. He had, he said, just twenty-five minutes to set against twenty years of drenching sycophantic publicity. Mother Teresa was, he asserted, the least criticised human being on earth. He and the programme-makers could hardly have been surprised by the furious reaction to the programme and the vituperative nature of the criticism –some of it hitting far harder and wilder than that of the actual programme. The subsequent fall-out in the Indian and British media has rumbled on ever since as others joined in both the attack and the defence.

The unsympathetic television portrayal of Mother Teresa as a cantankerous harridan with a fondness for dictators may represent an extreme view, but the controversy it sparked also revealed that there is a growing body of moderate opinion which believes that uncritical defensiveness on part of the Catholic hierarchy does Mother Teresa’s cause no good. The subsequent debate is a clear indication that there is a demand for a study which, at the very least, is not afraid to give Mother Teresa’s genuine spiritual imperatives a political, social and historical dimension. Surely this enhances rather than diminishes her considerable achievements?
As an article in the New York Times put it:

Although reviewing programmes that have little prospect of being shown the United States does not ordinarily seem useful, Hell’s Angel invites attention because there is so little prospect. In a season of complaints about the adversarial tendencies and the anti-religious slant of television it is still difficult to imagine an American network or cable station going after so esteemed a religious personage. If anybody is a television untouchable it is Mother Teresa.

Mr Hitchens’ phrasings may be a touch sharp for a mass audience and he could be picking on Mother Teresa simply because he doesn’t like her politics and her Church. All the more reason, now that such charges have been aired, for sending a crew to Calcutta to see whether he failed to give credit where it is due. How good or bad is the care? Where does the Mother Teresa Multinational obtain its money and on what is it spent? It could turn out that despite Mr Hitchens’ animadversions the lady is a saint.

I am no film crew, nor am I prepared to act as arbiter or referee. But I am full of questions and have put as many of these as I can to people qualified to answer them, including doctors, nuns, heads of charities, volunteers and former Missionaries of Charity. No synthesis is possible of such an enormous variety of views. But whatever else she may or may not have done she has inspired thousands of people from many backgrounds to see what difference they can make to the world and has provoked many others into examining their consciences, or at least discussing what ought to be done. I believe that it is almost always healthy to question and I hope this book will be read as a dialogue with as wide a range of experts as possible.

What follows is not a traditional biography. There are few facts known about her early life, her immediate family is dead – her brother dies in July 1981 at the age of seventy-four – and such few records as might have shed some light on dates or facts were probably destroyed along with her childhood house in the Skopje earthquake of 1963. Biographically speaking, Mother Teresa’s life is not interesting; there is the same straightforward religious faith that guides her in everything, and a list of awards won goes nowhere towards explaining either the inner motivation of my subject or the response of the rest of the world. Mother Teresa, it appears has suffered from none of the inner conflict that give the best biographies their dramatic tension. Malcolm Muggeridge went so far as to say that her life is biographically a non-event because ‘to live for and in others, as she and the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity do, is to eliminate happenings which are a factor of the ego and the will. “Yet not I but Christ liveth in me,” is one of her favourite sayings.’ Muggeridge may have made her name with his film and subsequent book, Something Beautiful for God, but h also set in train the criticism; she is not the saviour of humanity, what she does is symbolic.

In the first half of the book I have tried to tell her story chronologically, looking at how the phenomenon developed and why in 1947, at the time of Partition, when the two newly independent countries of India and Pakistan faltered on the brink of war, Sister Teresa (as she then was) responded to urgent human needs in a unique way. She knew then she must give up her relatively comfortable life educating the privileged few to work on the streets helping in any way she could the suffering masses. Although Mother Teresa encountered suspicion and distrust in some quarters in the 1950s, and one respected Calcutta charity worker told me there had always been two views of her in India – that which favoured welfare and that which recognised the need for developmental aid – nothing was openly voiced until very recently. In India she has been more or less consistently acclaimed, honoured and welcomed both by the national government and by the local government of West Bengal, which since 1967 has been Marxist. However unlikely this co-operation may seem on the surface, those who were concerned about the value of her work kept their criticisms muted. Calcutta was proud to possess a second Nobel Prize-winner (the first being the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1913), and many world leaders came to pay their respects to her, hoping some of her saintly qualities would rub off on them if they got close enough in the inevitable photograph. Her contribution – and there is a danger of it being overshadowed in the recent controversy – was outstanding to a city repeatedly deluged by vast waves of refugees from the impoverished countryside or from neighbouring Bangladesh, but could never begin to solve a crisis of Calcutta’s magnitude. Should the media be blamed for building Mother Teresa into something no individual could possibly ever be, or should we, the public the media feeds, take some of the blame in our constant search for heroes to make us feel better? God is a mystery. It is very hard for rational beings to believe in a just God when faced with daily destruction and misery. Yet here is someone apparently doing His work, doing things we could not possibly hope to do ourselves. It is comforting to believe that such good people exist and comforting to believe that such good people exist and comforting to believe that such a person must have a direct link with God. But no individual is perfect, and by blacking out those aspects which make a fully rounded human being, the media and those who collude with them do her a disservice. Once any small weakness is observed people feel let down, cheated; eventually the person is exposed to attack.

The second half of the book is thematic and examines the criticisms of Mother Teresa in detail by means of a frank discussion of the compelling issues which arise from her work.

My own interest in Mother Teresa began some fifteen years ago when I wrote a short children’s book about her. She agreed to it and put me in touch with the founder of her international Co-Workers, the friends and supporters of the Missionaries of Charity, who then lived not far from me in England. Ann Blaikie was a unique source of information and the book was duly written and illustrated. A few days before publication I received an urgent letter from Mother Teresa asking for publication to be stopped. There was already enough material about her on the market which was available for children, she wrote, adding: ‘I have also today refused permission to Dominique Lapierre.’ Lapierre, a French journalist, went on to write City of Joy, later filmed, about life in the Calcutta slums, a story in which Mother Teresa featured.

‘I am so glad that Mother Teresa’s letter came too late to cancel it,’ Ann Blaikie wrote to me a few days later. The book was already printed and sitting in bookshops by the time the demand for cancellation arrived. Nothing more was ever said.

Why had Mother Teresa changed her mind? Of course, I understood the difficulties she faced in reconciling the greedy demands of a rapacious press, which had brought her both fame and the money she needed to do her work, and her stated aim to lead a simple life. Yet, as she has now come under criticism for the way that she spends the money raised – nobody knows precisely how much this is but Reuters International News Agency recently estimated it at about US $30 million annually – the real conundrum emerges: no doubt the money could be better spent, but if she were not there to raise it, the money would not be there in the first place.

What has intrigued me for nearly fifteen years is her very human response to a number of situations, indicated in this case by her desire to control who writes what about her. And yet, in so much else, Mother Teresa is driven by a deeply religious and spiritual urging. Finding the equilibrium has often proved elusive, even for her. Divine guidance and human imperatives are interesting bedfellows. The interaction between these two is what continues to fascinate me, and part of this book is an attempt to look at how this has worked in practice. Is it because many believe her to be divinely inspired that she has such a powerful effect on those who meet her? Or can her evident charisma belong to her alone? ‘Did I come away glowing? I have been asked many times of my own meetings with her, as if being in close proximity to such an icon would have a tangible consequence. Clearly, many people who have met her do believe their lives will never be the same after this, although not all go as far as one biographer who, commenting on the influence she had had on Malcolm Muggeridge, wrote: ‘Through meeting Muggeridge, I sensed that I was meeting her and, at a sort of third hand, meeting the Lord Himself.’

When I began researching this book in 1994 I was exercised by the problem of how to get information from Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity themselves. I immediately encountered suspicion, which felt like an iron gate enclosing an already secretive organisation. ‘I am sorry I sound so defensive,’ one Catholic charity worker apologies. ‘As Mother Teresa is suddenly a contentious figure I don’t feel I can speak to you without being better acquainted with the facts,’ a normally forthright commentator o Catholic affairs wrote. Another, a former sister with the Missionaries of Charity, wanted to talk to me, but only on the telephone, concerned that if we met face to face she might say more than she intended. Several others, whether fans or opponents, were prepared to see me only on the understanding that they would in no way be identified. More than one Catholic organisation expressed profound reservations about the work her institution was undertaking in this country, in India, in Romania, in Ethiopia and in Latin America but declined to be quoted by name since to criticise Mother Teresa in any way could jeopardise their own funds dramatically.

When I first visited the soup kitchens run by the Missionaries of Charity in Bravington Road, North London – and I had made an appointment – I was allowed to stay on condition that I did not ask any questions. ‘The sisters are forbidden to give interviews to journalists,’ I was told. I can only describe to you what I saw, therefore, without explanation and what I saw was a kindly, middle-aged Irishman unloading large amounts of food into a storeroom. ‘The food just arrives,’ I was told. ‘We don’t need to ask how, but simply trust in Divine Providence.’ Divine Providence, however, is often given a helping human hand, as many Catholics believe it should be. But before the food was ladled out to some forty drifting and homeless men and women, there was half an hour of hymn singing and a sermon, delivered by Sister Theresina. No one should be in any doubt, and Mother Teresa has expressed herself very clearly on the point, the religious motivation is foremost.

It was obvious from my unpopular attempts to observe the soup-kitchen operation that knocking on doors without introductions was not going to work. Ann Blaikie, who had been so helpful fifteen years earlier with my children’s book, was now seriously ill (and dies while I was writing this book). One Co-Worker who did agree to see me was nonetheless visibly affronted when I asked to see a copy of the Order’s constitution and told me my request was tantamount to asking for a document about the marriage settlement or divorce arrangements of one’s friends; it was private, only for those who needed to live by it. And the Catholic Media Office, although extremely helpful throughout my work, could not assist me in gaining access to the Missionaries of Charity. Eventually I wrote to a young priest who was close to the Order.

After a preliminary session in which my view on religion , feminism and various matters worldly or otherworldly were scrutinised; after the religious background of my husband and the education of my children had all been laid out; and after I withheld, I believe, nothing about my motives for writing this book, explaining that I would be discussing contemporary criticisms as well as long-standing praise; that I found certainty in any religion difficult to accept and why I wanted his co-operation, the tennis-playing priest – I know that about him only because he conducted one of our meetings in his tennis gear – told me that he would pray for the right answer and God would decide. He would also need to consult the senior sisters in Calcutta, who would agree to co-operate only if they felt it would further their work. Several months later he wrote that he was prepared to help me, anonymously, with my research and I am most grateful to him for sparing the time to devote himself to what I suspect he did not find very enjoyable sessions.

There was much I wished to talk over with him. For example, can prayer ever be a substitute for social action or solve problems such as homelessness? Seeing Calcutta for myself made me redirect some of my enquiries but provoked others too. Mother Teresa is fond of telling journalists to pack away their notebooks and see the work; I did just that but fear my reactions at the Children’s Home and the Home for the Dying were not always those she might have wished for. The Mother House, on the other hand, the nucleus of the operation, is an inspirational sort of place. A drab, concrete, four-=storey building on a noisy street is what it appears from the outside. But inside I was aware of a palpable heartbeat as well as an extraordinarily soporific timelessness. The ritual of the passing of the buckets may be only symbolic but, for me, the chanting in English with lilting Indian accents was bewitching; the light, filtering through the brown window slats, painterly pretty and everything cool, calm and peaceful as the sari-clad women and girls rose one by one to take communion, forming as they did so a moving crucifix in a sort of highly stylised ballet. I could see why this communal time was so important in restoring energy and faith. I could begin to see why prayer made impossible tasks possible.

And then, just as I relaxed into another world of equanimity and tranquillity a modern, jarring note intruded and that was not simply because, with no microphones, the voices were almost overwhelmed by the deafening noise from the traffic. Above the roar, an American priest gave a sermon, following a reading from Jonah, which he based on the then current O.J. Simpson case. Whether or not Simpson was guilty was beside his point; O.J. Simpson was a frame of reference for us all to do something to deepen our spirituality and emerge a changed person, like Jonah. For a group of people who do not read newspapers, I could not help wondering how apposite the subject was.

There are some questions which clearly have no answers, but that does not mean one should not ask them. The one Mother Teresa herself sets out to answer is ‘Who is my neighbour?’ – to which she gives the resounding reply, ‘Everyone.’ However, succeeding generations and most religions have failed to offer a satisfactory solution to the eternal question of why there is suffering. Mother Teresa’s response to this, with which many may disagree, poses some of the most profound problems of our age and there may not be answers to any of them. This book will, I hope, at least open up the debate.

Extract from Mother Teresa Beyond the Image
Chapter Nine Medicine

I have one overwhelming memory of my visit to New Delhi. There have been few days since when I do not think of he baby with two heads.

This baby, nearly six months old, was lying on a cold, cement floor with a pillow underneath its rear head. I was unable to see how developed the second face was but I could see the front face clearly enough, and there was an open wound in the middle of its forehead. Both heads emanated from one tiny trunk and the body was curled in a foetal all. I was rooted to the spot, unable to remove my gaze from this desperate accident of humanity.

‘Is she in pain?’ I asked the Missionary of Charity sister who was showing me round the Delhi orphanage. ‘Of course,’ the sister replied. ‘She can never lift her heads at all, they are too heavy to move. But everything is in God’s hands. There is nothing any hospital can do for the baby………… Nature has its way.’ ‘What about the mother?’ I enquired. ‘She must be in a state of shock. Does anyone know who she is or how she is?’ If they did, I was not told. The mother seemed unimportant. It was not a case they wished to talk about and the conversation quickly turned to a discussion about poverty in the West – much more serious, the sister said, because it was emotional poverty.

This tragic, two-headed baby focuses for me the essence of the role of the Missionaries of Charity. Without doubt, had it not been for the Missionaries of Charity, this baby would have dies at birth, or shortly after, wherever it was dumped, and that may have been a refuse bin or the street. Clearly she has been fed by the nuns – she was thin but not puny and would not have survived that long without nourishment. And she had been shown love. But what do we mean by love? Why, as I went around the orphanage, did I not see any toys in any of the cots, nor pictures on any of the walls, nor mobiles for any of the children, most of them too twisted and deformed to do anything other than look at an interesting object? As the sister told me, the baby with two heads would die soon, indeed is probably already dead as I write this. And how much will she have suffered by then, and what for? Why, if she was in pain, was she not given painkillers, and being looked after in a hospital bed by trained nursing staff?

I have discussed this subsequently with several doctors. Dicephalic babies are so rare in the United Kingdom – one may be born every five years perhaps – that the Office for National Statistics is not prepared to release the date, or any information, about the last such case lest, inadvertently, it revealed the identity of the parents. Today, all expectant women in Britain are routinely scanned at an early stage and, if such a condition were found, would be offered, but not of course compelled to accept, a termination. To give birth to a dicephalic baby, the mother would need a caesarean section and, even then, terrible damage may have been done to the womb, to say nothing of the psyche. In India there is a famous pair of Siamese twins, known as Ganga-Jamuna, who have separate heads and torsos but share two kidneys, two hearts, one liver, one uterus, a common vaginal passage and two legs. In a country where female infanticide is still practised, it may be surprising that they were allowed to survive. But they were, are now in their mid-twenties, and making a living being paraded at village fairs and festivals. Their uncle, who is also their manager, charges between two and five rupees for a gawping public to watch them perform such daily tasks as eating and washing. But the baby with two heads could not even hope for a life as ghastly as that.

There are no simple answers but the question remains: is it an adequate response to take in a sick person, child or adult, and offer care if you are not prepared to give the highest level of case society is capable of? Is it a form of arrogance to make an assumption that, although a body of knowledge exists, you do not need to make use of it? I have tried to resolve this problem on various occasions with people far better qualified than I. Take, for example, as I said to a Catholic bishop, the parable of the Good Samaritan – at least he crossed the road and did something to help. Yes, replied the bishop, but if the Samaritan repeatedly crossed the road and helped more and more people, by design rather than accident, so that a form of institution was created to help accident victims, then the care owed should be the highest standard available in the world.

On the other hand, Professor David Baum, President of the College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Director of its Research Unit and a leading light in the development of children’s hospice and respite case in the United Kingdom, sees it rather differently. ‘Giving the best care has so many dimensions that you might never do anything… Mother Teresa had had a vision that you don’t just walk past a baby, you pick it up, and if the idea catches on… it is an exceedingly difficult position to get into equilibrium but I can imagine, without being critical, that it’s unstoppable. Her mission is not to think it through. It could be from where they are coming that this is the appropriate model.’

Baum’s view, and he has been to India and met Mother Teresa as well as devoting many years to a research project in rural Thailand, is that what India most needs, medically speaking, is not another big new hospital – ‘the finest teaching hospital in the entire world’, as Hitchens suggests. The dilemma Baum encountered in India was: ‘Can India afford high-tech state-of-the-art hospitals when nationwide nutrition and vaccination programmes in the villages are so desperately needed?’ Yet those in authority frequently conclude that such hospitals are essential if India is to keep its best-calibre doctors, confident that they can sit at the high table of international medicine. For Baum, that makes sense. ‘Yet coming from our background I wouldn’t be doing transplant surgery in India because, for the same expenditure, one could have better-planned outreach community health services… There are other high tables to be at, yet it is difficult to portray these programmes as tangible. To implement a successful immunisation programme does not grab headlines, but to have a big modern hospital strips and starves the villages and the places where what is really needed is someone to find which children lack vitamin D and which have partial hearing. It may have been a subliminal decision, but Mother Teresa’s anti-edifice stance may be very well judged for India.

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