Cracking Open a Stained Glass Saint

Mother Teresa's life in full

Saints are most commonly seen in two dimensions, as they appear in devotional artwork. Frozen in stained glass or canvas, they serenely eye the heavens as their hands bless and pray, or register the sweet pain of martyrdom. The figures’ piety, untroubled by human temptations, lends them a sort of beatific flatness. They frequently look like caricatures, not real people of flesh and blood.

Consider the recent case of Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. While her Missionaries of Charity served among the world’s desperately poor, Teresa’s careworn smile became an icon of sanctity for the television age. As the praise mounted, she took great pains to emphasize her own unworthiness, but these protests were drowned out by cult of admirers who attributed her talk to a virtuous excess of humilitas. The Church seemed in-step with this adulatory view. Only six years after her 1997 death, John Paul II had already seen to Mother Teresa’s beatification, the first formal step in the Church’s process of canonization. She was in an unprecedented express lane towards sainthood.

Come Be My Light is a new book that collects letters and other writings of Mother Teresa, many of are being published for the first time. The materials were edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, a Missionary of Charity priest and the postulator who formally petitions the Vatican for Teresa’s canonization. Light chronicles more than six decades of deeply personal thought in a publicly celebrated life. And the entries, along with Kolodiejchuk’s supplemental commentary, reveal that there was more to Teresa’s deflections of praise—and indeed to the woman herself—than many of her most doting supporters would have liked to admit.

Running on Empty

If its subject were not one of the heroes of the modern era, CBML would still be a difficult book to stomach. Its pages depict a life of inner turmoil. But Mother Teresa’s irreproachably sacrosanct reputation magnifies the problem at the heart of the work: that in private, Teresa was wracked with a chronic, sometimes crippling feeling of spiritual emptiness. The sensation was more or less coterminous with her nearly fifty years of work in the slums of Calcutta.

In piece after piece—mostly letters addressed to spiritual advisors, or writing exercises prescribed by confessors—the author’s style strikingly fits her mood; she eschews full sentences for an almost frantic arrangement of dashes among thoughts that channel the pangs and fitful desperation of a soul in crisis. “Darkness is such,” she writes in one of the more aching letters, “that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason. —The place of God in my soul is blank. —There is no God in me. —When the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.”

As advance copies of the book spread, interested parties sounded off on its implication for Mother Teresa’s popular reception: What of her relationship to the women and men of her community, who idealized her and sought her spiritual guidance? And whither sainthood?

Getting Hitch-ed Again

Among those who threw his hat in the ring was the reliably cantankerous Christopher Hitchens. There is a substantial group of people who wonder why Mother Teresa didn’t question the system responsible for her patients’ destitution, but Hitchens is among the few on record who condemn her life’s work in toto. An avowed atheist, Hitchens penned God Is Not Great, the most recent in a swelling genre of transparently titled, high-profile treatises against faith in all its forms. In Van Biema’s Time piece, Hitchens wagers that Teresa was “no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person,” and that once she had realized her folly, her reassertions of belief only “deepened the pit that she had dug for herself.” This presumptuous assessment is shockingly humane for Hitchens, who in Slate and in his brutally critical 1998 book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, accuses her of being an enemy of the poor, an egotist and a fraud.

“Mother Teresa was a faithful woman, just a flawed one like everyone else. There’s no harm in admitting this, and nothing revealed in the book will derail her canonization (after all, even the Jesus of Mark and Matthew asks why God has forsaken him).”

Some of the opinions offered at the other, theistic end of the spectrum have been just as unsatisfactory. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica published a conversation with Cardinal Julian Herranz of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, who spoke of Mother Teresa’s “moments of uncertainty and discouragement.” One wonders if Cardinal Herranz is referring to the same Mother Teresa as everyone else. Much of CBML reads like a collection of candid snapshots with a single cohesive theme: the pain of loss. The pain dulls as Teresa learns to accept it like a cross, but even this comes after years—not moments—of discouragement, a fact that leaves the Cardinal’s comments sounding wildly off the mark, even insensitive to her plight.

Spasms of Doubt

The fairest evaulation of Teresa’s spiritual darkness lies somewhere in the sympathetic but realistic middle, between Herranz’s reflexive sugarcoating and the backhanded pronouncements of Hitchens. Mother Teresa was a faithful woman, just a flawed one like everyone else. There’s no harm in admitting this, and nothing revealed in the book will derail her canonization (after all, even the Jesus of Mark and Matthew asks why God has forsaken him). And that is as it should be: few people in history have accomplished so much with such little self-regard. Professor Lawrence Cunningham of the University of Notre Dame, an expert on the saints and Catholic spirituality, puts it this way: “I think that the true significance of Mother Teresa’s struggles is to be found in her fidelity to her vocation to love and succor the poor even in the midst of darkness. That is love at its highest level.”

The most important questions raised by CBML transcend Mother Teresa’s reputation: what constitutes belief, and what constitutes sainthood? Rank-and-file religious followers endure occasional if not persistent uncertainties about what they profess. And they are gripped, like Teresa, by spasms of outright doubt. Some feel pushed to seek spiritual truth elsewhere, some eschew religion altogether. Perhaps some grow bitter and write God Is Not Great.

Yet, a sizable number of challenged believers cling raggedly to faith. They allow it to shape the choices and actions that define them, and regard its periodic withdrawal as a part of the mottled puzzle that is three-dimensional human existence.

Plastic Saintery

If only this human complexity were always represented in popular accounts of saintliness. Bookshelves and church naves abound with images and tales of holy figures who seem barely human at all. They bilocate, and they posthumously generate miracles that seem more like the stuff of comic books. After our subtle nip/tucking of a saint’s human imperfections, what remains is a flattened life, that iconic likeness that is pretty to gaze at but impossible to imitate.

Whenever devotees of Dorothy Day hinted that canonization lay in her future, the elderly force behind the Catholic Worker movement would bristle and retort that she didn’t want to be dismissed that easily. The publication of Come Be My Light is so encouraging precisely because it depicts a saint in full: impossible to dismiss on account of her holiness or her all-too-human trials. By assembling Mother Teresa’s letters and bringing her darkness to light, Rev. Kolodiejchuk has rescued Teresa from the stained glass and restored her to her rightful place as a missionary among the blessed mass of people stumbling towards heaven.