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Interpreting Mother Teresa

by Robert Inchausti

Dr. Inchausti is assistant professor of English at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 16, 1985, pp. 919-920. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Many books about Mother Teresa have been written in the past ten years, each attempting to interpret her life. Yet -- although it sounds odd -- most of these biographies, essays, interviews and memoirs end up being unintentionally comic. The clash between Mother Teresa’s wordless deeds of love and the writer’s need for a good story almost always results in a parody of whatever genre the writer uses.

For example, one journalist attempted to uncover the historical origins of Mother Teresa’s social mission by interviewing her colleagues from the time when she was a high school principal. To the writer’s surprise, few could remember her, and those who did remarked only about her ordinariness. For a Christian servant, this lack of recognition may be high praise, but the uninitiated see it only as weak material for a story.

Mother Teresa’s interviews are often just as disappointing. She speaks too simply, uses the language of the church, and often replies to sophisticated questions with truisms and cliches that normally would be dismissed as trite.

Anyone who attempts to interpret Mother Teresa confronts the fact that today’s common secular idiom simply lacks the requisite symbolism and moral sensitivity that is necessary in order to express adequately the meaning of Christian service. Thus those wanting to write Christian biographies face a difficult rhetorical challenge: How can simple faith be explained to complex secular minds -- minds that do not take seriously the idea of the incarnation and so have difficulty comprehending the character, thought and actions of those who do?

Only one of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s commentators has really met this challenge: Malcolm Muggeridge. When Muggeridge writes about Mother Teresa, he tries to help the reader see the world through her eyes. Even Muggeridge has difficulty imagining this vision, so he centers his portrait on the problems that acutely self-conscious moderns face when they try to see through the eyes of faith.

The result is a profound and moving portrait not only of Mother Teresa but also of Muggeridge and of our own contemporary spiritual landscape. Moreover, his essays provide us with a vision of a contemporary Christian journalism that can communicate to the world things it cannot imagine.

Muggeridge’s status as a complicated person strangely qualifies him to tell the story of this very uncomplicated woman. Because he lives in a world antithetical to that of his subject. Muggeridge can pose issues to Mother Teresa that she would never address on her own because they do not strike her as exceptionally problematic. For example, he once interviewed her for the British Broadcasting Corporation: "Our fellow men, or many of them, perhaps including myself, have lost their way. You have found the way. How do you help them find the way?" Mother Teresa’s simple answer was, "By getting them in touch with people, for in the people they will find God."

But Muggeridge realized, in a way that the saintly Mother Teresa cannot, how this statement sounds to most contemporary Western souls who hold one another in contempt. To suggest to a retail salesclerk or the junior high vice-principal or the business tycoon that the people he or she meets every day are central to salvation sounds absurd. So, with mock incredulity, he asked, "You mean that the road to faith and the road to God is via our fellow human beings?’’ She replied: Because we cannot see Christ, we cannot express our love to him, but our neighbors we can always see, and we can do to them what if we saw him we would like to do to Christ . . . in the slums, in the broken body, in the children, we see Christ and we touch him."

That response is a perfectly intelligible, if not eloquent, expression of the principles that animate Christian service. But it took a jaded Muggeridge renewed by faith to prod Mother Teresa to articulate her faith -- not just live it.

This illustrates one of the basic tasks of a Christian journalism as defined by Muggeridge’s essays: to press upon people of faith the spiritual confusions encountered by those less graced in order to extract truths that can penetrate contemporary defenses, thus witnessing to otherwise deaf ears.

But Muggeridge could have pressed the issue even further. He could have asked, "Why touch Christ?" How far should he go in his exposition of his subject’s faith? This is a vital question for Christian journalists, and I suspect most miss the mark -- either stopping so soon that skeptics are unsatisfied, or trying to go so deep that profound religious notions end up being summarized with gross oversimplifications.

Muggeridge’s genius lies in his ability to resist both pat formulas and watered-down intellectualizations. He adeptly balances a clear exposition of faith against a respect for the profundity of the Christian mystery. Instead of trying to defend or explain Christianity. Muggeridge tries to help us to see the world through the unique vision of an exemplary Christian. By so doing, we can grasp Christianity’s truth via the power of our imaginations.

In order to take us into Mother Teresa’s world, Muggeridge sets up a contrast between his commonplace perceptions of the world and those of his subject. Early in his book Something Beautiful for God (Harper & Row, 1971). Muggeridge mentions a brief stay in Calcutta in the 1930s during which he became disgusted by the slums and wretched social conditions. He remembers self-righteously asking people, "Why don’t the authorities do something?" And he quickly left.

Mother Teresa, by contrast, saw the same squalor and stayed -- armed, as Muggeridge puts it, only with "this Christian love shining about her." Muggeridge remarks, "As for my expatiations on Bengal’s wretched social conditions -- I regret to say that I doubt whether in any divine accounting, they will equal one single quizzical half smile bestowed by Mother Teresa on a street urchin who happened to catch her eye" (p. 22).

The remark hits home, for we see ourselves and our own glib moral posturing reflected in Muggeridge’s confession. Without such commentary, we can dismiss sainthood as a goal too lofty for ourselves. But we cannot dismiss the way such contrasts throw light on our own moral smugness. Through Muggeridge’s self-revelation we see ourselves in relationship to what she has accomplished. His remark about divine accounting falls both inside and outside a Christian world view and thereby bridges both the religious and secular worlds.

Once playing the part of a modern social theorist, Muggeridge asked Mother Teresa if there weren’t already too many people in India, and if it was worth salvaging a few abandoned children who might otherwise eventually die anyway. The question, Muggeridge reports, was so contrary to the benevolent woman’s perspective that she had difficulty comprehending it.

From a modern point of view, such incomprehension betrays an inability to think beyond one’s own values and to grasp ideas impersonally. But from Muggeridge’s perspective, confusion in the face of madness is no vice. It is actually the modern world that is confused and that should be discredited for being able to understand such amoral reasoning so well. For Mother Teresa, all life is sacred. It is as simple as that. Social theories that contradict this premise are mad.

More dramatic parables emerge in the stories Muggeridge tells of Mother Teresa’s encounters with our world. In his introduction to a collection of her prayers and meditations, A Gift for God (Harper & Row, 1975), he recounts the time Mother Teresa appeared on a Canadian talk show with a Nobel prizewinning biologist who was speculating on the future of DNA breakthroughs and the possibility of everlasting biological life.

As he spoke, Mother Teresa sat quietly until the host prodded her to respond to the biologist’s mind-bending observations. "I believe." she replied. "in love and compassion." The biologist later admitted that the remark had taken him as close as he had ever come to spiritual conversion. When Mother Teresa refused to be drawn into a realm that is alien to her own vision and concerns as a Christian servant, she brought the biologist into her world, forcing him to apply his powerful imagination to seeing himself and his science through her eyes.

Still, it is Muggeridge’s own confessions that bring home most powerfully the meaning of Mother Teresa’s love. His admitted conflict with the organized church juxtaposed with her simple acknowledgment that ecclesiastical squabbles are only temporal and not of God speaks directly to our modern impatience with the humanity and limitations of our institutions. Such insight points to the need for a faith that can see beyond our institutions to find hidden blessings in the pettiness, mediocrity and confusion that seem to curse our social lives.

When Muggeridge quotes Mother Teresa’s letters, prayers and speeches, he chooses passages that most clearly contradict the modern predilection to judge things by their payoff or practical benefit. For example, he quotes her on holiness:

"I will be a saint" means I will despoil myself of all that is not God; I will strip my heart of all created things: I will live in poverty and detachment; I will renounce my will, my inclinations, my whims and fancies, and make myself a willing slave to the will of God [A Gift for God. p. 70].

Such quotations make it clear why the general press mythologizes and thereby distorts Mother Teresa’s significance. If we took her seriously as a manifestation of the possible -- not as the saintly exception that proves the rule of self-interest -- we would be forced to review our alms and values. Muggeridge’s work makes it clear that she is just a simple Christian woman with common sense and uncommon faith; we are the geniuses of amorality.

Muggeridge undoubtedly filters Mother Teresa’s witness through his own categories of understanding, which, one suspects, cannot help but distort her perspective. Yet Muggeridge has done much to bring the secular mind to sympathize with more than her simple charity. It is easy to admire her good works, but it is something else again to acknowledge that they would mean nothing to her without Christ and that her greatest work of all is her love -- which is, of course, not work, but a blessing. Muggeridge has clarified this aspect of her witness.

But he has done even more. He has suggested that maybe we cannot fathom Mother Teresa’s meaning to our time because our language and faith are too weak. Perhaps she represents something that will not register on our sophisticated minds. Maybe, after all is said and done, our age is simply so far off the track that it takes a near-saint to make us see our own moral blindness.

A few years ago I saw Mother Teresa on television. It was just after the Beirut bombing by Israel in which so many civilians were killed. She was helping place two wounded little girls into an ambulance when she was accosted by several reporters. One of them asked her if she thought her relief efforts were successful given the fact that there were 100 other children in another bombed-out hospital whom she wasn’t aiding. She replied, "Don’t you think it is a good thing to help these little ones?" The reporter did not flinch but simply asked his question again: "The other hospital has many wounded children, too. Can you call your efforts successful if you leave them unattended?" Mother Teresa ignored his repeated question and, with an obstinacy worthy of an American politician, answered her own: "I think it is a good thing to help these children." And then her shoulder sank beneath the weight of the stretcher.


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