It's easy to treat Mother Teresa as a plaster saint, a symbol of unattainable holiness. Contrary to the example of Teresa's life, some pampered souls (speaking for myself, at least) turn her into an escape clause from Jesus' call to die to ourselves: "I'll never be another Mother Teresa, so I'll just stay where I am, thanks." Teresa's posture and countenance suggested a soul deeply at peace with God, and thus better able to do heroic works of compassion. It's oddly comforting to read David Van Biema's cover article for this week's Time, which reinforces what veteran journalist Richard Ostling revealed in 2003: Teresa waged a nearly lifelong battle with feelings of spiritual failure and unworthiness.
Van Biema draws at length from a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), but he also quotes thoughtful Catholics who help explain her struggle.
Here is an especially brilliant paragraph:
Two very different Catholics predict that the book will be a landmark. The Rev. Matthew Lamb, chairman of the theology department at the conservative Ave Maria University in Florida, thinks Come Be My Light will eventually rank with St. Augustine's Confessions and Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain as an autobiography of spiritual ascent. [The Rev. James] Martin of [the Jesuit weekly] America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book "a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life," and says, "It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone."
That final sentence prompted a question of how Christopher Hitchens -- who turned Teresa-bashing into a quirky personal crusade -- will respond to these details. Van Biema delivers the answer in two separate paragraphs:
Says Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, a scathing polemic on Teresa, and more recently of the atheist manifesto God Is Not Great: "She was no more exempt from the realization that religion is a human fabrication than any other person, and that her attempted cure was more and more professions of faith could only have deepened the pit that she had dug for herself."
... In 1948, Hitchens ventures, Teresa finally woke up, although she could not admit it. He likens her to die-hard Western communists late in the cold war: "There was a huge amount of cognitive dissonance," he says. "They thought, 'Jesus, the Soviet Union is a failure, [but] I'm not supposed to think that. It means my life is meaningless.' They carried on somehow, but the mainspring was gone. And I think once the mainspring is gone, it cannot be repaired." That, he says, was Teresa.
Van Biema spends far more space exploring the question of how Teresa felt such torment, even while attending daily Mass and devoting so much of her life to serving Christ in the poor. If you don't subscribe to Time, buy this week's issue. Then read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.