Selling Love

Moira Donegan · Mother Teresa

In order to be made a saint in the Catholic Church, you first have to be dead and then you have to perform two miracles. The first posthumous miracle the Vatican says Mother Teresa performed was the healing of an Indian woman named Monica Besra, whose abdominal tumour disappeared after a locket containing a picture of the nun was pressed to her stomach. The tumour was caused by tuberculosis, one of the diseases Mother Teresa had spent her life providing care for. The Vatican rushed to confirm the miracle, but Besra’s family and doctors were sceptical: ‘She took medications for nine months to a year,’ Besra’s doctor told the New York Times. Other hospital staff said that they felt pressure from Catholic authorities to say that the recovery was miraculous.

The anecdote is characteristic of Mother Teresa’s hasty canonisation: the Vatican began beatification less than two years after her death in 1997; Pope Francis pronounced her a saint earlier this month (the second miracles was healing a Brazilian man with brain tumours in 2008). For decades, Mother Teresa was the world’s most high-profile Catholic figure, more popular even than the pope. The religious order she founded in 1950, the Missionaries of Charity, has ministries in more than 100 countries. The sisters vow to give ‘wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor’. The moral content of Mother Teresa’s work was sufficiently anodyne, and the media infatuation with her sufficiently pervasive, that she became an international symbol of a friendlier Catholicism; lovable, acceptable and admirable to middle-class people in Europe and America, even those who did not attend church or believe in God.

What may be most telling about Mother Teresa is how often she ended up in front of the cameras. In pictures, she is either shaking the hand of someone powerful, glamorous or ruthless – Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana, François Duvalier – or leaning over someone too weak to stand. (It’s impossible to imagine her young.) Amit Chaudhuri, reviewing Christopher Hitchens’s broadside The Missionary Position, argued that images of Mother Teresa, who was white (she was born in Macedonia in 1910), caring for destitute Indian people were reminiscent of India before independence:

Instead of speaking, the poor in the photographs look up at her silently, touch her hand, are fed by a spoon. The ‘black hole’ of Calcutta, figuring as it does an open, silent mouth … refers to the unsayable that lay, and still often lies, at the heart of the colonial encounter.

As her ministry expanded outside Bengal, she made high-profile moral interventions: she brokered a ceasefire between Israeli and Palestinian forces in 1982 to secure the safe evacuation of children from a Beirut hospital; she visited Armenia following an earthquake in 1988; she went to meet radiation victims after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. Her attention was generally given to victims of diseases whose devastations were highly visible: tuberculosis, leprosy, Aids. Everywhere, she made efforts to help those who were suffering, to lend them dignity, compassion or material help. And everywhere, her ease with the media was evident. ‘We must sell love,’ she said in Something Beautiful for God, the 1969 documentary that made her a celebrity in the West. Mother Teresa was profoundly in touch with her time: she considered herself a saleswoman.

It’s impossible to ignore what Mother Teresa did for the poor. Hundreds of weeping devoted came to her canonisation in St Peter’s Square, many of them from India, where she remains largely popular despite periodic challenges from both Hindu nationalists and the Marxist Bengali government. She said she wanted the poor who died in her care to ‘die like angels – loved and wanted’. But she also accepted money from the truly awful, and was complicit in the propagation of her fame – which helped her cause, but hurt others. As Chaudhuri put it:

In the flood of publicity and photo-opportunities that have followed Mother Teresa’s celebrity, in which various world leaders have basked in the reflected light of her virtue (and her gratitude), it would seem that only the people of Calcutta and the West Bengal government have missed out, even been blanked out, to be represented only by the solitary destitute at the Mother’s hand.

It’s impossible to say whether she was motivated more by compassion or by moral vanity. It made no difference to the people she helped, but it’s part of what’s so unnerving about Mother Teresa, and about the whole idea of sainthood; her failures are the failures of many kinds of charity. To look at Mother Teresa is to see a bleak and complicating reality: that it is very difficult to pity someone and to respect them at the same time.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Hilary Mantel on the Hair Shirt Sisterhood · 4 March 2004

Barbara Newman: Why can the dead do such great things? · 7 May 2015

Amit Chaudhuri: Mother Teresa · 4 January 1996


  • 14 September 2016 at 5:28pm
    Seth Edenbaum says:
    Chadhuri: "The charge of deliberately curtailing medical care, of promulgating ‘a cult based on death and suffering and subjection’, is a serious and substantiated one, and it cannot be ignored." But...
    But what?

    "Mother Teresa took her adherence to frugality and simplicity in her work to extremes, allowing practices like the reuse of hypodermic needles...
    In over a hundred interviews, Dr. Chatterjee heard volunteers describe how workers with limited medical training administered 10- to 20-year-old medicines to patients, and blankets stained with feces were washed in the same sink used to clean dishes."

    We aren't in the 13th century. The poor do not suffer so the powerful may learn pity.

  • 15 September 2016 at 1:52am
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    Far from being anodyne, I think the 'moral content' of Mother (I suppose we must now get used to saying 'Saint') Theresa's mission is rather startling and confronting. In the Guardian last week Mari Marcel Thekaekara wrote about her complex reactions to the old woman's words and manner:
    Her vintage, “There’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,” left me fuming too. How dare she trivialise poverty? But she could. She did. And the world lapped it up. She once comforted a sufferer, with the line: “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you.” The infuriated man screamed, “Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me.” [....] Later, when I had children, my mother insisted we took them to the her chapel to be blessed. She did. My mother told Mother Teresa, “My daughters volunteered at Shishu Bhavan when they were young.” “Oh,” she responded to me with unconcealed hauteur. “When you were a child. But now? You do nothing useful for the poor now, I suppose?” Stung by her rudeness, I felt the old anger rising. I stayed silent, not trusting myself to reply politely. “We don’t want her blessings,” I barked at my mother.
    If you find that 'anodyne,' then perhaps you're a candidate for sainthood yourself. It is, of course, outrageous to suggest that the suffering are uniquely favoured by God. It is perhaps appalling to think that the poor should be cherished and served because they are the embodiment of Christ and not because they are (as humanists would claim) unique individual human beings with intrinsic dignity and rights of their own. It is certainly a demanding question to put to other people: "what are you doing for the poor?" Such words can be understood only within a Christian moral context, and perhaps only barely then.

    But it certainly shouldn't be a surprise that St Theresa of Calcutta is a scandal and a stumbling-block to non-Christians: her actions cannot make any sense at all to those who are unable to see, in a very literal way, the face of God embodied in the poor, or to understand how the poor might be pitied and loved simultaneously.

    • 15 September 2016 at 12:31pm
      whisperit says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      As Christopher Hitchens forcefully pointed out, the doctrine of salvation through the suffering of another is not just "outrageous" and "challenging", it is wicked.

      If I were to be caught shoplifting, would it be moral for a policeman to say to me, "You are guilty, but I'm going to let you off, and in your stead, I am going to punch that small child over there in the face. Now BE GRATEFUL"?

      And would it be moral for me to accept such an offer? Should I watch, "simultaneously pitying and loving" the child as the policeman assaults her? If I were to intervene, should my intervention be restricted to tending her wounds?

      Or should I rather reject this whole corrupt and corrupting moral system, and reject the authority that "makes sense" of it?

      Complexity, my a**e.

    • 16 September 2016 at 5:27pm
      Seth Edenbaum says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      “There’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,”

      That's the quote! The veneration of the poor by the rich and powerful, kneeling before a beggar as if he were a sculpture carved in stone. Then rising up and walking away to lunch, enlightened, refreshed. Church doctrine from 1400

      "her actions cannot make any sense at all to those who are unable to see, in a very literal way, the face of God embodied in the poor, or to understand how the poor might be pitied and loved simultaneously."

      Catholic pity is voyeurism: worship predicated on inaction. Watching people die to help you face your inevitable death, rather than helping them to live.
      You've just defended the woman for all the reasons others are appalled.

  • 15 September 2016 at 7:32am
    GeorgeBlot says:
    "In order to be made a saint in the Catholic Church, you first have to be dead and then you have to perform two miracles." Wow - high standards.

    • 15 September 2016 at 12:38pm
      Alan Benfield says: @ GeorgeBlot
      Wait a minute: isn't doing anything when you're already dead already a miracle?

      So that's three miracles...

      "No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!"

  • 15 September 2016 at 1:37pm
    streetsj says:
    I had no idea the miracles had to be posthumous. Is that because doing miracles when alive is too small a hurdle?

  • 15 September 2016 at 2:48pm
    Greencoat says:
    'It’s impossible to ignore what Mother Teresa did for the poor.'

    But - let me guess - everyone is going to just that.

    • 16 September 2016 at 4:11pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Greencoat
      Well, it's definitely impossible to ignore something that one is disputing the value of.

  • 17 September 2016 at 1:08pm says:
    Mediapart says ( Mother Teresa was receiving about $100m a year in donations, of which roughly $50m could be accounted for, and that no one knows what was happening to the rest.

  • 22 November 2016 at 12:28am
    Michael Kavanagh says:
    There seems to be a lot of hostility here. Maybe people should try and get out more and do some good works - whether they are people of faith or not - before they hit the keyboard. On various forms of social media - including ones of literary bent - the issue of Mother Teresa - who seems to be an undoubted if flawed do-gooder - seems to have become an curious lightning rod for various things - perhaps including some good old fashioned anti-catholic prejudice which used to be so very common in England well into the 1980s. In the meantime, I am bemused by "clever deconstruction" of what is appropriate or not be said by people trying to tend to people in distress. To find out what works, I think you really have to go out and do a bit of it rather than just sneer from the outside. Love to all!

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