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Mother Teresa: Mercenary Missionary?

In my previous post on Mother Teresa I noted my intention to reflect upon her legacy as an incarnational theologian—that is, a person who poignantly proclaims the gospel by her very manner of living—in a series of three posts. I also noted my intent to construct these reflections in view of her self-description as a “saint of darkness”: one “absent from Heaven—to light the light of those in darkness on earth."[1] And I explained that I am structuring these posts by considering in turn Mother Teresa’s embodiment of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (offering in my final post a thesis weaving together all of the above).

This second post, focused on hope, bridges reflection upon her love for God (see post 1) with reflection upon the salvation-oriented vision that informed her labors to serve the “poorest of the poor” in Calcutta.

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Mother Teresa is world-renowned for her extraordinary acts of humanitarian service. From the inception of her mission, she and her followers were dauntless in executing that aspect of her work in Calcutta.

That city’s own publication, The Statesman, reported in 1958 (about ten years into her work there): “Mother Teresa needs no introduction to Calcutta.  . . . Mother to innumerable abandoned children, companion to the dying and destitute, succor to the diseased, she has carried the battle against suffering to fields never before considered and hardly known.”[2] 

The whole world eventually took notice of Mother Teresa’s battle against human suffering, to the tune of awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979—for “work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.”[3]

Given this most famous feature of her mission, it might surprise the reader of Mother Teresa’s private writings to discover how fixedly she framed her ministry in terms of saving not bodies, but souls of persons destined for an eternity with or without God.

Give me the souls of the poor little street children,” she had heard Christ saying at her moment of calling: “How it hurts . . . to see these poor children soiled with sin.  . . . Bring Me these souls—draw them away from the hands of the evil one.”[4]

“The aim of our Society,” she later wrote to a woman interested in joining the Missionaries of Charity, “is to satiate the thirst of Jesus on the Cross for love of souls by working for the salvation and sanctification of the poor in the slums.”[5]  In writing her superiors, she consistently assessed the success of her work in light of the many “souls” who had been “brought back to God,” the dying “sent to God,” the children “taught to love God,” and the miserable “taught to suffer for love of God.”[6]

All of this presses toward an awkward question: Was Mother Teresa’s remarkable care for the physically destitute rooted in “mercenary” missionary intent, so to speak? That is, should we be handing out Nobel Peace Prizes to folks who combat poverty and distress ultimately for the sake of making religious converts—who, in fact, teach those converts to embrace their suffering for the glory of God?[7]

Though we may be tempted to rush to Mother Teresa’s defense on these points, it strikes me that the enquiry deserves careful attention.

It connects with another issue raised in post 1, regarding a worrying feature of Mother Teresa’s framing of her love for Christ: its going hand-in-hand with a drive towards victimization—towards “immolation” of the self, she puts it—for the sake of God’s glory. On reading her letters, one may well wonder if Mother Teresa simply didn’t trust her love for Christ unless its expression involved great pain. I noted that such an understanding of Christian piety can be and has been put to reprehensible use, and that it opens into hard questions about the proper role of suffering in the Christian life.

(For instance, Mother Teresa’s story calls to mind stories of other suffering female saints, regarding whom Sara Maitland asks a haunting question: “What can possibly lead women [such as these] to believe that they are more ‘conformable,’ more loveable to the God of creation, love and mercy, bleeding, battered and self-mutilated, than they would be joyful, lovely and delighted?”[8])

By extension, it seems that we should pause to question the ethics of ministry which could be seen as offering help so as to motivate religious conversion, or which might be viewed as teaching its converts that their pain should be embraced as an offering to God. 

With that said—and to carry forward another point raised in post 1—it would be untrue to say that Mother Teresa believed in suffering for suffering’s sake. Rather, she understood life as inevitably entailing many sorrows and, accordingly, that one must choose “a life of sacrifice . . . fervor and generosity”[9] to invite the grace of joyfulness into one’s existence. To her mind, the painful course of lifelong self-offering is the transfigurative route to true freedom and authentic joy, to lasting liberation and happiness that can be found only in drawing close to the heart of God.

Mother Teresa thus believed that only a love that begins and ends in God can bring true meaning to human lives. “We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love,” she famously said.  “There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”[10]

Along these lines—however ambiguous her understanding of suffering remains (and I do intend to return to that topic in post 3)—I would argue that Mother Teresa’s mission was not mercenary in character, aimed purely at convincing the masses to accept the content of Christian faith without regard for their holistic well-being. Rather, I believe her mission was sourced in and oriented toward Christian hope for the transformation of the whole of creation.

To make this case, I would draw upon the insights of theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann argues that Christian proclamation envisions the world’s longed-for transformation as a reality that only “the God of the resurrection of Jesus Christ” can bring about. But, in view of that fact, authentic Christianity is anything but otherworldly. Instead, Christian hope for the future makes all the difference to the present, because that hope “draws the believer into the life of love.”[11]

For Mother Teresa, the life of transfigurative love was defined by closeness to the heart of God. And she perceived that heart as aching on the behalf of those living in despair at society’s margins. “There are convents with numbers of nuns caring for the rich and able to do people,” she heard Christ saying to her—“but for My very poor there is absolutely none. For them I long—them I love.[12] Drawing close to God meant sharing in that longing.

Mother Teresa thus engaged in acts of service aimed (as she explained them) to treat the people of the slums with “dignity,” to offer them “relief” from their suffering, to “bring joy to [their] lives.”[13]

Certainly, she understood the trajectory of those acts as stretching beyond this world. She hoped that the persons who experienced this dignity, relief, and joy would fall in love with God, thereby experiencing the blessedness of heaven: fragmentarily in this life, and fully in the resurrected life to come.

Mother Teresa did understand her acts of service as a means to an end, then. But one could argue that the marked distinction between her work’s “transcendent” endpoint and that of a mercenary missionary is that the latter envisions this world as a disposable stage for ascent to the otherworldly and infinite. For Mother Teresa, the whole point is for this world to perceive itself as infinitely wanted by God.

 

[1] Mother M. Teresa, M.C., to Father Joseph Neuner, S. J., March 6, 1962.

[2] Quoted in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2007), 174.

[3] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1979/press.html

[4] Quoted in Kolodiejchuk, 49.

[5] Ibid., 147.

[6] Ibid., 154.

[7] She has been critiqued along these lines by a number of people, including English journalist Christopher Hitchens. You can read about his arguments in the following article: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-debate-over-sainthood/

[8] Sara Maitland, “Passionate Prayer: Masochistic Images in Women’s Experience” in L. Hurcombe (ed.), Sex and God: Some Varieties of Women’s Religious Experience (Longdon, 1987), 127. In this passage, Maitland is considering Rose of Lima, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and Maria Goretti.

[9] Quoted in Kolodiejchuk, 33.

[10] Mother Teresa of Calcutta, A Simple Path (London: Ebury Publishing, 1995), 83.

[11] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Grounds and Implications of a Christian Eschatology, trans. by James W. Leitch (London: SCM Press; New York: Harper & Row, 1968). 32, 36.

[12] Quoted in Kolodiejchuk, 49.

[13] Ibid., 44.

Cover Photo: © 1986 Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 1986 /

 

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Lauren Smelser White

Nashville, TN

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