Chipping away at Mother Teresa

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 October, 1997, 12:00am

Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image by Anne Sebba Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $250 Two of the world's most cherished 'icons' died five days apart this summer - Diana, the Princess of Wales, and Mother Teresa. Any icon is liable to shatter under rough handling: some, like the princess, are susceptible even to scrutiny.

Teresa the religious icon would seem to have been less fragile. At the age of 87 she had several layers of protection Diana lacked: a lifetime of good works, a Nobel Peace Prize and, best of all, the claim of divine sanction ('I am the pencil of God,' she would say) - a potent bulwark even in this age of scepticism.

So the first point to be made about Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image - - the first biography of the Missionaries of Charity founder to appear in Hong Kong since her death - is that it may be the last thing those who believe she was a living saint, or even just a good person, will be wanting: a critical analysis.

Anne Sebba has taken Mother Teresa off her pedestal and dusted her down to reveal the face of an obsessive, domineering dogmatist who appropriated to herself a monopoly of wisdom about how the destitute and dying could best be helped.

This is not what journalists call a 'hatchet job', more the death of a thousand cuts as Sebba chips away at the icon.

It is not as sensational as Christopher Hitchens' work The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice published in 1995 by Verso Books and to which Sebba refers, along with other critical reports about her.

Hitchens' reports of Mother Teresa's alleged friendship with the former Haitian dictatorship, acceptance of dubious money and lack of good medical facilities despite her having collected millions in donations caused controversy at the time.

But neither is it the joyous hagiography of an 'authorised' biography, or the homely homily to the nun's own wisdom, Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living With Mother Teresa (Viking, $200), that is currently on the shelves.

To be fair, the timing of this solidly researched account of her life and mission does not appear to have been held back to capitalise on posthumous interest in her. Had it been, one would have expected descriptive passages on her state funeral; the fact of her death is recorded in a single line.

But it is harder to take on faith the dust-jacket claim that Sebba's appraisal of Agnes Bojaxhiu's progression from shy girl to superstar is 'unbiased' when it emerges that an earlier book of hers incurred Teresa's disapproval.

Born in 1910 to an Albanian nationalist activist who appears to have been poisoned after a political meeting while she was still a girl, young Agnes, with impressive purposefulness for her age, decided at 18 to join an Irish religious order and, as soon as she was ready, set sail for India.

She taught at an exclusive girls' school in Bengal from 1929 until 1946 and might have gone on doing so until retirement, except for her moment of epiphany on a train journey to Darjeeling the year before India gained independence. Then she received what she would later term her 'call within a call' to leave the teaching order and go directly to the succour of those who spent their lives, and met their deaths, on the streets of Calcutta.

But what are Sebba's main criticisms? Teresa was political, intolerant, would not hold her actions accountable to human agencies, glorified poverty, sanctified death, froze out others who dedicated their lives to doing good, and failed to groom a successor.

On reviewing the list, two things stand out. The most convincing attacks were those that reflected poorly on other members - 4,000 at her death - of Teresa's order. The refusal by a sister in Jamaica to let a dying elderly couple sleep in the same room is obviously reprehensible. Ex-volunteers reel off a catalogue of equally clear cases of callousness.

Secondly, it is intellectually slipshod to scorn her for acting like a politician and then criticise her for not looking after the question of a successor, an art that requires an essentially political calculation.

More compelling is the accusation that she shunned the use of analgesics, and regarded suffering as always ennobling. But even here there is counter-evidence: Teresa is reported as having sat in a pharmacy all day repeating her rosary until she obtained medicines. Surely that was not just to prove her stubbornness? That stubbornness doubtlessly had a darker side. Mother Teresa comes across as an inflexible authoritarian. Her insistence on obedience may have come from another era, but it was nurtured by the fact that, after 1948, most of her missionaries were former pupils from her days as a teacher in India's Loreto Convent schools.

As a critique, Sebba's offering is comprehensive, if somewhat churlish. Its credibility was weakened for me by niggling editing errors, such as calling Hong Kong a country, but much more by silly statements such as 'her drive and determination lay dormant during her first 40 years'. Don't tell me it took neither quality for an East European teenager in the 1920s to leave her family for a distant calling half a world away.

At that time no one, including her, could have foreseen the time when she would become a global celebrity, largely through the work of a famous journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, in publicising her work in the West, in a book of praise entitled Something Beautiful for God.

Sebba's strongest argument is that Mother Teresa came to relish her cult status at the expense of those she had vowed to help in God's name.

But to accuse her, as Sebba does, of hypocrisy for stumbling into controversy over the caste question seems a little lacking in charity to a woman of 85.

In taking on the suffering world, no doubt Mother Teresa raised impossible expectations. Perhaps her biggest 'sin' (if we must cast stones) was that she became too successful.