Mother Theresa: Her Journey to Your Heart
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Date: 5 December, 2003
Reviewed by Steve Tomkins
It seemed inevitable that when Mother Theresa died, the world would stop what it was doing and doff its cap. For days, the media would be full of it (and not just in the usual sense that the media is 'full of it') - tributes and testimonies, biogs and obits, pictures and footage, world leaders and religious celebs saluting the saint of the century.
Nothing short of an unexpected global nuclear war could prevent it - except for one thing: dying within days of Princess Diana.
In a way, it seemed outrageous that her passing should be so overlooked, the supersaint overshadowed by the pseudosaint. But then such an untrumpeted exit is so exactly what Mother Theresa would have chosen you could almost think she did choose it.
The portrait of Mother Theresa that emerges from this biography by a close friend is not just of a self-effacing woman, but of one who threw herself into the most utter poverty and hardship, not just to serve the people of India but to suffer alongside them. 'It made it easier for [her and her nuns] to know love and serve the poor better.'
It also shows a surprisingly liberal side to her, considering that she was by all accounts a fiercely conservative Catholic, encouraging Hindus and Muslims to pray in their own way, and providing the rituals that they might die according to their own traditions.
The book tells the story of her fervently religious upbringing in Yugoslavia, her calling to be a nun, and her 'call within a call' to devote herself to the poor of India - to see every despised leper and dying beggar as her beloved Jesus and to treat them accordingly. It tells of her struggles to establish the first hospice, and how her little movement grew into a worldwide empire - though that's not a word Mother Theresa or Mr Mundakel would use.
And here we run into the problem of the book: it is written so completely in praise of Mother Theresa, and so completely accepting her own point of view, that it is completely two-dimensional.
One niggling way in which this is manifest is a tendency to sidestep the usual laws of cause and effect. For example, when Mother Theresa asks one Father Van Exem to become her spiritual father, he says that he does not want to. 'Nevertheless,' we are told, 'the impossible became possible when God wanted it,' leaving us asking 'But how, precisely?'
More seriously, the book is so relentlessly positive and adulatory that its portrait is entirely in shades of white, and that goes for all Mother Theresa's associates too. The only people in the book in whom we see any failing or weakness at all are her Communist and Hindu opponents and others who stood in her way.
Mother Theresa and her nuns are always full of joy and peace and perfect faith. A life of servitude and squalor, on starvation rations, surrounded by death and desolation, is a constant source of unalloyed happiness for all of them. 'None of them ever complained,' we are told. 'There is immense joy in suffering for Jesus. It is this joy that makes the sisters perpetually happy.'
Writers of religious biography, including myself, are usually quick to assure potential readers that their book is 'not hagiography', meaning that it is a warts-and-all account of a flesh and blood person. Blessed Mother Theresa is hagiography all the way. It's not that I wanted to read a shocking exposé of corruption and cruelty, just a story about human beings. Just the truth.
Similarly, Munkadel is entirely uncritical of Mother Theresa. Of course, one hardly expects a friend and admirer to deliver a blistering indictment of everything she did and stood for, but you would expect the writer of a serious biography to engage with some of the serious criticisms made of her.
For example, Mother Theresa has been accused in Christopher Hitchens's book The Missionary Position, of soliciting hundreds of millions of pounds, only a small proportion of which has been spent on the poor: 'the rest has simply been used for the greater glory of her order and the building of dogmatic, religious institutions'. See here for more on this.
She is also accused of taking large sums from known crooked financiers and supporting dictators. One would hope for a biography to rebut such claims - or concede them - but not to ignore them.
Mother Theresa: Her journey into your heart