Mother Teresa and the dark side of goodness

Face of Mother Teresa
Photo by Papa Lazarou

So Mother Teresa has finally become a saint.

In the matter of Mother Teresa as an exemplar of whether religion is Good or Bad, I’m neither for nor against, and certainly wouldn’t go along with Christopher Hitchens’ condemnation of her as ‘a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud’. It’s a view which, as part of an atheist critique of organised religion as oppressive and irrational, loses sight of a rather interesting human being and ignores some important questions about the nature of altruism.

Leaving aside the potentially fraught question of how canonization is achieved in the Catholic Church, saints are interesting. I’ve seen how, in countries which really ‘do’ saints, they can function as a human locus for spiritual meaning: the drama of a saint-based festival in a Spanish village involving the whole community in dancing and parades; the way a mountain-top shrine in Lebanon becomes the recipient of the hopes and griefs of people from miles around.

Even in secular, post-Protestant Britain, saints live quietly on, reminding us through the names they’ve given to churches and hospitals of the needs of certain groups of people. And, as exemplars or intercessors, saints have parallels in other traditions, in the bodhisattvas of Buddhism or the wali of Sufism.

The more worthwhile controversy surrounding Mother Teresa, in my view, raises a more interesting issue to do with the psychology of goodness. Testimony from a former nun in her order and investigative work by a journalist and an Indian medic reveal the horrors bound up with the good deeds: the harsh conditions that prevailed in the orphanages, for both patients and nuns, despite the millions of dollars in the charity’s bank accounts donated by those who wanted to help alleviate suffering. Mother Teresa, her critics concluded, was in thrall to a ‘cult of suffering’.

From Mother Teresa’s point of view, all this suffering was in the ultimate good name – that of Jesus. In the name of Jesus, she suffered, and encouraged her followers to do so too. But a good psychoanalyst wouldn’t take this kind of theological justification at face value. S/he might point to, for example, the denial involved in imposing unnecessary suffering on others, and ask questions about the feelings and repressed energy that drove such obsessiveness. Taking a further, sociological step, s/he might also question the kind of idealized view that the mainstream west has of Mother Teresa, asking why we as a society tend to think of public figures in black-and-white terms, as either entirely good or entirely bad.

Personally, I also wonder whether this tendency to split the world into good and evil is fostered by Christianity and its legacy. Pagan traditions, by contrast, are much better at acknowledging the dark side in life and all of us; in modern terms, they’re more psychologically realistic.

Incidentally, when I wrote briefly in The Secret Life of God about about the spiritual doubt expressed in Mother Teresa’s diary, I unwittingly came up against the dark, controlling side of the Catholic establishment to which the Hitchens critique refers.

The context – you’ll need to bear with some technicalities to do with copyright law here – was that I wanted to quote a paragraph from Come Be My Light and wrote to the Mother Teresa Center seeking permission. Now, I was almost certainly being over-zealous here: as a friend with copyright expertise reminded me, citing a short passage from a long work of prose comes under ‘fair use’, and no permission is required. But the request had gone in, and the answer came back: permission was conditional on Mother Teresa being ‘accurately represented’ in my book, and the MTC wanted to see the whole chapter in which the citation would appear. Without it, permission was withheld. ‘God bless you,’ the email concluded.

Obviously, no journalist worth her laptop would allow her writing to be censored in this way, so – on the offchance that the citation might, in a copyright case, be subject to the more stringent rules governing the use of poetry or song lyrics, I took the simple expedient of deleting it from my manuscript and paraphrasing its sense.

But I was left with mixed feelings about the body which represents the work of the now-Saint Mother Teresa. One of them was surprise that they’d managed to confuse copyright – which simply protects a creator’s rights to credit and remuneration for their work – with potential defamation. It was supplemented by a feeling of wry amusement at the hopeless hubris of seeking to control how a person is perceived in the world – whether it’s a boss trying to ban gossip among the workforce or a government to quash dissent, it never fully works. Bless them.