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Sep 06, 2007 at 12:07pm IST

Crisis of faith: Mother Teresa more human than saint?

Wednesday was the 10th death anniversary of Mother Teresa, eulogised across the world by many sobriquets like “the saint of the gutter” and “the messiah of love” for the poorest of the poor.

Yet she has some fierce critics, who call her a fanatic, a fundamentalist and even a fraud. Some call her God's divine light, while others say that she was anti-woman and anti-poor.

Adding to the furious debate on spirituality is a new book containing her letters, where she has written of her 60-year-long "crisis of faith." "In my soul…" she writes, " I can't tell you how dark it is. How painful, how terrible, I feel like refusing god."

Was Mother Teresa more human than saint?

On CNN-IBN show Face the Nation Rukmini Chawla Author of Life of Mother Teresa and Director, Intervention For Support Healing & Awareness Jasjit Purewal discussed the issue with Sagarika Ghose.

Was Mother Teresa more human than saint?

Mother Teresa brought hope to the hopeless for years, year after year, and day after painful day. But there is criticism that there is no proper medical treatment or systematic diagnosis in Mother Teresa's homes and that suffering is seen as a gift of god.

It is said Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor, but a friend of poverty. She loved the poor and the sick because they were the image of God and she kept them that way. She kept them poor and sick.

“It’s for the first time that I’m hearing such an interpretation. I think the reality was very different. She did see Jesus in every poor person that she saw or nursed,” said Rukmini Chawla Author, Life of Mother Teresa as she responded to the claims.

Mother Teresa did something that no one was doing at that time. She reached out to the poorest of the poor, healed the destitute, the lepers. But what was her attitude to the modern women?

Her critics say that Mother Teresa was opposed to birth control and abortion. She faced strong criticism for her views on divorce.

“I think what Teresa did was, she set a vertical limit. Within the ecclesiastical system and the church, I don’t think there has been anybody like her. The Church was forced to look at this tiny woman who came from Albania to a foreign land, went and embraced the poorest of poor against all odds,” said Jasjit Purewal, Director, Intervention For Support Healing & Awareness.


Teresa set up institutions like the missionaries of charity, which became a worldwide example of compassion and perseverance. “People of all kinds gravitated to her. Decades after her death, we are now dealing with a whole new issue of her journals, bringing about the struggle of the seeker within her,” said Jasjit Purewal.

“I really don’t think we can box her in terms of her responses to abortion, divorce etc because somewhere she was also functioning within a catholic church. What’s truly remarkable is that within that she had the spirit of a totally independent woman. She was able to write journos, which questioned her faith, her understanding of God,” she added.

“He role as a mystic and as a woman mystic has been tremendous in this century and that makes her a very unique icon for women,” she added.

At the end of the day Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun. That was her identity. She did not try to please people about what she was.

“Mother Teresa did not make any pretensions. But she was also very clear that whosoever comes in her path, she reaches out to him irrespective of his religious inclination. Whoever she nurtured, was never asked to follow her religion of beliefs. She never tried to convert anyone,” said Rukmini Chawla.

“She reached out to help people, give them whatever she could with her limited resources. What was not limited for her was her compassion to wards others,” she added.

Her worst critics called her a fraud

Mother teresa's critics have also questioned the source of her funding. Among them were - the right-wing dictator of Haiti, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Charles Keating, who stole S$252 million in the 80s Savings and Loan scandal, and British publisher Robert Maxwell, who embezzled UK£450 million from his employees' pension funds.

Was Mother Teresa at all affected by the religion of the land in which she worked? Did her theological interactions with the Rama Krishna Mission or with other missionaries affect her at all?

“I don’t think Teresa was affected by any given belief or religion. She had an identity of her own and she kept it till the end,” said Rukmini Chawla.


Christopher Hitchens described Mother Teresa as a fanatic. Hitchens called Mother Teresa a fundamentalist and a fraud. Her critics even questioned the source of her funding.

Details of Mother Teresa's letters have been published in a new book called 'Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light'. Letters written by her reveal she sometimes doubted God. Letters reveal she suffered from a deep crisis of faith.

Letters show she underwent decades of spiritual depression. Letters reveal she felt God's absence in her life & work

Mother teresa is one of india's icons of goodness. But there are those who believe that her opposition to abortion and divorce was reactionary. That she was an ultra orthodox catholic who simply upheld the teachings of the Catholic Church. Perhaps her defence is best said in her own words that every human being born or unborn was Jesus.

It is also said that Mother Teresa propagated miracles. Her worst critics went on to the length of calling her a quack medicine woman who fleeced India’s poor.

“People like Mother Teresa and other great visionaries go beyond human limits. They transcend human endeavour and she did it in the most extraordinary ways,” said Jasjit Purewal.

“How would she respond to all this criticism? I think she would just smile because it is expected. In our modern day where self-centeredness and instant gratification is so intense, somebody like her is so mystifying. And when someone is mystifying in their selflessness, we have to find something to sling them with,” she added.

People who could not understand her, were baffled by her and tried hard to bring her down to the human level.

A book on Mother Teresa’s life shows that the absence of faith was somewhat a painful secret that she shared with herself. She said, “I’m told God loves me. And yet the reality of darkness is in front of me. There is coldness, emptiness which is not touching my soul.”

These conflicts within her, do they enhance her appeal? Make her much more real as if she was one of us?

“A crisis of faith, if that’s what she was going through is not an end of faith. That was her journey. Whether we interpret it as her being more human or closer to us in terms of going though crisis of faith, is a very personal opinion,” said Chawla.

“It does makes her more real in a certain sense but then, she never pretended to be anything else,” she added.

Mother Teresa, as its known from her life and times, never tried to pose herself as a saint. She was always very humble and in her own words had desired to be the “pencil in the hands of the lord.”

There also lies a very philosophical point: where does the God exist? Does God exist in perfection or does He exist in conflict? So even where there is crisis of faith. Perhaps that too is God.

There are other comments on Mother Teresa’s life that say, she was not a saint but a celebrity. Did the mass media like her? Did she appeal to the Western notion of guilt, that here was a western woman working among the ‘dark’ people of Kolkata.

“Mother Teresa was not really interested in what the media made out of her. In fact when she was made a public figure, it distressed her. She was content in her work and did not even have the time to think about what people were saying about her,” said Chawla.

On being asked their opinion whether Mother Teresa was a saint or a celebrity, Jasjit Purewal said, “I can’t put her in either of the two categories.”

“Even in her letters where she has said, ‘if I were to be calked a saint, I would be called a saint of darkness’, it shows that here was a woman who was struggling with her own spiritual conflict still managed to achieve so much for humanity,” concluded Jasjeet Purewal.

Final Verdict: Was Mother Teresa more human than saint?

67 per cent said yes

33 per cent said no.

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