Mother Teresa has inspired millions to acts
of sacrifice or service, much as she inspired you. But even as
the Catholic Church moves toward making her a saint, others are
saying she was a fraud. Your book suggests something more
One of the reasons I wrote An
Unquenchable Thirst was that none of the images of Mother
Teresa in the media corresponded with the person I knew.
The mainstream media created an
image of Mother Teresa that reflected our desire for a perfect
mother more than it reflected who Mother Teresa really was. On
the other hand, those who called her a fraud often seemed
determined to discredit her because they want to discredit
I very much admire the fact that
Christopher Hitchens, who had been one of Mother Teresaís most
adamant critics, eventually revised his
assessment of her.
The Mother Teresa I knew was a
remarkably dedicated, self-sacrificing person, but not one of
the wisest women Iíve known.
Both empowered and shackled by
religious faith, Mother Teresa was generous and unreasonable,
cheerful and never content, one of the worldís most recognized
women and one of its loneliest and most secretive.
As a postulant in the Missionaries of
Charity, one of your superiors, Sister Dolorosa, told you,
"Mother always says, love, to be real, has to hurt." Did you
In the beginning of my life as a
sister, I tried my best to believe what I was told, including
that the greatest sign of love was Jesusí sacrifice on the
Iíd never known the sort of mutual
love in which two people rejoice in each other, strengthen each
other, enjoy each other. I do believe that true love is willing
to suffer for the beloved when necessary, but I donít believe
that suffering is the truest or best sign of love.
I certainly now reject the notion
that love demands the immolation of self for the beloved, though
thatís something Mother Teresa seemed to believe all her life.
During your time with the sisters, you gave
up all possessions - your hair, which had to be shorn every
month, an audiotape sent by your parents, even photographs. How
does this relate to the fusion of love and pain?
The Missionaries of Charity set out
to live like the poor they serve.
We each had two sets of clothes,
which weíd wash by hand every day in buckets. We are rotting
vegetables and stale bread that weíd begged from wholesale
grocers. We slept in common dormitories, without any privacy, on
thin mattresses weíd made ourselves. Living poorly day by day
convinces you that life is hard.
For a Missionary of Charity, ideal
love was self-sacrificing, even to the practice of corporal
Your first session of self-flagellation is
imprinted in my mind: "My knees shook. I took the bunch of
knotted cords into my hands. From Sister Jeanneís stall, I heard
the beating sounds, one, two, three... I swung harder. The skin
of my lower thighs turned red, then red with white streaks as I
When I took that rope whip into my
hands, I was scared, I was excited, I hoped that I was on my way
to conquering my selfishness and becoming a holy person.
When you visit the homes and shrines
of various saints, you often see hair shirts or whips or spiked
chains on display. This is a religion in which nearly every
house of worship, classroom, and private home has as its most
prominent feature the image of a bloodied, tortured man. We were
taught that wearing spiked chains and beating ourselves allowed
us to share in his work of redemption.
I know it doesnít make much sense
when you say it just like that, but within that entire system it
had its own weird logic.
Mother Teresaís death, the public learned of
her struggles with anguishing doubt. You quote the words of a
priest who comforted her with words that glorified her pain:
"Your darkness is the divine gift of union with Jesus in his
suffering. Your pain brings you close to your Crucified Spouse,
and is the way you share His mission of redemption. There is no
higher union with God."
I often wish that Mother Teresa had
found someone who would have encouraged her to look at her
doubts honestly, to examine them, to confront them.
But instead of finding someone who
encouraged her to think for herself, she found Father Joseph Neuner, SJ, who spun Mother Teresaís doubts in such a way that
the doubts themselves were deemed a sign of her holiness. I
believe that the anti-intellectual bias of the Missionaries of
Charity can be traced to the day that Mother Teresa was told
that the content of her doubts was something she ought never
We all tell ourselves stories that
help us cope; wisdom looks at those stories and knows how to
distinguish the true stories from the coping mechanisms.
Mother Teresa swallowed the stories
Help us to understand the theology under this
Ah, Valerie, theology is a story
that seeks to explain things.
the Catholic Church, official
theology is determined by the hierarchy, who have a vested
interest in keeping things as they are.
When Mother Teresa admitted to the
priests and bishops who were her spiritual directors that she
was tormented by feelings of distance from God and by doubts in
Godís existence, these priests and bishops didnít want to
encourage real questioning; they probably didnít even give
themselves permission to question deeply.
Unquestioning faith enables the
system to continue undisturbed. Official theology often serves
In this particular case, Father
Neuner taught Mother Teresa to reframe doubt as a sign that she
had drawn so close to God that she shared the agony of Jesus,
who cried from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken
me?" Mother Teresaís doubts did not therefore require
examination, but a greater, unquestioning faith.
The adoption of such a dogmatic
stance proscribed any questioning of the Churchís teachings,
including those that caused such suffering to those Mother
Teresa served - like prohibitions against birth control and the
effective relegation of women to second-rate status in the
When these priests convinced Mother
Teresa never to question, they were molding her into one of the
most outspoken proponents of official Church teaching.
The same thing happens on a smaller
scale whenever a member of the faithful is taught that reason
must be subjugated to belief.
Because of her opposition to contraception
and her seeming disinterest in modern medicine, some have called
Mother Teresa a friend of poverty rather than a friend of the
poor. How do you see that?
Most people today would say that we
help the poor by helping them out of poverty.
That was never Mother Teresaís
intention. Mother Teresa often told us that as Missionaries of
Charity we did not serve the poor to improve their lot, but
because we were serving Jesus, who said that whenever service
was rendered to one of the least, it was rendered to him. Jesus
promised eternal life to those who fed the hungry and clothed
Mother Teresa was undeniably
interested in reserving a really good spot for herself behind
the pearly gates.
I remember once when we were having
dinner and a sister was serving water for the other sisters.
Mother Teresa stopped the table conversation to point to that
sister and tell us, "Jesus knows how many glasses of
water youíve served to the poor. Heís counting. When you get to
heaven, he will know."
I do believe that Mother Teresa had
a great deal of compassion for the poor, but itís hard to deny
that she was more interested in improving everyoneís lot in the
next life than in this one.
The enthusiasm for Mother Teresaís life and
work doesnít seem to jibe with the conditions in her homes for
the sick and dying. My husband and I support relief agencies
like Oxfam, PATH, Water
1st and Engender
Health, and like many secular donors we take time each year
to make sure they are making smart use of appropriate science
and technology. Why donít supporters hold the Missionaries of
Supporters of the Missionaries of
Charity are often theologically similar to the sisters,
interested not so much in the (to their minds) short-term goal
of helping the poor as in the long-term goal of getting everyone
Itís a little bit like certain
evangelical Christians who look forward to nuclear holocaust in
the Middle East because they believe devastating war will herald
the end of the world and the union of all the good with God.
Toward the end of your book, you say, "So
much depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and on the
questions we ask, or fail to ask." The words are a comment on
Mother Teresa and her response to doubt, but I canít help but
think they also are a comment on your own journey.
Iíve learned that every question is
worth asking, even when answers elude us. Iíve learned that the
stories we tell can help us live more firmly in reality or they
can create an alternate reality that causes us to relate to the
world in a distorted way.
When I allowed myself to question
the stories that Iíd been told, I could finally begin to live in
the real world, and I canít tell you how liberating that felt,
how freeing, how wonderful.
Faith teaches you all the answers;
it doesnít tell you that those answers may be wrong. I prefer to
live with the questions, and with stories that mirror the world
as I experience it rather than as Iíd like it to be.
I wrote An
Unquenchable Thirst in hopes that if I were honest
about the story of my life, then I could perhaps encourage
others to be honest about their lives as well.