Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: "Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light."

In keeping with my recent theme of theology, I finally got around to reading a book I bought after reading a Time article on it last summer. Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, compiled and edited by Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, follows Mother Teresa's private letters that reveal a spiritual struggle few knew about during her lifetime--a feeling of isolation from God, of a constant spiritual "darkness," and a tug-of-war between faith and doubt.

What initially drew me to the book was the idea of faith in the face of adversity--Mother Teresa is the posterchild of a "good" Catholic and since her death in 1997 has been beatified, the first step towards becoming canonized as a saint. Despite her "saintliness," however, she struggled with doubts, mired in what some call the Passion of Christ--that moment on the cross when Christ cried, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" She felt abandoned by God, undeserving and unloved, and she still managed to live her entire life for the poor, the sick, and the dying. That kind of faith is staggering to the average American agnostic (a.k.a. me).

The book has been hailed by the religious community as an example of true faith to bolster the masses who also might have moments of doubt:

"[Rev. James] Martin of [the Jesuit magazine] America, a much more liberal institution, calls the book 'a new ministry for Mother Teresa, a written ministry of her interior life,' and says, 'It may be remembered as just as important as her ministry to the poor. It would be a ministry to people who had experienced some doubt, some absence of God in their lives. And you know who that is? Everybody. Atheists, doubters, seekers, believers, everyone.'" [1]
The atheist community has, of course, a different take on the book that I'm not entirely interested in discussing because it's so very simplistic--Mother Teresa didn't feel God's love because there is no God to be felt. (Slightly off-topic, I'm coming to believe that atheism is an easy out; cold hard facts are easy to believe in. Faith, on the other hand, is and should be difficult--hence my attraction to this book.)

The letters themselves are beautiful and fascinating. Though she was Albanian by birth, most of the later letters are written in English and have an almost-poetic feel to them, emphasized by her habitual use of a dash as punctuation which often serves to create a rhythmic flow. Read this excerpt and tell me it's not lush:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
It's an incredibly moving passage, as are many of the letters. I got chills more than once, imagining the pain she was feeling while showing a cheery face to the rest of the world.

Had the book simply been the letters to and from Mother Teresa, I would have no complaints regarding it. No, my problem with the book arises from the editing--or lack thereof. To give Rev. Kolodiejchuk his due, he obviously views Mother Teresa with inimitable respect, serving as he does as a member of her mission. That said, I'm not entirely sure that this is sufficient explanation for the complete lack of critical attention he pays to her letters. He assumes that her letters are 100% true and do not conceal any kind of interior thoughts--he does not read between the lines and usually goes so far as to assume that there is no between the lines. This, of course, is aggravating for a someone who occasionally likes to read books with an eye toward psychological criticism. There are three basic questions associated with this particular method of literary criticism:
One: How are the author’s psychological conflicts revealed in his or her work?
Two: What is an in-depth analysis of the characters if they were real people?
Three: What is the appeal of the work to the readers in relation to their own ability to work out hidden desires and fears? [2]
In my opinion, a posthumous biography that does not dip below the surface of the text and therefore asks none of these questions is a failure. For example, when Mother Teresa is petitioning her spiritual advisors to write to Rome about the Mission of Charity she wants to start, they respond by advising her to forget about the issue until an answer comes from Rome. Instead of obeying those whom she views as God's representatives on earth, however, she chooses to pepper them with letter after letter urging them to try to hurry the decision through to the Pope, despite the fact that neither of her advisors has any real say in whether or not the issue passes. Kolodiejchuk lauds this as an exhibition of her fervor for the cause, while I view it as impatience and general desire for immediate gratification--both of which are unflattering traits for a nun to possess. This is not a bad thing, however--Mother Teresa was human, as are we all, and to expect perfection is unreasonable. To portray her as perfect is an oversight on the part of the editor.

As I read the book, I found myself becoming more and more annoyed with Kolodiejchuk's "commentary," which basically re-states what the letters themselves say, though they occasionally provide historical context. There is absolutely nothing "critical" in his approach to the letters and therefore very little of interest in the majority of the book, which I feel is a disservice to Mother Teresa's very human struggle with faith. While I enjoyed the letters, I cannot in all honesty recommend this book unless it is to someone who wants to read below the surface of the text and draw his or her own conclusions.

Works Cited:

[1] Van Biema, David. "Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith." Time. 23 August 2007.,8599,1655415-1,00.html

[2] A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms. Ed. Edward Quinn. Facts on File, Inc. New York: 1999, page 263. Accessed at


Anonymous said...

Huh... She depresses me.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

The whole concept of the strength of her faith is absolutely mind-boggling to me.

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