What makes St Teresa of Calcutta an un-convent-ional subject?

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“Teresa went to India to serve Jesus by assisting the poor, a decision which, by her own admission, was undertaken primarily ‘for the sake of her soul’.”


I am often asked what sustains my research interest in Mother Teresa (née Gonxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu) over the last two decades. This issue is tackled in all my publications on the Albanian-born nun including the recently published monograph Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation by Bloomsbury Academic where I concentrate on some key moments in her missionary life and legacy. Revisiting Teresa’s departure from the Loreto order at the age of thirty-seven, for instance, in this work I contend that this decision illustrates what Carl Jung calls the ‘individuation’ stage. Careers experts refer to this juncture as a ‘mid-life transition’ attempt to explore a clearer and fuller identity in pursuit of one’s aims thus acquiring a new ‘level of awareness, meaning and understanding’.

In 1928, at the age of eighteen, Mother Teresa left her native Skopje, the capital of present-day North Macedonia, for far-flung Calcutta determined to fulfil her vocation. Her calling emanated from bereavement. In the wake of her father’s unexpected demise in 1919, when she was nine years old, and the deaths of eight close relatives the following year from the Spanish flu (1918-1920), Teresa grew increasingly attached to Jesus who became an omniscient surrogate paternal authority to her. The mourning also triggered her lifelong dark night of the soul. Teresa went to India to serve Jesus by assisting the poor, a decision which, by her own admission, was undertaken primarily ‘for the sake of her soul’.

Idealistic Mother Teresa made two early painful realisations at Loreto. The first was that she had joined the order under false expectations. Contrary to the vision of its two founding figures – Mary Ward and Frances Teresa Ball – Loreto’s main charism in India was not assisting the poor but providing education for privileged girls.

The second recognition was that far from being a great leveller, in real life, like other faiths, Christianity is incapable of putting an end to divisions. In those years, institutionalised racism was rife at some Christian convents and missionary-run institutions in India. Victims of such ongoing discriminatory attitudes and practices included natives affiliated in various capacities to missionary orders and ‘outsiders’ within. Mother Teresa belonged to the latter category.

Mother Teresa’s personal writings reveal that she was discriminated against at Loreto because of her ‘different’ education and ‘improper’ English accent. More importantly, throughout the-twenty-year-affiliation with this order, she was not considered ‘European enough’. The Irish Loreta superiors who mistreated Mother Teresa were unaware that far from being an ‘alien’, she hailed from an ancient nation that had provided the Christian faith with a home during the apostolic stage.

In my new book, I argue that Mother Teresa’s treatment at the hands of some Loreto superiors amounted to what, from today’s perspective, could well be interpreted as sustained malicious harassment, bullying and victimisation in employment. This is what they did to break this ‘rebellious’ nun during her last two years at Loreto. Her private correspondence was constantly examined. She was called ‘a mad woman’ who ‘was cracked’. They compared her and attributed her work to the devil. Her ‘queer ideas’ were considered ‘a great danger’ to the Loreto nuns. They even accused her of having ‘an unhealthy relationship’, a euphemism for a sexual affair, with one of her spiritual directors. The slander was used as a pretext to banish her one hundred and forty miles away from Calcutta to the Loreto community in Asansol, a decision reversed following the intervention of key figures in the Loreto order in Dublin and the Church in Calcutta.

That Mother Teresa started a new religious order, ‘financed’ by charitable donations, to implement her vision – taking Jesus out of the walls of the Loreto convent and into the slums of Calcutta – at a time when the Vatican was closing down religious orders was courageous. That she was able to be heard within the confines of an organisation that, irrespective of some signs of progressive reforms, remains still inherently patriarchal, is almost miraculous. That she never gave up on the poor despite her incurable spiritual darkness, makes her a worthy Doctor of the Church. This is the focus of one of my works in progress about St Teresa of Calcutta.

Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation is published by Bloomsbury Academic worldwide on 31 July 2020, available in eBook and hardback (UK/India).