Mother Teresa, the famous nun who tended the poor and sick in Kolkata, was born 100 years ago today. She was not known as a diarist but, in 2002, five years after her death, an Italian author published a book with previously unknown diary and letter texts. This material caused media stories round the world because it revealed that Mother Teresa - a symbol of religious belief and the good that can come of it - had had crises of faith!
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born, of Albanian descent, in Macedonia on 26 August 1910. She is said to have heard the call of God strongly from the age of 12; and, at 18, she joined the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns. After training for a few months in Dublin, she was sent to India where, in 1931, she took her initial vows as a nun. From then until 1948 she taught at St Mary’s High School in (what was then known as) Calcutta.
Thereafter, having been given permission to leave the convent school, she devoted herself to working in the slums of Calcutta where she began an open-air school. She soon attracted voluntary helpers and financial support, and in late 1950 received Holy See authority to start her own order, The Missionaries of Charity. Over the coming years, the order launched hospices, orphanages and leper houses all over India, and then in many countries around the world.
By the early 1970s, Mother Teresa had become something of an international celebrity, and the Catholic church began to honour her. Pope Paul VI awarded her the first Pope John XXIII Peace Prize, commending her work with the poor, as well as her displays of Christian charity and efforts for peace. Other, international and secular awards followed (including many honorary degrees), not least the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.
By 1996, the humble order started by Mother Teresa less than 50 years earlier was operating over 500 missions in more than 100 countries. But her own health had been poor for some years, having had two heart attacks, pneumonia and malaria. She stepped down as head of Missionaries of Charity in March 1997, and died later the same year. The Catholic Church moved quickly to begin a process of beatification and, in 2003, bestowed on her the title ‘Blessed’. Further steps are being taken towards making her a saint.
Mother Teresa, however, was not universally praised in her later years, with some researchers and commentators finding significant fault in the way her order operated, financially and with regard to neglect and even abuse in some of her orphanages. There is no shortage of biographical information on the internet about Mother Teresa - Wikipedia has a very well referenced biography; a briefer one can be found at the Nobel Prize website; and there’s lots of information at the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center.
There appear to be no diaries published in English written by Mother Teresa, but there is some evidence that she did keep a diary sometimes. Kathryn Spink, in her Mother Teresa: A Complete Authorized Biography, published by HarperCollins in 1997, quotes some diary texts. Wikipedia reproduces one of these:
‘Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then the comfort of Loreto came to tempt me. ‘You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again,’ the Tempter kept on saying . . . Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come.’
Then, in 2001, according to Catholic News, several of Mother Teresa’s letters and diary entries which had been collected by Roman Catholic authorities in Calcutta were published in the Journal of Theological Reflection of the Jesuit-run Vidyajyoti School of Theology in New Delhi. These revealed that she had written in a 1959-1960 spiritual diary, ‘In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.’
In 2002, it was announced that some her letters and diaries would be published in an Italian book Il Segreto di Madre Teresa (Mother Teresa’s Secret) by Gaeta Saverio. This led to media articles round the world. The BBC, for example, noted that the secret letters and diaries showed Mother Teresa ‘was haunted by religious doubt’. It quoted several extracts, but these were all from letters.
Five years later, Mother Teresa’s letters to her confessors and superiors appeared in an English volume - Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light - compiled and edited by the Rev Brian Kolodiejchuk and published by Doubleday. According to the book’s blurb: ‘The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever.’ For more on this see Time Magazine.