CNN decided at the last minute to postpone our interview until sometime next week, closer to the anniversary of her death, which of course came just a few weeks after the death of her friend Princess Diana. I’ve taken the time to begin reading the new book that’s causing all the hullabaloo, and brush up on the wars that have attended her reputation for the last decade or so. (You can read about her life, and the controversies, here. To get a sense of the Christopher Hitchens attack position, click here.)
The TIME cover, and the initial way the book has been portrayed in the media, focus on the issue of Mother Teresa’s “darkness” and “doubt,” and whether that’s compatible with faith. Someone in the TIME piece even suggests the new book would be viewed as a modern-day version of Saint Augustin’s Confessions. You can check out the comments that a number of readers have had on that question below. My gut reaction was that these issues made Mother Teresa more human to me, and, as odd as it sounds when we’re discussing a saint, more appealing. Mother Teresa: The Human Saint.
But now that I’ve read the first third of the book my initial reaction is: It ain’t Confessions. To begin with, it’s hard to get over the reluctance she had to having these letters published. And it wasn’t a recent, faux humble thing: She spent decades trying to keep them private. Augstine wrote Confessions, and it’s a beautiful book in places. Come Be My Light is a series of heavily edited letters, with large blocks of explication in between, that often are about functionary problems. It’s rarely beautiful, and it doesn’t really hold together as a confessional narrative.
Having said that, it’s fascinating in ways I didn’t entirely expect. First, the “darkness” alluded to in the text is only mentioned in passing in the first third that I’ve read so far, but it’s not really the darkness of doubt, it’s the darkness of depression and loneliness. Second, it’s not entirely surprising that she’d feel dark and lonely considering she traveled far from home and was completely forbidden from making decisions for herself. Everything gets run up the chain of (male) authority. To think that she was doing all the agitating for a poverty center as a woman in the Catholic Church in the 1940’s is very instructive. Which leads to the third point, she’s unbelievably aggressive, at one point going over the head of her superiors and attempting to plead her case directly to the pope. My wife runs a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs in the developing world. Mother Teresa was a social entrepreneur before the term was invented, and she could have used all the help she could get. The Catholic Church comes across as bloated and ossified. So based on what I’ve read so far, I’d say, No wonder she had doubts.