How We Speak of Mother Teresa
Column by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz - Agnes Ganxhë Bojaxhiu first became known to the world as Mother Teresa. She was born in 1912 of Albanian Catholic parents in Shkupi (Skopje), then a major city, called Üsküb in Turkish, in the Ottoman district of Kosova, and now the capital of independentMacedonia. She died in 1997 and was beatified as Blessed Teresa of Kolkata in 2003, by Pope John Paul II.
I am Muslim, but I have had extensive experience with Albanian Catholic intellectuals, and am an admirer of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata. She is unique, having brought succor to those most needing it in the Indian megalopolis. She received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 but continued her work with the religious order she founded in 1950, the Missionaries of Charity.
To say that Mother Teresa is the most famous Albanian of modern times is almost superfluous. The international airport in Tirana, the Albanian capital, and the main street in Prishtina, capital of Kosova, are named for her. While 70 percent of the population inAlbaniaproper and 90 percent in Kosova are Muslim, Catholics play a major role in national culture, and the memory of the diminutive nun is cherished. After Shefqet Krasniqi, a Wahhabi agitator in Kosova, delivered Friday sermons attempting to deny her Albanian identity, accusing her of sexual misconduct and consigning her to hell, the reaction of the Kosovar public was one of outrage. Efforts by the Slav-dominated authorities inMacedoniato claim her as “theirs” have been repudiated.
Blessed Teresa of Kolkata is otherwise controversial. But I will not take up the assaults on her reputation made during her life, and since she died, by atheists and others concerned to prove their “iconoclastic” boldness. The most authoritative English-language author on Blessed Teresa of Kolkata is Gëzim Alpion, a lecturer in the fields of sociology and media at the Universityof Birminghamin the UK. In 2006, he published a challenging but factually rich volume, Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? (Routledge, 204 pp., USD27.95 paperback – also issued by RoutledgeIndia). Alpion is a pioneer in the academic study of the phenomenon of celebrity. But since he is of Albanian origin, he gained access to precious materials on Blessed Teresa’s early life, written in Albanian, and collected by Don Lush Gjergji, president of the Mother Teresa Society.
Don Lush Gjergji is remarkable in his own right. Although denounced by Wahhabi radicals in Kosova as “the number one enemy of Allah,” he helped end more than 1,200 blood feuds among Kosovar Albanians. He is an object of great affection by ordinary Albanian Muslims, which I have perceived, for his good work in their community. For example, he established a counseling, rehabilitation, and professional education program for dozens of Kosovar Albanian women who were widowed by the fighting in the territory in 1998-99, and left with fatherless children. I asked him how many women in the program were Catholic and his answer was simple: “none.” All were Muslim, and all received help from the priest, who has aged but remains energetic and principled.
Not long ago, I visited Don Lush Gjergji in the company of the Kosovar Albanian politician and philosopher Albin Kurti. The place was the southern Kosova city ofPrizren, which is the seat of a Roman Catholic diocese. With its typical lack of judgment, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has drawn up plans for the partition of Prizren, sacred to all religions in Kosova, and the assignment of many of its most significant landmarks to Serbian control. When I saw Kurti and Gjergji in Prizren, they were concerned to unite Albanians against any such intrigue.
Don Lush Gjergji had some 50 personal encounters with Blessed Teresa. These were supplemented by letters, other documents, and interviews with her relatives and childhood companions, including a diary kept by a male friend from Kosova, a musical composer named Lorenc Antoni, and talks with her brother Lazar, who lived in Italy. Gjergji assembled a biographical archive of her life and is her most important commentator, but little known outside the Balkans. Gjergji has, however, published two books in English on Blessed Teresa, including Mother Teresa: To Live, To Love, To Witness, Her Spiritual Way (New York, New City Press, 1998.)
As reviewed by Alpion in his aforementioned volume, these materials reveal the early mystical experiences of the Albanian girl, who was small, sickly, and afflicted by a club foot. Her infirmities left her frequently bedridden, and, though painful, stimulated her interest in reading and desire to become a writer (she produced verse, some of which has survived).
The environment in which she was raised was suffused with Albanian patriotic feeling, and by revolutionary and nationalist turbulence as the diverse subjects of the former Ottoman dominion asserted their claims on the territory. The Serbian monarchist regime inBelgradecontrolledMacedoniaafter 1912, and anti-Serbian resistance by Slav Macedonians, Albanians, and other rebels was widespread. Agnes Bojaxhiu began to experience mystical communion with the divine, first in 1922, at 12, in Shkupi, which had undergone a brief Communist revolution in 1920.
In Macedonia, Serbian Orthodox, Macedonian Orthodox, and Bulgarian Orthodox Christians were (and still are) in conflict with one another, and perhaps the only large community in which religious strife has been absent, at least until the recent invasion by Wahhabis, is that of the Albanians, among whom Sunni Muslims, Shia Bektashi Sufis, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians long maintained an extraordinary history of civility. Isolated by their language, which is Indo-European but directly related to no other, and threatened with subjugation and partition by Turks, Serbs, Greeks, and, later, Italians and Germans, the Albanians have had no choice but to place national unity ahead of religious differences. It has been said many times that the Albanians became Muslim in their majority, served the Ottomans as grand viziers and soldiers, and even intermarry with Turks, but never truly accepted Turkish domination.
Agnes Bojaxhiu first told Lorenc Antoni of her desire to become a nun, and in 1928, she travelled toIrelandto join the Sisters of Loreto. She learned English, and the next year went toIndia, where she acquired Hindi and Bengali. In 1931 she took her vows. She served as a teacher in Kolkata for nearly 20 years. But in 1946 she underwent a horrific ordeal in the city as a witness to the “Great Killing” of August 16 between Muslims on one side, and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Thousands of people died.
Following the nightmare of sectarian conflict, then-Sister Teresa received a call from God to leave the school in which she served, and assist the disadvantaged by living with them. In 1950 she was granted permission byRometo found the Missionaries of Charity, ministering to the poor, sick, abandoned, and despised in Kolkata. She replaced the typical nun’s habit with a white sari bordered in blue, and took Indian citizenship. She opened hospices for the dying and leprosaria for those afflicted with Hansen’s disease, the terrifying skin infection that has made its sufferers outcasts from normal society since the most ancient times. Today the network of the Missionaries of Charity includes hundreds of soup kitchens, orphanages, schools, and services for family planning.
Blessed Teresa’s activities were obscure to most of the planet until 1968. Then she was made famous by a television interview with the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, followed by a British Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 1969. In 1971, Muggeridge published a volume on her, Something Beautiful for God. As Alpion has argued, “she was already a media celebrity inIndia and theU.S.,” but this period marked the beginning of her transformation into a person of global distinction. Still, in the time then drawing near, the Catholic church would produce a number of worthy “celebrities,” including Pope John Paul II, a key contributor to the final collapse of Soviet domination inEastern Europe, and Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish Solidarity workers’ movement against communism.
Transformed into a universal personality, Mother Teresa was not uniformly appreciated in her adopted home. In his 2011 volume Encounters With Civilizations (New Brunswick, NJ, and London, Transaction Publishers, xxiv+204 pp., USD34.95 paperback), Alpion returned to his inquiry into her life. He noted, as he had done in his earlier work, that Aroup Chatterjee, a doctor born in Kolkata but living in Britain, had accused her of harming Kolkata’s reputation, in his 2003 book Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict. It is difficult, however, to ignore that Blessed Teresa stayed in Kolkata to contend with its social problems, and Dr. Chatterjee criticized her fromLondon. By contrast, another Indian intellectual, the Bengali novelist Bharati Mukherjee, was awed by the simplicity and effect of her work. Mukherjee now lives in theU.S., defines herself as an “American novelist,” and teaches at theUniversity ofCalifornia atBerkeley. She first learned of Blessed Teresa at a Sisters of Loreto school – run by the order from which the Albanian nun had already departed.
Alpion has commented, on the resentment directed toward Blessed Teresa because of her disclosure of the social and economic deprivation in Kolkata, “Mother Teresa did not invent the poverty… Nor did she hold the hands of the sick and dying to promote a book or an album.” As he notes, she directed the same services inRome,London, andNew Yorkas in Kolkata. Blessed Teresa gained praise from Indian national politicians including Jawaharlal Nehru, andWest Bengalleaders such as Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the companion of Gandhiji. Alpion writes, “Indians took to their hearts a foreigner and a Catholic missionary like Mother Teresa.”
Blessed Teresa of Kolkata lacked one characteristic typical of celebrities: dissonance between her personal life and her public work. Her critics spun unconvincing claims of scandals involving theVatican, powerful Western politicians, and abuse of those in her care, yet the work of the Missionaries of Charity remains transparent.
If Blessed Teresa of Kolkata had a “secret” it was distinctively Albanian: she refused to see believers in other faiths as anything but “children of God” equal to Christians. I long ago remarked to the late Octavio Paz, the Nobel laureate in literature and former Mexican ambassador to India, who had written extensively and with great esteem about the Hindu culture of the subcontinent, that he saw India as “a big Mexico” – colorful, varied, revolutionary, magical and capable of great cruelty. Paz’s love forIndialed him to disparage the country’s past Muslim rulers for their conduct against non-Muslims. In this, too, Paz saw a reflection of Mexican history, since he blamed nearly eight centuries of Islamic rule inSpainfor the domination of Hispanic societies by local chieftains (caciquismo) and weak public responsibility.
In the same sense,Indiais “a big Balkans.” Blessed Teresa of Kolkata found there the same pathologies that afflicted the Macedoniaof her childhood, including ethnic hatred and wholesale deprivation, but on a scale so much greater than that in her birthplace that only Almighty God could encompass a response to the spectacle before her. Like Siddhartha Gautama, who left his palace in distress over illness, aging, and death 2,500 years before the arrival of Agnes Bojaxhiu inIndia, she was impelled to offer relief to the victims of human callousness beyond that “normally” provided by Christian educators, medical workers, and missionaries.
Gëzim Alpion’s Encounters With Civilizations takes its name from its author’s repulsion at the idea of the “clash of civilizations.” Whatever one’s religion, conciliation among human beings must be the supreme value. I have often remarked that the Albanians of the Balkans are the only indigenous community in Europe (aside from the European Turks of Thrace) in which Islamic spirituality – Sufism – has flourished against all obstacles. I do not consider it inappropriate to say that Blessed Teresa of Kolkata incorporated a Sufi attitude, especially given the activities of numerous Sufi orders that resemble those of the Missionaries of Charity, in providing for the dispossessed.
In his 1968 televised interview with Blessed Teresa, Muggeridge asked, in so many words, why she did not carry the religious feeling embodied in the Catholic mass to those for whom she cared, and seemed disappointed by her reply: “Everyone, even the Hindus and Mohammedans, has some faith in their own religion, and that can help them do the works of love.” In her 1985 address to the United Nations, she affirmed “no color, no religion, no nationality should come between us. For we are all the same children of the same loving hand of God.”
That is how we should speak of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata; in the language with which she spoke, and speaks, to us.
Columnist, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, is Director with Center for Islamic Pluralism, Washington DC.