She will forever be remembered as Mother Teresa of Calcutta: a Christian holy woman in the city named for the Hindu goddess Kali.
To start her home for the dying, Calcuttas city fathers gave Mother Teresa an abandoned building attached to one of Hinduisms most revered Kali shrines. No doubt they congratulated themselves on finding her an eminently practical location; the shrine was joined to Kalighat a sort of perpetual municipal funeral pyre, where day and night the bodies of the dead are wrapped in white linen and consigned to the flames, to be reduced to ash and scattered in the Hooghy River that flows into the sacred Ganges.
It was a good plan. The destitute could come to Mother Teresas to die and could then be carted over to the crematory for the final disposition of their mortal remains.
But how interesting that Mother Teresas home for the dying winds up alongside a shrine to Kali the Black One, the giver of all life and the one who takes it all away. Idols of Kali are terrifying black as soot, eyes wild, tongue lolling, dripping with blood, wearing a necklace of freshly severed human heads, carrying a cleaver and a noose, posed in a feverish dance. Kali priests are said to have murdered the first Christian missionary, running the doubting apostle St. Thomas through with a spear in the year 72. Deep into the nineteenth century, Kali worship often entailed human sacrifice, and even today Kali priests still offer her blood sacrifices from the slit throats of black goats.
Mother Teresa never said a word publicly about Kali or her cult. She named her new home Nirmal Hriday, the Place of the Immaculate Heart, in honor of Mary. It was a blunt contrast, to say the least: the image of the gentle mother alongside the violent mother. Was Mother Teresa lobbing a potshot at her Hindu neighbors, making a wry slur against their goddess? They thought so at first. In the early days of Nirmal Hriday, angry mobs, whipped up by the temple priests, staged protests and made death threats against Mother Teresa, accusing her of a stealth campaign to convert Hindus. That all ended when she took in and nursed one of her most virulent enemies, a young Kali priest who was dying of tuberculosis and had been denied care by the citys hospitals. That was her way.
I believe that she viewed the world as caught up in an apocalyptic struggle between maternal love and a dark, demonic perversion of motherhood at work in the world. In the divine script written for her life, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was based alongside the cultic center of Kali to illuminate this clash of worldviews. She was not sent into the world to offer Catholic commentary on Hindu deities or devotions. Far more was at stake than any superficial concerns for religious tolerance and diversity. She was sent at a post-Christian moment in history, when Western societies were in the process of rejecting and moving beyond 2,000 years of beliefs, values, and assumptions based on the teachings of Christ. In moving beyond Christianity the world was actually sliding back into paganism the shape of religion before revelation, before God chose to make His covenant with Abraham and to show us His face in Jesus.
Without ever using the word, Mother Teresa showed us the new paganism of our post-Christian world. In the West, the fervid orgies of fertility cults had been replaced by an idolatrous glorification of sex. In place of ancient child sacrifices there was now a state-sanctioned cult of abortion and the assisted suicide of the weak. The new paganism she prophesied against was a sort of secular religion promoted by multinational corporations, rulers of nations, and international agencies.
It was no accident that when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa devoted her speech to abortion, which she described as the greatest destroyer of peace today. Her colleagues had prepped her to talk about the nuclear arms race and neoimperialism in the Third World. The diplomats who had nominated her for the prize came expecting tales of uplift from her work among the poor and dying. Instead she spoke from the heart about the Kali-esque a direct war, a direct killing direct murder by the mother herself. For her, abortion was finally the mother of all issues, of every violence, of all poverty. Nations who destroy life by abortion and euthanasia are the poorest, she said. For they have not got food for one more child, a home for one old person. So they must add one more cruel murder into this world.
If a mother is permitted to kill her baby, she said, everything must be permitted, every violence should be expected. We must not be surprised when we hear of murders, of killings, of wars. If a mother can kill her own child, what is left but for us to kill each other? I do not want to talk about what should be legal or illegal. I do not think any human heart should dare to take life, or any human hand be raised to destroy life. Life is the life of God in us, even in an unborn child.
After 1946, we discover now, Mother Teresa only once more heard the voice of God, and she believed the doors of heaven had been closed and bolted against her. The more she longed for some sign, the more empty and desolate she became. We always saw her smiling. She had a playful smile, mischievous, as if privy to some secret joke. Especially when she was around children, she beamed with delight. In private, she had a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor, and sometimes doubled over from laughing so hard. So many people who spent time with her came away saying that she was the most joyful person they had ever met.
But we find from the secret letters that her life was a living hell. As she wrote in 1957, I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer
the emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul
As if by some strange formula, the greater her success and public adulation, the more abandoned, humiliated, and desperate she felt. I feel like refusing God, she wrote.
In her dark night we can hear all the anguish of our time the desolation of the poor, the cries of unwanted children, of all those who cannot bring themselves to pray or to love. We hear
us. But what we see is a tiny smiling woman who did not refuse the voice she heard on a train one day.
She died on September 5, 1997, the great apostle of joy and light in the dark final hours of the second Christian millennium. She died almost one hundred years to the day after her patron Thérèse of the little way. She died as one of the centurys great living expressions of love for children. She died as, perhaps, the first bud of a new Christian life, flowering from the bloody soil of the most murderous century in history.
David Scott is the author of A Revolution of Love (Loyola Press), from which this essay was gently extracted.