Mother Teresa’s Theology

       Most studies of Mother Teresa take one of two tracks, seeking either to glorify her work in preparation for eventual canonization or mine her life for inconsistencies, scrutinizing each way her humanity eclipsed the humanitarian qualities for which she was known. This essay seeks to pursue a third path, attempting to find what theology informed her practice, how her sense of Christology brought attention to ethical practice towards the less fortunate, and how her life contributed towards a more open dialogue about the role of women in Christian ministry.

            As this paper will address such a public figure, adopted by Catholic, Protestant and Hindu as much as the agnostic and atheist, it is important to begin this work by relating her work to the Church universal. Though she was a life-long member of the Roman Catholic Church, the faith she expressed was simple and thus had appeal to many. What follows here will not be a rigorous point-by-point exposition on where she expressed her solidarity with or deviated from Catholicism but instead a discussion on how her small frame overshadows the discussion of women in the Church – the Catholic as much as the Protestant – and will seek to address how her simplicity of devotion, faith and service has redefined not only what it means to be a woman within Christianity but what it means to be a Christian at all. Other works have devoted themselves to trying her faith, pointing out inconsistencies and misconduct or proposing that M. Teresa challenged the patriarchy of Catholicism.[1] For the purposes here, it is sufficient to say that M. Teresa was devoted entirely to Jesus Christ as she understood him and that all other authorities, including public perception as well as religious superiors, came second.

            Let us then proceed by first briefly examining M. Teresa’s early life for the purposes of contextual analysis.


            Throughout her ministry, Mother Teresa was always quick to attribute what others saw as success to Jesus Christ. Biographers express unanimous frustration at the way in which M. Teresa rarely spoke of herself, preferring instead to speak of those she helped and of her devotion to both Christ and the Church. In each interview, she gave consistent yet limited information regarding her childhood and early years within the Church. Her biographers each expressed frustration in their attempt to write about the early life of M. Teresa while she was still called Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxihu. What is clear, despite the scant details, is that Agnes was raised in an affluent family. Her father, Nikola, had made a comparable fortune in the family business of merchant trading and real estate but ever the entrepreneur, would go on to partner with a local pharmacist, develop a building contractor firm, develop a theater, and join the city council. Having begun his own export business, he traveled abroad regularly. He became known in the region as a benefactor to many, progressive in wanting his daughters to attend school as well as his son and would leave enough money with his wife while he was away to help anyone who came to their door.[2]

            Drana, Nikola’s wife, was a devout and life-long Catholic. Though the Catholics were a minority at the time in Skopje, Albania, Drana insisted on taking their children to daily mass and praying the rosary. As soon as Agnes could walk, she accompanied her mother when she delivered parcels of food and money to the local poor.

            Nikola, given his position in the community, joined a political group supporting a Greater Albania and obtaining national rights. While attending a rally in 1921, he was poisoned and died days later. His death would prove almost fatal for the rest of the family. Given the political climate of the time as well as the social status of women and the amount of fortune to be distributed among his partners, Nikola’s “business partners wanted nothing more to do with the family and they were left with only their house.”[3] Agnes’s mother began to rely even more on her faith and made a meager salary with a textile mill – just enough to feed herself and her children. Though political issues and the future of Albania dominated conversations outside the home, church liturgy and missionary activity were the topic to be found within the now predominantly female household. Agnes was only eleven.

            One can only speculate about these years in Agnes’ life. Had her father lived, would she have become the well-educated woman he had wanted her to be? Would she have inherited his business along with her sisters and brother? Married? Or was she always destined to eclipse her mother’s religious life in devotion to doing small things for others? All of the biographies that address this period of Agnes’ life are unanimous that though the Bojaxhios were poor, Drana continued to lead by example and offer hospitality to others who were just as unfortunate. In later life, M. Teresa would recall sharing meals with “relatives” to whom they were not related – others just as poor, hungry, and in need of the clothing Drana could provide and the shelter Nikola had left behind. As anyone could surmise, such a reversal in fortune and the salvation found in faith and prayer changed Agnes and steered her ever more intensely towards service by faith.

            Born Agnes Gonxhe Bojaxhio of Skopje, Macedonia in 1910, M. Teresa expressed a keen interest in the lives of missionaries, particularly those in Bengal, India. At the age of twelve, shortly after her father’s death and likely still grieving the loss, she became convinced that she should become a nun. In 1928, now eighteen, Agnes joined the Sisters of Loreto Convent of Ireland as a missionary. At Loreto Abbey, she learned English and a year later began teaching in Darjeeling, where she began her novitiate. Taking her religious vows as a nun in 1931, Agnes now chose to be called after Therese de Lisieux, patron saint of missionaries in the Catholic Church (she would later adopt the Spanish spelling Teresa as one of her sisters in the convent shared the name). Solemn vows were taken in 1937 while she was a teacher at the Loretto Convent School; strict and diligent in her work, Teresa was appointed headmistress in 1944, but with each day she began to feel herself pulled away from her duties towards helping the students and families beyond educational instruction and oversight. The Bengal Famine of 1943 served as a catalyst for Teresa, as an estimated 1.5 and 4 million people died of starvation, malnutrition and disease. Though insulated behind the walls of the convent and given some sense of comfort because of her social station, Teresa watched as the devastation crescendoed in 1946 with an outbreak long-held tension between Hindus and Muslims erupting into violence and further loss of life. By 1950, her request for establishing a new order was approved. So began the Sisters of Charity, first in Calcutta and years later, in other slums around the world.

            When the violence escalated in 1946, familiar of the kind she experienced around her in the unrest of Albania, Teresa experienced what she called “a call within my vocation. It was a second calling… to give up Loreto where I was very happy and to go out in the streets to serve the poorest of the poor.” When speaking of this period, Teresa often interchanged her previous statement with “I heard the call to give up all and follow him into the slums to serve him among the poorest of the poor.”[4] For Teresa, both statements were equally accurate. Jesus was one and the same with the “poorest of the poor;” service to one was service to the other and only separable only for grammatical reasons – and then, only to be corroborated by the other. The basis for this binary referent can be found in one of Jesus’ final discourses recorded in Matt. 24:31-46, and only negligent documents about M. Teresa avoid this as she referred to and relied on this pericope so heavily throughout her life. Even during the formative years of her childhood, it is clear that this verse had significance as it framed her experience as the child of an affluent man as well as that of an impoverished family after his death as much as her experience in religious service. A hallmark of M. Teresa’s work, she would refer to it in almost every interview or public address.

Informed Theology

            Though, as with any historical figure, there are different ways to approach the trajectory of their life and key texts or interpretations, we must restrict our attention to M. Teresa’s theology lest we repeat either the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the entire New Testament, or volumes of social theory. Despite the simplicity that she projected and the way that she encouraged the Sisters of Charity to live in like manner[5], M. Teresa’s theology hinges on a few themes.

St. Therese of Lisieux

            Given its formative nature, it is important to note Agnes’ adoption of the name Teresa. In Catholic tradition as well as some branches of Protestantism and cultural traditions, the adoption of a new name is symbolic for entering into a new phase of life. For the Christian, there is a precedent in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.[6] Taking on a new name is standard practice for the Catholic when being baptized, confirmed, or entering sacramental service. For sisters in a convent, a religious name is assigned by the Superior of the community – though a sister may suggest their preference of a favorite saint. For Agnes, the choice of Teresa points directly to St. Therese of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun of the late 19th century.

            St. Therese of Lisieux, like Agnes, felt the call to a religious life at an early age and it is probable that Agnes adopted the name in honor of a young, yet serious, devotee to the faith in the same way that contemporary young girls follow their favorite pop singer or celebrity. Though this parallel may seem contradictory, for the devotedly religious Agnes it applies as her mother “entertained” her children with the lives of the saints, the rosary, daily mass, and reading the periodic missionary pamphlets that the Church provided to inspire this kind of devotion. Additionally, Therese was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1923 and canonized in 1925. To regard her as anything other than a celebrity and example to young Catholic girls in Europe during this time would be a gross misreading of the time and influence that provincial religion still held. Her life (and early death in 1897 at the age of 24) would have made an impression on a young Agnes who looked for heroism and charismatic leadership after the loss of her father as well as an inspirational female within the patriarchal Church. Therese was a prolific writer and her letters, poems, religious plays and prayers were collected and published in a spiritual autobiography that promoted a life of simplicity, devotion and criticized the “horror of pretense… We should not say improbable things or things we do not know. We must see [the lives of saints as] real and not their imagined lives.” Through simplicity, Therese described her experience as “all confidence and love” in a pursuit for “an elevator that would raise me to Jesus.”[7] Agnes and Therese seem to have had a similar home life with fathers who were dreamers, brooders, idealists, romantics and always passionate. Both women’s fathers prized them and encouraged their education (an apparent rarity) and both houses incubated a warm religious environment, practiced charity, visited the sick and welcomed “family” to their table.[8]

            There is no doubt that the example of St. Therese of Lisieux had a profound affect on the way Agnes-cum-Teresa would see her role in the Church as one of simplicity, service to others, and continual devotion to Jesus, though one must not go so far as to see in Therese any sort of counter-patriarchy. Though Jesus was the supreme authority, this was ever under the watchful shepherding of a chain of authority of other women including the Mother Superior, who were each under the shepherding eye of the local patriarchy of the Church. It is of further importance that one remembers M. Teresa’s theology was shaped by her times but that the freedom of Vatican II had not yet arrived. M. Teresa was always respectful of the patriarchal establishment to which she had taken her vows. Yet when the Second Vatican Council of 1962 concluded in 1965, having decided that sisters who had committed their lives to the Church could be given a choice in their dress, M. Teresa decided she and the Sisters of Charity under her charge would retain their uniforms. Anonymity, she reasoned, helped to retain the “purity” of the image she wished to convey. The simplicity of their garb was chosen to reflect the austerity of their mission – a decision applauded by Pope John Paul II, who was a strong advocate for such changes but held rigidly to an older form of religious expression.[9]

            While the Catechism of the Catholic Church may seem antiquated to the modern devotee for forbidding ordination to women[10], it holds great degree of mystical levity in regards to women, stating that though women have typically been understood to be a vessel of great evil and sin, Satan has “no hold over her” and that even as Christ (as a male) was a type of new Adam (for males), the New Eve (or woman) is to be found in the graceful and feminine attributes of the Holy Spirit.[11] In like manner, though M.Teresa subscribed to a pre-Vatican II expression of her beliefs, we should not take this to mean she was not progressive for her time. Ever her father’s daughter, she excelled at innovation[12] and navigating political dynamics – not only by virtue of her charismatic leadership of the Sisters of Charity, but also in the way she approached the complex plethora of (and widely divergent) beliefs of India. Having founded her order in Calcutta, M. Teresa did not make the mistake of colonialization by arriving and immediately dismissing the long-held beliefs of her new neighbors. Instead, M. Teresa worked with Buddhists, Hindus, Jainists, and Muslims as well as her fellow Catholics towards a common goal – helping the sick, the dying, and the poor.

Interfaith Dialogue

            For the Indian, religious perception is not a matter of adherence to creeds and doctrines or even divine revelation. Religion is a matter how one approaches life, the “mental view on vision of reality and therefore theory of reality.”[13] The most widely well-known expression of Indian philosophy and society is that of the caste system, in which society is divided into distinctly stratified “groups” or “classes” and restricted from ascending to something better – at least in this life. It should be noted that similar “groupings” appear throughout history in cultures as well as other religions. Thus, it is not only universal concept as Buddhists, Christians and Muslims have each at various times adopted a similar understanding of class, gender, work, and cultural identity, but an ironic unifier because of it’s familiarity. Because it is not easy to distinguish or compartmentalize certain concepts, religion is not only a matter of the way one approaches life but also the way one approaches economy, society, and worship of whatever deity one prays to. Religion, in Indian expression, is rightly called yoga for this term means “uniting”[14][15] and M. Teresa astutely played with this concept to find solidarity with her diverse neighbors. As the first noble truth of Buddhism asserts, suffering happens, but we must move beyond this to something greater. Though Eastern religions and those of Abrahamic origin[16] may disagree on theological grounds, they share the belief that in order to be religious, a person must “believe that the basis or origin of the world is spiritual and that [the] goal is to realize it in [their] own being, not merely in thought. Understood as such, religion includes a philosophical theory of reality and also a plan to guide man’s life towards such a realization.”[17] The result is a presupposition or bias towards the spiritual.

            Seeking common ground was one of M. Teresa’s greatest strengths. Though others may wish that she would have gone farther than she had to articulate a cohesive doctrine or theology, particularly in relation to the definitive claims of Christianity[18], it is obvious that was aware of how theologically definitive statements could be misconstrued. For her, there was simplicity to be found in the appearance of Christ as the incarnation of God. Like the Buddhist who asserts that suffering happens or the Hindu that destiny is insurmountable, M. Teresa would respond so it is with the appearance of Jesus. Whether one calls Jesus an avatar, a prophet, or Lord of all, his appearance is made manifest in the goodness, generosity and love of the human experience. He was not to be found in dense statements made by the patriarchy of the Church, nor was he to be found in any particular religion. Instead, he was found in a life of service, prayer, devotion and goodwill towards others – something all religions agree on.[19]

            This was, perhaps, one of the greatest subtleties of M. Teresa’s theology – accepting that God could be found anywhere. Some may assert this was heretical, accusing M. Teresa of monolatrism, though for her there was only ever one love and he was to be found wherever he wished. For her, this was not some laizze faire approach to Jesus but a resolute solidarity with Christ to use whatever language and belief set was necessary in pursuit of expressing God’s love to those who felt unloved and thus needed to be assured of it the most, to gain access to the deathbeds of the dying so that she and the Sisters of Charity might be able to pray over them and provide a sense of dignity and worth in the last, fearful moments of life. Such a belief necessitates a deeply help existential belief in a God who cares, not in a theology which condemns or regrettably says “You’re still not good enough” in response to a death rattle.

            One of the main ways that M. Teresa led the Sisters of Charity in expressing this belief was the administration of funeral rites. Few who die at the Kalighat (“House of the Dying”) in Calcutta have been explicitly Christian at the time of their death and “where the religion is known, Muslim or Hindu funeral rites are correctly observed. She has even said, when asked about whether she converts those in her care, that she wants to convert Hindus to be better Hindus, Muslims to be better Muslims as well as Christians to be better Christians.” The aim of society and the expansion of the Kingdom of God is “to labour at the conversion and sanctification of the poor in the slums… [which] involves hard, ceaseless toiling, without results, without counting the cost.” All Christians would agree that conversion and sanctification is the work of God, “but God has chosen the M.C.s… to carry the light of Christ into the dark holes of the slums” in this way.[20] Though unconventional to some Christians, this approach generated significant respect for M. Teresa and the Sisters of Charity, even taking on mythic qualities. One worker, writing of his experience, noted, “In India, we have more and more Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists getting involved in the work. Why are they coming? Because they feel the presence of God. They want to serve God in their own way and they have found that by sacrifice and prayer, they can do that.”[21]

            With so much attention to interfaith dialogue and convicted civility in the last three decades, we must remember that M.Teresa was pioneering such an effort as early as 1946 and her legacy testifies to the presence of God as much as devotion to Christ. Her work, though, was not without precedent. The heritage of Hebrew scripture displays considerable concern for the less fortunate among the Jews. Notably, this concern extended to the foreigners among them, or those “outside” the Abrahamic faith.[22] The God of the Hebrew scriptures, though articulating a preference for those within the community He has formed, was always concerned for those outside the faith as well – at times preferring their prayers. The New Testament picks up this same concern without hesitation. Jesus articulated a similar concern for the Gentiles that Paul would later develop as part and parcel of the expansion in his theology of God’s present-Kingdom. James would go further, succinctly stating that true and pure religion was to help the disenfranchised, the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the sick – any and all marginalized by the religious, social, or political structures in which the people of God found themselves. Indeed, the early church quickly adopted the practice of setting aside leaders and resources to this end.[23] Where it appears M. Teresa is unique is the way in which this practice fell from the attention of the church after the canonical writings of the patristic period. Seeking to protect its interest, the Church began to consolidate resources, show preference for those within the community, and “other” anyone who did not fit their individual models of expression despite a long legacy of continuing service and social duties of the believer. Justin in his Apologia affirms that the Church should “hand over to a community fund what we possess and share it with every needy person” (Apol. 1:14). Tertullian supplements this, observing that “Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy” (Apol. 39) in the same way that the community of care M. Teresa brought about testified to the love of God and the community He desired of his people. That a small woman from a war-torn country could become the most evident embodiment of Christ testifies not only to her unique character but to the ways in which God has continued to use women in powerful ways.

The Poorest of the Poor

            Her theology, always concerned for the poor, goes a step further though. Unlike those who would say that, in certain ways under particular conditions at specific (yet limited) times, God may be said to possibly be manifest in a human host, M. Teresa held to the conviction that God was certainly to be found in the “poorest of the poor.” Like Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote that Christians should reflect on the “dignity” of the poor for “they have take upon them the person of the Savior. For he, the compassionate, has lent them his own person wherewith to shame the unmerciful and the haters of the poor,”[24] M. Teresa saw in those she served not a burden by way of Jesus’ teaching but the face of Jesus himself. Though their appearance and apparent lack of beauty may be considered proof of God’s judgment against them, M. Teresa saw the contrary. By virtue of God’s solidarity with the “other,” the lives of the poorest of the poor were mystically tied to that of Christ. God was not remotely looking down on Earth, commanding humans to care for the poor but was somehow embodied in them. M. Teresa had to look no further than Jesus’ confession of this in the Gospels.[25] The result of this understanding causes the reader of scripture to reorient their understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God.[26] In applying this thought to the Genesis account, is it not reasonable to suggest that the first parents were just as naked as those whom M. Teresa served? Just as hungry, just as lost and confused, as sick, as terrified of the world in which they found themselves and hiding from the punishment of authority just because they existed in such a shameful state? And so it was that when Jesus told his followers to care for the less fortunate, they were not only practicing the tikkun olam or repairing of the world of the Hebrew tradition but also remembering their own humanity and shared image of God by recognizing it in another.

Progressive Liberation

            For those fluent in the terminology of theology, M. Teresa would appear to subscribe to something called “liberation theology” where “Service in solidarity with the oppressed also implies an act of love for the suffering Christ, a liturgy pleasing to God.”[27] A difficulty with the label of liberation theology is that it can encompass all manner of expression for its subscribers do not seek to think, rationalize or articulate but instead to do theology, to practice it rather than commit its precepts to paper. Its origins are not in the development of agreement and disagreement with voices of the past but instead the “premature and unjust death of many people.”[28] In some ways it is more of a political movement within religion, lacking tenants and texts for emotional appeals to the betterment of society through the higher nature of citizens and followers. Its distinctiveness is found by noting the ways in which it deviates from North American and European theology, where God is defined and practice of faith is determined by whether it concerns the elect and chosen of God.

            Given that social justice, protection, provision, and sanctuary for oppressed people has always been important to Judaism as well as Christianity, liberation theology serves as a reclamation of teachings that have been marginalized – or worse, entirely forgotten – within scripture. As Jon Sobrino states, “the agenda of European theology has been more interested in thinking about and explaining the truth of faith, whereas for liberation theologians faith runs parallel to real life and is in dialectical relationship with it… the meaning of faith and doctrine is illuminated… as the world’s wretched condition is confronted and alleviated.”[29]

            The exception to this, whether we address liberation theology as a socio-political movement within religion or a new chapter of theological expression, is that M. Teresa so clearly and continually reiterated over time the belief that service to the “poorest of the poor” was not an act of love for Christ (by proxy), but an act of love to Him. She took Jesus’ words literally. When speaking of those she served in personal letters, “she wrote ‘Poorest of the Poor’ in capitals as she did her references to God and to Christ”[30] and took the fulfillment of her “second” calling to be all-encompassing. Her service was not limited to a literal reading of Matt. 25, but extended to continue teaching children that “no school wanted… practical lessons on hygiene” and giving the thrownaway people of Calcutta new purpose in caring for one another and sharing the love of God.[31] Gradually, M. Teresa rebuilt a divided community. People began to share the little they had, bringing small amounts of money and belongings to be used by the sisters there.

            Modern theology, or at least those influenced by the language of the New Perspective would describe M. Teresa’s work as rebuilding the Kingdom of God. M. Teresa would not have adopted such language, however. In discussing her work, M. Teresa was well informed of the long debate concerning women in ministry and of the influence the Sisters of Charity held not only with the Catholic and Protestant Church, but outside of it as well. It would appear that she had no interest in defining her practice in any way except simplicity: obedience, love, devotion, mercy. For her, Jesus’ words were to be taken at face value, not examined ad infinitum. Because of this, her work exists in a unique space. The new pronouncements that came from Vatican II and the progressive movement of theology to address the challenges of first a modern and later post-modern world – including those concerning a nun’s way of life – had little effect on her work in India. Her formative years of 1920-46 had already established the mission to which she felt called and the terms under which she would fulfill that mission. Virtually everything about the way of life for a Missionary of Charity affirmed the ideal of caring femininity, the traditional female role of submitting to men and suppressing one’s own will and the “the terminology used by Mother Teresa reinforce[d] this, as she and her sisters each [saw] themselves as the ‘Spouse of Christ crucified’. She described the relationship as a love similar to that of a wife for a husband.”[32]

The Role of Women

            More importantly though, M. Teresa affirmed a “need” for a priest to say mass, even among the all-female community of the Sisters of Charity and her opposition to women in the priesthood was unyielding. This topic would continually come up given her celebrity status within the Church, though she would always defer the question and reiterate her belief in the sanctity of Mary as the handmaiden of the Lord and not as a leader, not even invoking her special status as the holy mother of Jesus. “No one could have ever been a better priest than our Lady,” M. Teresa would say – the implication being that Mary was not a priest, however.[33] Hers was a rigidly anti-feminist feminism. While wielding as much power and authority as any man (including her friend, Pope John Paul II) by virtue of her celebrity, her most defiant act to her male authorities was to deny them the ability to intervene in internal affairs of her House. “Some priests would like me to change things,” she once told Father Eduard Le Joly, her spiritual advisor. “They have told me we ought to have curtains in the communal rooms. I do not want them.”[34] Her reason was rooted not in a sense of superiority but, again, solidarity with the poor whom she served who lacked a home and unconcerned with curtains. Her most emphatic refusal though was reserved for what she taught her nuns – more accurately what she refused to teach them. Though an educated woman herself in theology and nursing, M. Teresa denied the Sisters of Charity the modern convenience of television, newspaper and literature. The sparse literature allowed at the convent was brief spiritual biographies. Among the priests she worked under and sisters she worked with, this was the most pronounced criticism, though again the reason was the solidarity to be found with those they served – a staple of all liberation theology.

The Mystical

            Perhaps the least offensive matter of theology with which M. Teresa’s life concerned itself was the mystical. There has always been a long tradition of women in the Church experiencing visions and dreams, including her namesake St. Therese of Lisieux, but the student of Christian history may be prone to take these experience as less than factual for two reasons: their supernatural (and thus unprovable) nature and the frequency of a generalized and seemingly scripted “vision” which affirms women in the Church. The second traditionally provides a divine ultimatum of sorts whereby Jesus asks the woman if she loves Him enough to become any man’s equal in ministry. The female requisitely demurs, before a second (or third) request is made. While the first has a long heritage in scripture in both Hebrew prophetic and New Testament writings, the second clearly evoking the call of St. Peter[35], the foundation and “bedrock” of the Church. This perhaps explains why M. Teresa was always so reluctant to discuss her “second calling” to which we must now briefly return.

            Though M. Teresa briefly discussed the experience of her second calling at length numerous times with the Sisters of Charity and briefly with interviewers over the years. After her death in 1997 however, her personal effects revealed the experience in much greater detail.

            In 1946, an exhausted M. Teresa was sent by her superiors to a retreat in Darjeeling. The previous half-decade had seen tremendous change. World War II saw many of her former students leave never to return, then there was the Bengal Famine of 1942-43 which took the lives of two million people. Food shortages had given rise to violence and though M. Teresa had vowed never to deny Christ anything, it seemed he was not returning the sentiment. A letter in 1937 is the first indication that M. Teresa suffered from a “darkness” which would periodically plague her life[36]. At best, this “darkness” would appear to be the loss of the romantic notions of a young girl. At worst, it is evidence of a depression that would go untreated. A 2007 collection of her personal letters indicates the latter.[37] Whichever the case, there can be no doubt that such rapid change brought great anxiety to Teresa. The famine and wars both abroad and there in Calcutta resulted in death at best and poverty, sickness, and malnutrition among her charges unfortunate enough to survive. Malaise had set in and, seeing her conditions, she was sent on an early and extended annual retreat.

            On 10 September 1946, somewhere between the Bengali lowlands and the Himalayan foothills, M. Teresa says that she “heard the voice of Jesus, and shortly afterward had several visions of Christ on the cross.”[38] Though it is not unusual for a Christian to claim to have heard from a member of the Godhead through circumstance, an impression during prayer, or encouragement from a fellow human, the claim to have heard audibly or seen Jesus is less frequent. Curiously, the vision was not a singular event but a series of “conversations” that took place for over a year and a half. When Teresa returned to Calcutta less than two weeks later, she was hesitant to share what had happened on the train with anyone other than her spiritual director, Jesuit Father Celeste Van Exem, showing him notes written during her retreat. Her hesitation to share these experiences lies not only with the general apprehension others have at such tales, but also a self-awareness of the toll the stress was taking on her, the suspicion with which superiors regard the mystical, and the vow of obedience she took upon becoming a nun. With this last hesitation, she could proceed only with the support (and validation) of her superiors. Further, the nature of these visions was “to labour at the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor, not only in the slums, but also all over the world wherever they may be”[39] – no small task! Given the context and nature of these visions as well as the state of the Church at that time, Teresa either had supreme favor towards her objection or an incredible amount of luck. Though Father Van Exem believed her visions were authentic, he delayed his response, instead encouraging her to “stop thinking about the inspiration” and “let it rest” as a means of testing both her resolve and the genuiness of the visions.[40] He referred the visions to his superior and requested that Teresa write Archbishop Ferdinand Perrier with a fresh recounting. The consistent nature of her letters were taken as yet another confirmation of the authenticity of God’s appearance to Teresa.

            While other branches of Christianity may be more open to inspiration, the Catholic Church has a long tradition of vetting divine experiences, screening them in a sense. While rigorous, the benefit of enduring their scrutiny is, once procured, the support with which the Church stands behind such events. By securing unanimous approval, Teresa’s experience was deemed divine and thus, without contest. In the letters, she describes how Jesus regularly appeared to her but was more frequently “the Voice” – or auditory. She is also very clear in distinguishing herself from the Voice, particularly where she feels solidarity with “the Indian… [and] with Indian girls completely” as well as the compulsive (and competitive) zeal of youth, writing of St. M. Cabrini, “She did so much for the Americans because she became one of them. Why can’t I do for India what she did for Amer? She did not wait for souls to come to her – she went to them with her zealous workers. Why can’t I do the same for Him here [in Calcutta]?”[41] More empahtically, she admits to a reluctance, which is telling. There is a true hesitation to leaving the Loreto order with it’s provision and predictability pitted against the demand of Jesus to pursue a new calling in service to the impoverished community outside the convent, which caused her “much suffering” during the end of 1946 into 1947.

            Jesus, while acknowledging the passion with which Teresa approached all of her tasks, seems particularly demanding. He continually asks her, “Wilt thou refuse to do this for me?” He leverages her reluctance to the task with her love, admonishing and coaxing her as though she were a child at times, an unwilling lover at others, and provoking her at still others as though she were uncommitted. “You have become my Spouse for my Love,” Jesus tells her. “Are you afraid to take one more step for your Spouse – for me – for souls? Am I a second to you? You did not die for souls. That is why you do not care for them. Your heart was never drowned in sorrow as it was My Mother’s. We both gave our all for souls – and you?”[42] In another encounter, after a long absence during which Teresa prays to Mary, requesting her to “ask Jesus to remove all this from me,” Jesus appears and immediately berates her like a demanding lover. “You have been always saying ‘do with me what ever you wish.’ Now I want to act. Let me do it, my little Spouse, my own little one. Do not fear… Let me act. Refuse me not. Trust me lovingly; trust me blindly.”[43]

            If one were to examine the letters where she details these encounters, there would be noticeable red flags perhaps pointing to the type of father Nikola was to her or the giving nature of her mother, Drana. It is possible to see Drana as the submissive wife forever eclipsed by the charismatic largesse of her powerful husband, even remaining after his death in the long shadow of his influence and respect. And, reaching adulthood as she crests over the age of marriage, Teresa could be said to have suffered from an existential crisis brought on by the strain of her environment even while trying to overcome it – to fix things, like Drana had, so that those under her care would not have to experience the poverty with which her formative years were framed. To some extent, all of this is unknowable. While we as modern readers in the light of Freudian pop psychology may inject as much as project our own suspicions, her superiors did not note any such reservation but saw them as an honest reluctance and divine call. There were real challenges to starting a new order, even remaining in Calcutta in such a tumultuous time. Given her education, it is quite possible that her superiors were grooming Teresa for some other task. But the veritable infinite list of potentials were pared down by all involved – Teresa, Fr. Van Exem, Archbishop Perrier and, ultimately, the appearance of none other than the Savior himself.

            Mystical visions, again, are not particularly novel though “Mother Teresa’s spiritual experiences depart decisively from the norm. She said she literally heard Christ’s voice and conversed with Him. Even the lives of the saints present relatively few cases of an audictory ‘locution,’ and when they do, Jesus often speaks succinctly.”[44] Her letters during this period however, describe the experiences – plural – as a passionate series of conversations. Christ calls her his “little one” and she answer with “my own Jesus.” Though she describes real challenges to the task to which he calls her, Jesus dotes on her (“Remember I am with you”) as much as playfully challenges her, prodding her. The experiences are not those of courtship alone. Like other mystics, some of the visions she describes are horrific in nature such as three visions of the crucifixion during 1947, the last in which Mary holds Teresa as she tries to shield herself from looking at Jesus on the cross. Jesus looks down on her and asks, “Will you refuse to do this for me?” invoking the fourth vow she took upon become a nun – that of obedience. While many mystical visions are general in nature and lead believers to puzzle over their meaning for centuries, such as those of Julian of Norwich, Jesus was very succinct in his revelation to Teresa. She was to leave the Loreto convent and found a new order.

            Though again, founding a new order is challenging, it was of particular distress to Teresa given the conditions and the extreme nature of the call to serve the most impoverished, most hungry, most unhealthy. Hers was not a call to help others become better, to nurse them to health or (as she would be roundly criticized throughout the rest of her life) raise funding for the most advanced technology to heal them, but to find those who were incurable: the lepers, the rat-eaten, the dying and frequently the dead. Over time, this came to include the brokenhearted and abandoned as loneliness. As she was wont to say, we think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless when the poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty. Her call was to provide love and dignity to those all others had written off – in short, to quite literally find the “poorest of the poor.” The hazard of such a challenge should be immediately clear: there would be little reward (for the dead cannot say “thank you”) and threat of contracting disease herself (leprosy, tuberculosis, etc). Unconsciously, she holds to a low Christology focused on the salvific work of Christ through suffering and adopts this suffering from an early age. By “low Christology” what I mean here is that M. Teresa so clearly aligned with the humanity of Jesus – his ability to suffer as a human, and the way in which he encouraged those who followed him to adopt this same nature. Though “high Christology” takes on the more mytical attributes of Jesus (pre-existence, his eternal glory and spiritual capacities), it is the low Christology and suffering that predominated her theology.

            The grounding for “low Christology” is found notably in Isaiah 53. Other works[45] outside the scope of this work do a much more thorough survey of explaining the importance for Jesus to suffer as evidence of his messiahship. For our purposes, however, it is sufficient to say that Teresa so clearly found salvation in the suffering, the face of Jesus in the “Poorest of the Poor” and that the movement of Europe and the Americas towards a gospel of wealth and empowerment entirely foreign to scripture and the teachings of the Church. Jesus, for M. Teresa, was even more strongly in solidarity with the dying than his healthy and Spirit-empowered disciples. There is a practicality in this approach that goes unnoticed. Such a position hearkens back to Teresa’s patron saint, Therese of Lisieux, who encouraged small acts of devotion as proof of love for Christ.

            In some sense, this Christology is disembodied. Jesus, though acknowledged to be in Heaven currently, is also to be found among us – not exclusively in fellow Christians for whom he is considered to be alive, at least in spirit, but all the oppressed and marginalized. Unlike those who subscribe to liberation theology as a matter of social justice, M. Teresa firmly believed the marginalized were and are Jesus. Their death does not extinguish this fact any more than Jesus’ own death did. He retained his identity through his life, death, and return and in some mystical sense left himself not only with his followers as the ending of Luke and beginning of Acts articulate, but was resurrected into the lives of the sick, the dying, the imprisoned, whatall[46]. The Christology of the “Suffering Servant” which so characterized the teachings of the early Gospel writers, Pauline theology and to a limited degree the triumphalism of John[47] stands in stark contrast to the theology of oppression produced by the affluent, white patriarchy so clearly evidenced in the leadership of Christianity and in many ways serves as an indictment against the Church. It is possible that, like so many female mystics before her, M. Teresa offered a judgment against the Church while dutifully paying homage to it through obedience.

Significance for Women in Ministry

            It is mildly ironic that scriptural precedent for M.Teresa’s practice can be found in the Acts of the Apostles. Not only does the work have a male bias regarding the evangelistic efforts of so many men (even a brief story about a eunuch-come-missionary in ch.8), it also presents a surveyed account of how the first believers were attempting to redefine what the essence of Christ among them meant now that he was gone.

            Acts chapter 6 is traditionally read as an account of how Stephen came to become the first martyr. Though chapter serves as a prelude to Stephen, securing him as a fitting apostle or one who had seen Jesus (whether during his life or through a mystical vision, though by chapter 6 this has yet to occur), there is an unsettling account of how celebrity began to emerge within the Church. Here we see the twelve apostles telling the Church that it is not “fitting” for them to leave their theology and give service to others. In this case, those others are widows – a marginalized group that Jesus had continually expressed were close to his heart and whom James would later say were the “true” interest of those devoted to God.[48] Again, this chapter serves as a prelude to the martyrdom of Stephen and yet Luke records it with a touch of irony. Here we see those who declare themselves to be closest to Jesus, those same “unlearned and ignorant men,”[49] now saying that it would not be proper or right for them to leave their studies of the Word, rituals of prayer, and pontification on what it was that Jesus meant – even what Jesus meant when he celebrated the meager contribution of a widow.[50] Apparently, the debatable[51] absence of Jesus addressing widows and orphans was not seen as a priority, though his unanimous silence on extensive study somehow became an explicit command. James will later write a corrective of such behavior, stating that partiality as was shown here is not of the Lord, not a “true” interpretation of what Jesus intended, and remind his audience that the poor were the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God – not those who puffed themselves up above another.[52] The writer of Hebrews does the same[53] and Paul shows concern for those suffering abroad as well. It is noteworthy, then, to point out that the fulfillment of her second calling, M. Teresa does no less than recover the ministry of the deacon as detailed in Acts 6: 1-7.

            Writing about gender roles and the division of labor, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen notes the ways in which men delegate “the interpersonal, nurturing tasks of the church – from care of children and the sick t the preparation and serving of food – largely to women” and undermining future generations of (the always male) pastors “in the social skills and sensivity that are essential to their jobs! The more formal, visible and well-paid tasks – theologizing, preaching, the making of important administrative decisions – are then concentrated in male hands.”[54] That M. Teresa would see this as part of her calling is indeed progressive as, again, it provides an indictment of the predominantly masculine hierarchy of the Church. While M. Teresa was suspicious of women who wanted to “climb the ranks” and was adamantly against women in the priesthood, even perhaps content with the delegation of “secondary” duties, the fact that her life testifies to reclaiming this area of the Church is uncontested. Unlike Van Leeuwen who posits that men assign such duties to women to protect their masculinity, M. Teresa’s life (together with the copious scriptures noted here) is a reprimand of sorts to men who believe true religion is about devoting oneself to prayer and the reading, interpretation and argument of scripture. And it is in this way that M.Teresa provides a paragon for women in the Church who find themselves in “secondary” status as servants. Clearly, M. Teresa subscribed to the teaching of James who reason that humbling oneself to low tasks was the true glory for the follower of Christ.[55]

            It is ironic then, that a woman so vocally opposed to women in leadership was herself a leader, reclaiming dignity for the role of a deacon and overseer in the Church. Further, not only did M.Teresa accomplish this but she also performed the function of an apostle, establishing houses of worship and care abroad, overseeing them from a distance, encouraging others, and (the ultimate test for some) saw Jesus visibly much in the same way that Paul is said to have seen Jesus on the road to Damascus before later adopting the title of apostle himself. What are women in the Church to make of this? Or men for that matter? And how can it be that while she discouraged women as priests, indeed refusing to go about her day until a male priest performed mass each morning, she herself did so much for the advancement of women in ministry, proving that not only were women capable to the task but could garner world-wide acclaim in the process?

            While M. Teresa may have been celibate, having never married any man (except in the spiritual sense), and had no children of her own (save, again, in the spiritual sense), it is important to note that she was never against marriage or childbirth as sacraments. Her witness should not be seen as a prohibition against the institution of marriage, nor does she prescribe the same ultimatum that Jesus did with her, pressing women to choose between Jesus and something else. Instead, her life should be seen as proof that women belong in ministry and are equal to the task. While her devotion to Christ and the absence of childbearing certainly freed her schedule, there is no explicit or implicit choice to be made. Further, beyond the scope of discussion here, her experience provides proof of what is commonly called the mystical or charismatic as being the experience of men alone but something that can be validated by multiple witnesses based on the testimony of a lived expression of faith. Even further, her life provides witness to the reclamation of a “more biblical approach” to ministry – that of avoiding arguments and focusing on those who need help instead of cloistering oneself away to study and pray. Finally, her life provides an example of what single-minded focus on devotion to Christ looks like. In the last seven decades, the Church (both Catholic and Protestant) has come under intensive and continual criticism for focusing on theology, sex and gender, whether oppressed groups should be helped and under what conditions, ad infinitum even as a small and hunched woman became the most godly face of Christendom on the planet, avoiding scandal in all matters and attracting the assistance of all faiths. Though the Sisters of Charity in many ways provided a prime opportunity for violence by virtue of a large congregation of women “protected” only by the sick, limbless, dying and dead, their presence in Calcutta took on mythical sanctity as evidence that God is found among those who wish to find him – even if they are women. Her life and even her death provide ample evidence that not only is there a place for women, but that they can eclipse men entirely.

            Troubling is the way in which we, as modern and post-moderns, wish M. Teresa would have gone farther and thus invalidate the progress for women that she achieved. While we may wish that she would have said this or done that or taken on such-and-such title, she did not. And that is okay. For what kind of goal we wish for and what kind of goal we achieve has always been at the heart of the Christian experience. Indeed, the first followers of Jesus wished that he would have defied the social roles placed upon him by both Jewish and Roman authority, wished that he would have ushered in a kingdom that would overthrow those same authorities in the same way he turned tables over at Herod’s Temple. Yet this was not so, and it need not be so for Jesus’ life as much as his death showed what was possible for those who wanted to change their world. While M. Teresa may not have accomplished all that we may wish she had, her life still provides us with an exemplary model of religious expression for the Christian woman. She embodied her theology though redefining the position of deacon(ess) as one of the most important functions of church leadership and pioneered liberation theology, giving it scriptural language and embodiment before such movements were recognized as important and was able to direct the attention of Catholics worldwide to helping the marginalized, convict the tendency of the West to oppress and eradicate the victims of their “progress.” Those who attempt to dismiss M. Teresa as a “product of her time” or someone who, through her submission to the authorities she had vowed to submit to, set the feminist movement back have misread her achievements and failed to comprehend just how far she brought women in ministry to public light and inspired a new generation to achieve and surpass her accomplishments.

[1] Notably The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens, scheduled for a second edition in April, 2012. In this work Hitchens goes to great lengths to point out the financial mismanagement of the Sisters of Charity by M. Teresa, her friendship with dictators, and what Hitchens believes to be a life-long pursuit for sainthood.

[2] Anne Sebba, Mother Teresa: Beyond the Image. (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 10-11.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (New York: Image Books, 1977), 62

[5] A former Sister of Charity, Sister Dolores of Kalighat, said that “Mother Teresa does not believe her sisters should be more educated than those they are trying to serve.” Sebba, 162.

[6] Ex: Sarai/Sarah (Gen 17:15), Naomi/Mara (Ruth 1:20), Cephas/Peter (Jn 1:42) and Saul/Paul (Acts 13:9).

[7] Guy Gaucher, The Spiritual Journey of Therese of Lisieux (New York: Harper One), 2.

[8] Ida Friederike Goerres, The Hidden Face: A Study of St. Therese of Lisieux (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 41-42.

[9] Sebba, 160.

[10] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., 1577.

[11] Ibid., 2853.

[12] Her sari, for instance, is commonly confused with the traditional habit of nuns and though M. Teresa rejected the freedom of sisters to individuate themselves by modern apparel, the fact that she found a way to adopt the garb of women in Calcutta while also respecting the restriction of dress by the Church testifies to the fact that she respected the Church without following their restrictions precisely.

[13] P.T. Raju, The Philosophical Traditions of India (London: Univ. Of Pittsburgh Press, 1971), 25.

[14] The word yoga and the English word “yoke” have the same Indo-Germanic root (yuj), both meaning to join. Given the rise of yoga as an exercise practice, yoga has come to mean any practice – mental, spiritual and physical – that leads to the joining of being.

[15] Two other words apply. Though yoga refers to religion in general, a more specific and alternative term for religion, dharma, is also used to convey what sustains or supports as well as mata, which means opinion, doctrine, theory, or an enunciated view. Religion in Indian thought is a theory of reality which guides life, a philosophy, law, or plan on how to live that life and the supernatural forces/ deities which govern and administer reward and punishment.

[16] Arguably, even scientific atheists who place faith in logic, reason, and a first cause.

[17] Ibid., 26.

[18] See John 14:6

[19] See John 14:5-12.

[20] Angelo Devananda, Mother Teresa: Contemplative of the World (Servant Books: 1985), 106.

[21] Ibid., 112

[22] Ex. 22:21-27; Dt. 14:29; Jer. 22:13, 15-16)

[23] Mk 12:40; Lk 7:11-16; Jas 1:27; Acts 4:32-34; 6:1-6; I Cor. 11:8-22.

[24] Peter C. Phan, Social Thought: Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michael Glazier), 132.

[25] See Mt. 25: 31-46

[26] See Gen. 1:27; Rms. 8:29

[27] Leonardo Boff & Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994), 4

[28] Christopher Rowland, “Introduction: the theology of liberation.” The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1999), 2.

[29] Rowland, 3.

[30] J. Ellsworth Kalas, “Mother Teresa, God’s Little Pencil.” Preaching about People: The Power of Biography (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 168.

[31] Malcolm Muggeridge, 65.

[32] Sebba, 161.

[33] Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa of Calcutta Speaks on Priesthood (Madrid: Corpus Christi Movement for Priests, 2010), 2.

[34] David Porter, Mother Teresa, The Early Years (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986)

[35] See Jn 21: 15-24

[36] M. Teresa to Fthr. Franjo Jambrekovic, Feb. 8, 1937.

[37] M. Teresa. Come Be My Light. Ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C. (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

[38] Father James Martin, SJ. “Teresa of Jesus” Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint (New York: TIME Books 2010), 20.

[39] Come Be My Light, 43.

[40] Ibid., 46.

[41] Ibid., 48.

[42] Ibid., 48.

[43] Ibid., 49.

[44] Martin, 24

[45] Particularly Wolfhart Pannenburg in Jesus, God, and Man (1968), Gerald O’Collins’ Christology: A Biblical, Hisorical and Systematic Study (2009), Veli-Matti Karkkkainen’s Christology: A Global Introduction (2003) and Theology for the Community of God by Stanley J. Grenz, each of which provide a nuanced Christology sympathetic to the low/high understanding as much as the Catholic/Protestant (dis)agreements.

[46] Again, here we can only point to Matt. 25 as she did in our attempt to understand this as Christ’s final and summary teaching.

[47] Rev. 5: 2-14.

[48] See James 1:27.

[49] See Acts 4:13

[50] See Mk 12: 41-44; Lk 21:1-4.

[51] Debatable in the sense that some have interpreted that while there is no “explicit” direction on Jesus’ part regarding the poor even when given the chance (Matt 26:11;  Mk14:7), the collection of his sayings show a preference for the poor, impoverished and oppressed in contrast to the antithetical position he held towards the rich who hold onto their wealth and the religious who discuss scripture at length and fail to help the “other” among them (see Matt. 19: 16-30; 23:1-33; 25:31-46; Mk 6:30-44; 8: 1-13; 10:17-31; Lk 4:18-9; 4:18-30; 10:25-37; 14:13 and 16:1-31) together with seeing himself in solidarity with the homeless, family-less and transient poor (see Matt 8:20; 12:46-50; and Lk 9:58).

[52] James 1:27; 2: 1-26.

[53] Hbrw 13:1-3

[54] Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. Gender & Grace: Love, Work & Parenting in a Changing World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1990) 118-19.

[55] See James 4:10.

One thought on “Mother Teresa’s Theology

  1. I enjoyed reading your paper, just one quick note. I think you mean Matthew 25:31-46. You have Matt. 24.

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