Editor's note: David Van Biema, the chief religion writer at Time Magazine for ten years, is author of the illustrated biography "Mother Teresa: The Life and Works of a Modern Saint," now being reissued and made available in Spanish as "La Madre Teresa: La Vida y las obras de una santa moderna."
By David Van Biema, Special to CNN
Fifteen years may be less than an instant in celestial time, but here on earth it's a lot of news cycles.
Mother Teresa departed this Earth on September 5, 1997. What more can we say about the woman who became synonymous with love for the "poorest of the poor," picking up a Nobel and tweaking the conscience of millions? What do we know about her now that we didn't know then?
A lot, it turns out.
Here's a quick Blessed Mother Teresa primer, emphasizing the stuff that you probably don’t know, some of which we only learned recently.
1. She was born a rich girl.
Born in 1910, Mother Teresa came from money – at least by the standards of her native Skopje, Macedonia. Her parents were so well-off that there was a local saying "as generous as the Bojaxhius." (Her last name was Bojaxhiu; her given first name was Agnes.)
Catholic nun brings her star power to DNC
Agnes was cultured and well-educated: She wrote poetry and played the mandolin. Her family took in orphans and she tagged along as her mother went out to tend to the destitute. All of this challenges the notion of pre-saints as nasty, or no better than average, until God flicks a switch (think Paul, pre-Damascus).
In Agnes’ case, if God flicked a switch, he had clearly laid the circuitry carefully beforehand.
2. For a long time, it was hardly obvious that Teresa would end up who she became.
She emigrated to India to become a nun at age 18, but worked as a teacher another 17 years before receiving a series of startling visions and locutions (verbal communications) from Jesus. The experience, wrote her confessor at the time, was "continual, deep and violent."
Opinion: Paul Ryan provokes debate on Catholic politics
She later recalled it as a dramatic dialogue taking up pages: Jesus calls her "my little one" and demands that she "carry Me into the holes of the poor. I want Indian nuns … who would be my fire of love among the poor, the sick, the dying and the little children." She hesitates. He asks impatiently, "Is your generosity gone cold?"
It had not. After two years spent convincing her local bishop, she was released from her previous vows and founded her Missionaries of Charity.
3. She changed our view of the poor.
"There are plenty of nuns to look after the rich and well-to-do people, but for my very poor, there are absolutely none," Teresa wrote, describing communication she got from Jesus.
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
That seems a bit exaggerated. But Teresa redefined the concept of "working with the poor" in the modern age. For poor she substituted "poorest of the poor," a new category with a corresponding moral imperative. She understood the word "with" as obliterating the line between benefactor and beneficiary, plunging her nuns deeply into the world of the slums.
As for "working," Teresa combined case-by-case spontaneity with an organizational genius. In Calcutta she developed institutions – schools for poor children, homes for pregnant homeless women, orphans and lepers, and hostels for the dying – that became a template for her ministries the world over.
4. She was a marketing guru.
"Billions know about her compassion," says evangelical megapastor Rick Warren. "But what is not so well known (were) leadership skills, evident in the multiplication of what she did to other parts of the planet."
Teresa instinctively leveraged her growing renown, cultivating a United Nations of world leaders and donors and paving the way for the Missionaries. Four decades after her solo start in India, her order was in over 100 countries, making her one of the church's truly great founders. "If there are poor on the moon, we will go there, too," she joked – sort of.
5. She cultivated her celebrity.
Teresa was famous first in India, then worldwide, partly through the efforts of British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and partly due to another gift. "The way she spoke to journalists showed her to be as deft a manipulator as any high-powered American public relations expert,” noted Irish rocker/philanthropist Bob Geldof.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
That that gift seemed to be unconscious did not make it any less effective. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she became part of a Mt. Rushmore of greatest-generation religious icons – including Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham and the (relatively youthful) Dalai Lama – that has no successor generation.
Of them, Teresa attained the purest pop-culture status, capped by her touching friendship with then-Princess Diana of England. When the two died within a week of one another (Diana in a car wreck, Teresa by heart attack), a T-shirt immediately popped up showing both with halos.
6. Teresa had a long, dark night of the soul.
In 2007, a cache of newly released private letters introduced a startling unknown side to Teresa: a 39-year period, coinciding almost exactly with her Missionaries career, during which Jesus, previously so present, seemed utterly absent to her, in prayer and even in the Eucharist.
"The silence and the emptiness is so great," she wrote, "that I look and do not see– the tongue moves (in prayer) but does not speak."
Critics like the late Christopher Hitchens said the correspondence proved Teresa was just a "confused old lady." But the letters were issued by her postulator, the Vatican-appointed advocate for her sainthood.
Her church regarded her perseverance in the absence of a sense of divine response as perhaps her most heroic act of faith. Both her torment and underlying faith were evident in another letter: "If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote. "I will continually be absent from Heaven – to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth."
7. She’s not a saint yet – not officially.
Not as recognized by her own Roman Catholicism, where validation of sanctity is a multi-step process.
A year after Teresa's death, the Vatican waived a five-year-delay to allow her "cause" to begin early. In 2002, it announced her "heroic virtue," and in the same year credited her with the disappearance of a tumor affecting an Indian woman who had prayed to her.
This first miracle led to her beatification, for which 250,000 people flocked to Rome. But canonization awaits a second miracle. Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, her advocate, says reports of her "supernatural favors" to believers currently total 4,200. He is currently investigating a case in Colombia.
Of course, the church freely admits that saints are saints before it recognizes them, and many Catholics fervently believe Teresa is one. So do others, including Rick Warren, who defines a saint as "a true hero" who "sacrifice(s) for the benefit of others." Suzie van Houte, left in infancy with Mother Teresa and now an Episcopalian living in Washington state, says simply: "A saint is a person who's gone out of her way."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Van Biema.
We Indians are blessed so many saints born on this great land from sufis to pandits to amazing Mother Terresa ..
God bless these saints and God bless India
I have a better idea, maybe you all should take credit for your own achievements and intellect rather than giving it to a god for which there is no evidence of existing.
Scott ... son i just know there is power ..no one have seen him /her or felt em .. but this power do exist and gives strenght and hope to pple .. so i do believe in Supreme Power
The irony in all of this is that Teresa was an atheist by the end of her life (she finally came to her senses). From CBS News, But now, it has emerged that Mother Teresa was so doubtful of her own faith that she feared being a hypocrite, reports CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips.
In a new book that compiles letters she wrote to friends, superiors and confessors, her doubts are obvious.
Shortly after beginning work in Calcutta's slums, the spirit left Mother Teresa.
"Where is my faith?" she wrote. "Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness... If there be God — please forgive me."
Eight years later, she was still looking to reclaim her lost faith.
"Such deep longing for God… Repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal," she said.
As her fame increased, her faith refused to return. Her smile, she said, was a mask.
"What do I labor for?" she asked in one letter. "If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."
For one Mother Teresa was not born in our country. So what exactly are you taking credit for here?
Yup, we can take credit that we let people misguide us and we follow them blindly. Oh, I know quite a few people who think even Baba Ramdev is a saint!!!
Mother Theresa.....pray for us, all of us.
Shes dead her brain has ceased functioning, hence her consciousness is gone. There is no evidence to believe otherwise.
ScottCA, her body is dead but all of the orphans and many others she helped and fed when no one else would help will always remember her in their minds and hearts. . .so in a sense she does live on.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL THESE NEGATIVE PEOPLE??SO VERY SAD!!HOW MANY OF YOU WOULD EVEN GO NEAR A LEPER OR THE SLUMS OF ANY CITY??I KNOW I TRY TO BE A LOVING KIND AN GIVING PESON BUT SOME DAYS I'M JUST NOT!!AFTER 9/11 I MADE A VOW I WOULD TRY HARDER!BECAUSE WE COULD BE GONE IN A BLINK OF AN EYE SO TRYING TO BE KINDER SEEMS THE BEST WAY TO GO JUST IN CASE THERE'S A CHANCE THERE IS A REAL PLACE CALLED HEAVEN AN A REAL PLACE CALLED HELL!!AN BELIVE ME I KNOW PEOPLE HAVE BEEN WRONG BEFORE!CIAO
She refused service to my grandmother, who died in the street nearby, simply because she refused to convert to Catholicism.
Is it true that she would only help Catholics and not people of other faiths or without faith? Does anyone have evidence of this?
Shiva ,,,, or aslam ... this only happens in Pakistan where they frame lil 10 year on handicap girl and grill her to death not in pakistan :)
The author underestimates the "dark night of the soul." It was not a night, it was practically her entire career and it did not resolve. She considered herself a fraud but was encouraged by the church that this was her cross to bear and not to talk about it publicly. This same author in a previous article was more thorough:
"That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor."
Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1655720,00.html#ixzz265jybsQu
How about doing for one day, what she did her whole life, instead of spewing your hinduism, absurdity to demonize her good work, how about tending a untouchable and not taking shower afterword, hindu, crook from hindered gutter of hinduism, racism india. please visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more about hinduism, criminality of hindu's criminals against truth absolute and "HIS" humanity.
HEY 'HINDUISM' HOW'S IT GOING? GOT YOUR RACISM HAT ON AGAIN TODAY?
She helped those, hindu's racist called untouchable by their hindu filthy hinduism, racism as their hindu filthy faith, in violation of human equality ordained by truth absolute God, and asked for any thing. shame on hindu's deniers of truth absolute, for their hinduism criminality abd claiming to be human, but with mind set of animals.Word hindu is based on Latin word hindered, negative, HUN, great, HAN, to be in greatness, hin, to be negative to both of them, hindu, a noun in negativity, hinduism, way of negativity, denial of truth absolute, hinduism, criminality of a hindu Jew, terrorist self centered, expect nothing better from a hindu Jew, terrorist self centered but his hindu Judaism, criminal self center ism, secularism, as from a pig, self centered, secular. To learn hinduism, corruption of truth absolute by hindu's, denires of truth absolute, please visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/ and click on word Choice to open file.
Wow!!! You really are pi$$ed at Hindu's...I guess all Fcuking dickless muslim PAKI's like you are.......
HEY HOW'S YOUR MOM? STILL WALKING FUNNY?
All religions are false. I was born into Islam and became an atheist. God may exist but certainly, no religion is from God.
another face of a hindu, crook in his hinduism, trickery. please visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn about hinduism, criminality of hindu's, criminals against truth absolute and his humanity.
THat wasn't Gabriel in the cave....it was Lucifer!
There is no evidence to support the existence of god. To believe in one without evidence is insanity.
her cobwebs must have surely been impressive !!!
She perversely cared only to convert sick people to Catholicism preying on them in the most desperate (and likely painful) time of their life. She did not heal people and forbade doing anything to alleviate their suffering believing like most Catholics that suffering is good for you. That fact that she believes Jesus was "communicating" with her shows she was likely psychotic. She was a PR machine. And now due to another act of insanity, someone claiming a beam of light came out of a photograph of her and healed a person, she is destined for sainthood. And we wonder why religion is dying (albeit a very slow death).
What have you done lately for the "poorest of poor", Steve?
Your comment is not accurate. Mother Teresa's charities will help anyone and only preach through deeds. They have healed and fed millions of people through the caring heart of a single soul from Albania. She now is famous worldwide. What about you Steve? How many widows have you visited, how many sick have you tended to? How many orphans have you helped? How many in jail have you visited? When your answer is, that through your own effort, you started a charity that did this, with the help of God, then, by all means, take it upon yourself to criticize the work of Mother Teresa.
That is irrelevant to the discussion of a phony saint.
Theresa refused her dying patients, who were in abject agony, any kind of pain relief. Theresa's excuse was, "my patients will die in dignity". The woman was total sadist.
Steve, you didn't start a discussion. You merely stated a lot of opinions as fact (i.e. you spoke in the assertive). Now you're offended people aren't "discussing" with you. Weird, right? It's like they just don't get you.
Steve..when was last time you fed the poor .. i feel pitty on mother who gave birth to you
I can not tell if you speak out of hate or ignorance, if you had researched more about mother teresa, instead of thinking you could just group her with your prejudices about Catholics and proceed to criticize her, you would have found a passage of her life when an important government offical asked her why she was not preaching to them or to the sick trying to convert them to her faith (catholic), and she answered that to be catholic you need to have faith, and only god can give faith, all she could do was to pray for them to find faith and truth. Hopefully you will do that yourself, no one can convince you, and you will need to ask God for faith, if you want to live in truth.
In her book, Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations and Prayers, she says:
“We never try to convert those who receive [aid from Missionaries of Charity] to Christianity but in our work we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or agnostics become for this better men — simply better — we will be satisfied"
Hope you take the time to find out more about her and her actions, and if for this you become a better man..
christianis, would you enrons just stop already ?!?!?
Mother Teresa spoke at my college graduation (IONA 1976). When asked how we could help her she responded "I don't need your help, but ask your neighbor, they might"
Her first "miracle" was a farce. The RCC will soon find another just like it to propel her into sainthood. They just need to go through the 4,200 "supernatural favors" to find the one most likely to persuade the gullible. The RCC hopes the resulting PR will divert attention away from their tawdry reputation of sheltering child abusers.
Blessed Mother Teresa was and still is a saint. All of the BS that atheists post on here can not dim the glory that she is experiencing in heaven as we speak! It must feel so terrible to believe that we are just overly evolved animals, and will expire for eternity some day. If you really believe that, how on earth could an atheist procreate? Knowing that their child will lie dead in the ground?
" the glory that she is experiencing in heaven as we speak"
And your verified evidence for this is....?
Is there no worth to life itself in your view? Is there no joy, no happiness?
I don't understand how heaven can be attractive to people how view life as something that must be endured just to get beyond it.Not to mention the god who would put people there for that purpose.
You've made up my mind don't confuse you with the facts.
You're a DOPE!!!!!!!!!
Jesus is a monkey
I hope you find your way, brother, from this brainwashing that has taken hold of you. You must realize your choice in faith is arbitrary, likely based solely on what your parents chose for you. Do you ever wonder why a god would allow so many innocent children to born into the "wrong" religions?
"how on earth could an atheist procreate? Knowing that their child will lie dead in the ground?"
Life is only worth living if you have a chance to get some prize at the end? My life is happy and wonderful, sorry that yours stinks so bad that you're searching for something better.
Kevin Jablonski, sometimes I envy people like you who hold such simplistic views of the world. It must be wonderful to live in a world where there is a magical place called "Heaven" in the clouds where you will go and live forever after you die. It must be comforting to believe that a magical man in the sky cares about you and does everything "for a reason". With your logic Mother Teresa is going to be wondering around for an eternity in her 90s.
Atheists write these lies so that they can quickly usher in the antichrist they worship with rewards of money, power, great time on earth.. Then they die and that when they meet Jesus, but, it's too late, they already made it on his enemy list.
Death is a necessary part of natural selection, otherwise evolution wouldn't work and we wouldn't be talking here. Of course we procreate because that behavior is deeply built into our genes, and because that's the only way we can keep our species alive. When we die, our children will live on. Not to mention that without death there would not be enough room for everyone on this planet.
Whats funny is you don't even know how right you are. And how wrong too.
If you have read the bible then you know God already put ever human being who ever lived, is living, or will live in his enemies list.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory – Romans 3:23
There is no way to the father except through me – John 14:6
You're already on his enemies list. And because of that he had to come down and commit ritualized suicide by cop. So he could use that blood to wash away the sin, because the previous animal sacrifices just weren't enough.
That is kind of sad about Christians, they are in a blood cult. Especially the ones who still insist Jesus was real and the bible is absolutely true. they worship a god who demands blood and tortured victims to be satisfied.
Kind of sick actually.
Kevin's a good man and the fact that you’re all blasting him proves how evil and malicious you all are. You show know civility or wisdom or compassion and really proves to me that these blogs are pointless because you have no concept of reason, truth or morality.
May the Lord of the logos have mercy on you?
P.S. your atheistic arguments are all weak as well as your moral code. And do yourself all of favor and stop claiming to know theology when you haven’t the slightest idea what the bible or salvation history teaches.
The Lord is real and you’re all cowards for refusing to open yourself up to him. Or maybe you refuse to believe because you desire sin over the truth of your existence.
Learn the difference between attacking an argument and attacking the person. Once you do you'll see that with the exception of one person calling him a dope every other comment is about his positions. They are attacks on his argument.
This differs from an attack on the person. Your comment for example. It expresses a conclusion, and then proceeds to attack people. You never actually bother to attack the positions.
If the arguments are so weak then you should be able to refute them in much less words than your insults take up. But they aren't, so you can't.
You do realize why Christians seek to get kids in the churches right? Because very few adults will swallow their nonsense. If there was any self-evident truth to it you'd see Buddhists, Taoists, and Muslims lining up down he street, of their own volition, waiting to get inside and let it be known how they know it to be true and just want to spread the good news.
But that doesn't happen. Nope, you've got to convert them. Convert them from believing in one fairy tale to believing in another.
Maybe just maybe Jesus thinks that the poor aren't so wonderful. Maybe just maybe people who do things with their lives and make money have some moral & spiritual currency. Being poor does not make you instantly noble. Go conservatives !!
And being rich does not absolve you of societal responsibility nor should numb you to compassion for the less fortunate.
Really...social responsibility ? Hmm what does that mean in a universe that implodes and we all just disappear ? I see no use in giving money to the useless poot unless I benefit from it in a direct way. Since there is no God, according to liberals, I'm going to take that theory to its final conclusion. I'm not interested in the pitiful BS of the lazy good for nothing poor.
" Since there is no God, according to liberals, I'm going to take that theory to its final conclusion. I'm not interested in the pitiful BS of the lazy good for nothing poor. "
First, obviously... there is a large % of 'liberals' who believe in God. Second, what would not believing in God have to do with helping the poor ?
I am aware of a number of atheists, most of which are liberals, who are deeply concerned about the poor... and give of their time, money, compassion, etc...
Maybe I'm missing something here as to the point you are attempting to make ?
It's the conservatives (Republicans) in the US who want to eliminate compassionate governmental programs for the poor and make the ultra-rich even more uber-ultra-rich.
Perhaps it's time to rethink your opinions of "liberals" and "conservatives".
And maybe, just maybe, the people who claim to love Jesus and yet think as you do might want to go and actually read what he said about the poor (and the rich). He was pretty damned clear on that particular issue. And no, I'm not Christian, but Jesus had it going on. Check it out sometime, before catering to your own need to justify your position (as so many do by "reading around" what Jesus actually said and–more importantly–did).
In a world without a God to answer to, doing anything that doesn't have a measurable purpose has no purpose. The best survive and the worst become soil again. I like that. If God sees fit not to help that Mother Teresa fool, I'm fine with that. I'm going to live my life to its maximum greedy potential.
You and the people who come into contact with you have my deepest sympathy, Loki. I hope you're able to find something in your life that makes you truly happy. I gather you feel cheated in some way, and look to the most superficial and temporary pleasures to try to "make up for it."
@saradode – yeah, that wasn't smug OR passive-aggressive, was it?
I'm in this life to win. If God is ok with how things are getting done; who am I to say otherwise. Ole Mother Teresa finally found out late in life she was hoodwinked. Spent her entire life converting lepers to Christianity. HA. Jesus actually said render on to Caesar which is Caesar's. I like that in Jesus. He was also a practice being.
Sam–yes, you're right–it started out passive-aggressive and smug, but what came after the first sentence was actually sincere. Actually, I do feel sympathy for people who feel that way, and for the people they feel they have to trample in order to get some sort of satisfaction. Call it what you will. I believe it's often the case.
Loki, I assume that you know that he said a hell of a lot more than the old (and often used to make a point like yours) "render unto Caesar" line. You know perfectly well that you're cherry-picking in order to make an invalid point to your own advantage. Say what you will about religion, but Jesus deserves a hell of a lot better than that.
By passing all the religion crap as to who is best...... the fact is .......
Mother Teresa did MORE to help those in need than any political promise by ANY religious organization.
She was a great humanitarian, better than most of the bragerts who go on and on about their greatness as long as you send them MONEY.
Being humble far exceeds world praise to those self back patters.!!
While she showed great compassion and love toward the poor, she is quite controversial: for instance, she refused donations of pain meds and many of her patients had relatively minor, curable problems that she allowed to go untreated at hospital. Her focus was comfort, not care...compassion for the sick, not treatment.
So true ... and she worked hand in glove with the root causes of extreme poverty in India, even vigorously fighting attempts at reproductive education and distribution of birth control. It is a very mixed bag her legacy and too many fail to acknowledge her not-so-lovely aspects.
Please give a reference for your accusations.
Not providing pain relief is NOT compassionate.
There is not a shred of verified evidence for her "pie in the sky" idea of a posthumous reward for suffering.
While I was working with the Missionaries of Charity, working in several of the Sisters' homes in one city, all had 24 hour care thanks to her sisters. Every one of their patients was unable to care for themselves and they either had no family members or had become too big of a burden for their families. The Brothers and Fathers Missionaries were not authorized to prescribe medications at their home since there was only one Brother who had studied nursing and the Brothers' home was not a place where people could actually receive treatment besides aspirin or bandaging up. When ever anyone came to the Brothers' home that obviously needed medical attention the Brothers / Fathers usually saw to it that the person was taken to the hospital or clinic and taken care of. . . .at least that was my experience when I lived and worked with this group.
A lot of envious comments, anything wrong with caring about people who have no help from no one, would like to see some of you try and be half as good as she was, the world would be a much better place to live in. At least she brought some hope what do you all bring?
"If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote. "I will continually be absent from Heaven – to (light) the light of those in darkness on earth."
After reading some of the comments, I'm quite certain her brilliance must be blinding
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.