The Holiness That Humanizes: Mother Teresa’s Loving Witness
BOOK PICK: ‘To Love and Be Loved’ by Jim Towey delivers the personal portrait it promises: the genuine likeness of a saint.
TO LOVE AND BE LOVED
A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa
By Jim Towey
Simon & Schuster, 2022
288 pages, $27
To order: amazon.com
When Mother Teresa died 25 years ago today, I happened upon a point-counterpoint exchange on a radio talk show. Weighing in against Mother Teresa, Christopher Hitchens took the position that she was a terrible person because she simply served the poor but didn’t try to change unjust economic systems. Worse still, she wanted to be poor herself. In response, a Roman Catholic cleric (to remain unnamed) failed to clear the low bar set for him. He reduced Mother Teresa to what she manifestly was not, merely a nice person and do-gooder.
It’s hard to say who does more damage to the saints: their foes or their friends. The naysayers heap scorn on the saints, but at least they take them seriously. The devout, however, flatten out their character and present a comfortable — and harmless — portrait. Although Hitchens was (as always) belligerent and offensive, he seems to have understood Mother Teresa better than the cleric. What’s needed is the portrait that gives us the real saint, the real humanity that was sanctified, the authentic character, and not a caricature.
Coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, her longtime friend and adviser Jim Towey has published To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll confess that Jim Towey is an old friend and a parishioner of mine. But, as I think both my friends and my parishioners will attest, those connections don’t guarantee a favorable review. As it is, his book delivers the personal portrait it promises. Here, we have no caricature or one-dimensional depiction of a nice woman, but the genuine likeness of a saint.
To Love and Be Loved is, first of all, Mother Teresa’s biography, which Towey interweaves with the story of his own friendship with her. One thread walks us through her simple childhood in Albania, her entering religious life, her founding of the Missionaries of Charity, and her presiding over the enormous expansion of the order over 50 years. The other thread leads us through the author’s meeting her while a youngish Senate aide, his reconversion and his work with her for more than a decade.
Towey has no interest in drafting a saccharine holy card for Mother. He delves into her strengths as well as her weaknesses. He discusses her joy and virtues, as well as her temper and her vicious sweet tooth. At the heart of this book is the point that holiness humanizes. It’s wrong to reduce Mother to a “humanitarian,” but that at least touches on the point that the saints are the most human among us.
Soon after meeting her, Towey gave his life over to Mother Teresa and her work. Having spent so much time with Mother and her sisters and having considered a vocation to the Missionaries of Charity Fathers, he understands the spirituality that proves elusive to other writers.
God called Mother not merely to serve the poor but to go and to be with the poorest of the poor, to help them while among them. She was not just doing good; she was imitating the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Her vocation wasn’t to address a mere human need. She was called to quench the divine thirst that Christ expressed on the cross and that continues in the poor. Her path was one not of consolations and light, but of the cross and intense spiritual darkness that required a heroic faith to continue. To Love and Be Loved brings out the depth and intensity of this woman who once boldly vowed that she would refuse God nothing.
For years, Towey fought legal battles for Mother and her sisters. It’s shocking (and at times funny) how often the attempt to serve the poor can create legal problems. That experience sharpened Towey’s ability to defend Mother against detractors such as Hitchens. Mother’s “wholehearted and free service of the poorest of the poor” experienced opposition from the very start. That her work endured and has prospered witnesses to its divine inspiration and guidance. To Love and Be Loved meets and debunks the standard calumnies.
The vitriol and opposition that Mother encountered make her peacefulness and charity toward her opponents all the more extraordinary. Towey brings out how Mother maintained her firm faith and convictions while always treating those who opposed them with authentic Christian charity. She never fell into the trap of us vs. them. Our divided culture speaks often of “tolerance.” Mother didn’t merely tolerate people who opposed her: She loved them with that love that is divine in inspiration and human in expression.
This book is also a reminder of the practicality of the saints. Just because they were focused on heaven doesn’t mean that they had their heads in the clouds. Indeed, the spiritual life and the service of the Gospel require practical measures. Mother Teresa was clearly blessed with that sense by temperament, but she purified and perfected it by her devotion. The story of her vocation and her order witness to the beautiful combination of the divine initiative and the human response.
To Love and Be Loved is ultimately about friendship. The saints are friends of God. In this book we hear about how one friend of God befriended others and, by way of friendship, transformed them. Towey discusses not only her friendship with him but her capacity for friendship in general. Along the way he tells the beautiful story of how the Missionaries of Charity introduced him to his wife, Mary Griffith, and brought them together, into that great friendship of marriage.
Such friendship is at the heart of sanctity. Our Lord called men to be his friends and made them in turn friends with one another. In the course of her life, Mother Teresa did something similar, extending the circle of Christ’s friendship even to the poorest of the poor. Jim Towey has benefited from that gift and in this book has captured the beauty of that humanizing holiness.