Icon of the poor leaves legacy of controversy

 

A pencil in God's hands, is how Mother Teresa saw herself. Hell's Angel, was the verdict of journalist and critic Christopher Hitchens. Many saw her as a living saint, and want her canonised, now, posthaste. For others, as in Hitchens's three-hour damning TV documentary, she was a short-sighted tyrant, whose "impractical views" on abortion and family planning made her "obsolete". Beggars interviewed recently in a Calcutta slum had never heard of her.

Mother Teresa: Beyond The Image, a biography written by Anne Sebba, has just been published - the timing, in an odd twist of fate, coinciding with its subject breathing her last.

Sebba, an English Jew, attempts to bring together the contradictions into a composite picture of a remarkable woman, whose work with the sick, dying, homeless and handicapped attracted donations to the tune of an estimated $30 million every year. Sebba highlights the egotism of the icon in not grooming a successor to lead the 4,000strong Missionaries of Charity (which has 600 houses, operating in 130 countries). "Wait until I die, and then see," Mother Teresa advised.

Sure enough, it was only in April (after her health broke down last year) that the nuns finally named Sister Nirmala as the new Superior General. But she is no Mother Teresa, Mark II: Sebba describes her as "a timid personality who had always kept a low profile" who was instrumental in founding the contemplative wing of the order. Mother Teresa retained the title Mother and was spiritual and titular head of the order until the end.

The secret of her success, says Sebba, was not only her "drive and determination", but also her "shamelessness", the fact she was never afraid to ask for what she wanted from whomever might be in a position to give it to her. This ability was demonstrated when Bob Geldof met her at an airport in Ethiopia in 1985.

First of all she refused to let him kiss her: "she only let lepers kiss her". She also declined his offer of a fund-raising concert by the Boomtown Rats with her usual dictum "God will provide" (she preferred straight donations). Pragmatic to the last, she then took advantage of the TV cameras to ask a government minister to donate some buildings she had seen in Addis Ababa for use as orphanages. Like all big powerful men when put on the spot by her demands, he was "too embarrassed to say `no' ".

SHE was never shy about accepting money from the wealthy, however dubious their source of cash or political record. These include Robert Maxwell, the Duvaliers in Haiti, and US fraudster multi-millionaire, Charles Keating - even when she was told that the latter's donation was stolen from innocent people's savings, she did not send any of it back.

Geldof was impressed by the way she turned the situation in Addis Ababa airport to her advantage: "She was as deft a manipulator of media as any highpowered American PR expert. She does a sort of `Oh dear, I'm just a frail old lady' schtick. She was outrageously brilliant. There was no false modesty about her and there was a certainty of purpose which left her little patience." Psychologist Anthony Storr lists certainty as a key attribute in a "spiritual guru". Such certainty was illustrated at the US Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1995 where she said, in front of the pro-choice Clintons: "I know what God likes and does not like. He does not like abortion and contraception."

She did not allow families who had used contraception to adopt babies from her orphanages. She advocated natural family planning, and Sebba describes the frustration of one doctor who had to give an abortion to a 10-year-old who had got pregnant practising Mother Teresa's preferred technique.

There is considerable opposition to her message, given India's population of 949.6 million (it will soon overtake China as the most populous country in the world). "Roads, transportation, schools, hospitals, the environment: the whole system is breaking down because of over-population," says Suda Tewari, who runs the Marie Stopes clinics in India. "Twenty per cent of families want no more children but are not practising family planning because they cannot access help."

Mother Teresa's dictum that loneliness is the greatest disease and that suffering people in the order's hospitals are being shown love for the first time rings hollow in the light of the sometimes less-than-tender attitude of her order's nuns towards their charges. A social worker gives a vivid account of a dying woman, shrieking with pain, as two nuns dragged her across the room to hose her down with cold water. Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the St Christopher hospice movement, notes: "To say to someone else, `offer up your pain to God' instead of giving them pain relief is the antithesis of Christian caring."

Mother Teresa's offer of charity was at odds with current relief thinking: "She does not insist, as other charities do, that poverty must be eliminated. She believes there will always be poor people and they enable the Missionaries of Charity to demonstrate Christ's love," says Sebba. Dr R.C. Biswas, director of the Cathedral Relief Services, observes: "People must be the custodian of their own development and once we have developed skills we gradually move out and they can do it themselves."

Calcutta suffered repeated disasters in the 1940s - floods, famines and food shortages, as well as the destruction of war and the butchery of civil war. Three and a half million died from starvation. In response, Mother Teresa took the bold step of leaving her sheltered teaching position in a Calcutta school and agitating to be allowed to set up her own order to respond to this dire need. First lauded in the Western media by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1969, she was on the cover of Time in 1975. Public figures began to swarm to pose with her in photo-calls, as a sure-fire way of attracting media attention. But, Sebba asks: "Should the media be blamed for building Mother Teresa into something no individual could possibly ever be, or should we, the public the media feeds, take some of the blame in our constant search for heroes to make us feel better?"

Above all, Sebba concludes that Mother Teresa's genius was inspiration. Her no-nonsense approach offered young people - more than 3,000 volunteers each year - a chance to salve their consciences in a straightforward way, without having to get into theological angst.

"Be a carrier of God's love," Mother Teresa told her novices. "If you don't have the zeal, then pack up and go home."