Book Review: Suffering into Joy
Author: Eileen and Kathleen Egan
Publisher: Servant Publications
Length: 156 pages
Quote: “Everyone is Jesus in a distressing disguise.”
In the 1970s, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the subject of a very popular book, Something Beautiful for God. In the 1980s, a short documentary movie was released about her work. In the 1990s, after a medical study reported that merely watching the movie boosted many people’s immune function (as measured by blood tests), the Egan sisters wrote this short book, containing as many direct quotes as possible from an old nun who never wrote a book and whose native language wasn’t English. Suffering into Joy may have been calculated to promote a traditional Roman Catholic view of Teresa of Calcutta as a saint.
Christians understand the biblical word “saint” in a variety of ways. I remember the mild shock, after being baptized at sixteen, of being in a group of newly baptized Protestants and having a minister address us as “saints.” His idea was that the words sanctus and hagios were used in the Bible to refer to people who were still alive at the time of writing. The words translated as “saint” meant any person dedicated to some religious purpose; in the Bible they referred to people who either were still alive, or hadn’t been dead very long. The idea of actually praying to people who had been dead a long time, who were remembered as especially “saintly,” came later and was rejected by most Protestants.
I mention this so that readers can share my appreciation of the irony: the people who most firmly resist the idea of praying to the saints of the Catholic Church are the ones who would have to agree that, beyond all question, Teresa of Calcutta was a saint. Early in life she took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and dedicated her whole adult career to nursing the sickest, filthiest, most hopeless patients she could find. It’s hard to imagine that her intentions were not passively suicidal, but, as the whole world now knows, she did not catch a fatal infection and die quickly. She went on bathing and cleaning people with deadly diseases for more than sixty years. Considering that she started doing this before antibiotics had been invented, it’s hard to doubt that something beyond the ordinary emotional “high” of doing good deeds was protecting her.
That said, it must also be acknowledged that some of her best-known speeches, quoted in this book, sound unbearably smarmy. Repeated by anyone who is not indisputably a saint, they don’t even inspire any reaction more noble than an immediate application of Duct Tape Therapy. Since Teresa was (a) a saint, (b) foreign, and (c) a tiny, stooped old lady by the time most of us heard of her, people gave her a free pass...but I don’t recommend that anyone else try to repeat phrases like “pain is Jesus kissing you” in any mood or situation. It ties into Indian culture and should probably never have been uttered in English. Jesus was the kind of man children were always tagging after, tugging on, asking for a story; this does not happen to the kind of man whose kisses or touches cause pain.
“We must be able to radiate the joy of Christ,” she’s quoted as saying on page 38. “If our actions are just useful actions...our poor people would never be able to rise up to...the call to come closer to God...If we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed.” I think this might have been a sane thing for Teresa of Calcutta to say in Calcutta, in the context of the reality that feeling sad or tired often means that your immune system is already burdened—you’re not fit to be around people with AIDS or leprosy. And these patients were “poor people” in every sense of the word. However, in most of the places where most of us are going to do any beautiful works for God of which we may be capable, I think this speech is misplaced and counterproductive.
Let me try to explain this from the perspective of someone who is “poor in America,” either less wealthy than other Americans, or to be pitied for some other reason such as bereavement. If what someone does for me as a person in material need is “just a useful action,” a genuinely useful action, and one that pays me enough respect to involve a fair exchange rather than trying to insult me with some suggestion of a handout from either side, I can’t guarantee that that’s going to bring me closer to God—God and I are the ones who would determine that—but I can say that it’s going to bring me closer to that person as a person. And anything anybody could do for me as a bereaved person would have to be done with, at best, a grave, serious face.
I’ve written about this before: I’m not opposed to smiles, or to out-loud laughter—much that I’ve written is meant to encourage laughter—but if you find yourself thinking about what your face is doing and telling yourself to smile, please stop now. A smile that someone forces onto his or her face in the belief that smiling is a duty, rather than a pleasure, is a sad thing to see. If you’re not carried away by joy or pleasure to the point where you’re unaware that you’re smiling, then you shouldn’t be smiling. Try a little honesty—it will lead to more genuine smiling and laughing, overall.
But back to Mother Teresa. What about her more levelheaded, human-to-human ideas? Well, here I go out on a limb again...I think that some of her extravagances are in fact what a Christian life is all about; what should actually be expected of all Christians. Not all of us are meant to be nurses in Calcutta. All of us who claim to be Christians are, however, called to function as the living body of Christ (see Teresa’s commentary on Galatians 2:20 on page 61 of Suffering into Joy).
I’m not so sure that nursing the dying is the best model for most of our ministries. (Not all Christians are meant to be ordained ministers in churches, but every Christian has a ministry...unfortunately most Christians don’t seem to know this.) On page 75 Mother Teresa is quoted as saying that poor people “are hungry not only for bread and rice, they are hungry...for you to know...that they want to be treated as you are treated.” To an American reading these words I would add: Do you honestly believe that that means “spoken to with a simper”? Is a pseudo-smile the kindest thing anyone has ever given you? What about a smarmy pseudo-endearment from a total stranger?
Christians are attracted to Christ because we want to “be givers,” but it’s too easy for us to buy into a wrongheaded way of doing it. Teresa of Calcutta couldn’t have been expected to imagine the warped attitude Christians in the United States have toward money and what we know of poverty—most of which she would have seen as luxury.
Teresa of Calcutta would probably have understood what I mean by saying that what she called “selflessness” is a benign illusion. In her very special situation, it seems obvious that she must have felt a particular kind of joy—the intense joy that spreads through a healthy body when the immune system is successfully warding off diseases—on a regular basis, and that that joy was what she wanted in life. Most of us prefer other kinds of joy, and most of us don’t get her kind. (Many other missionaries died in Calcutta .) In any case, she was following her bliss.
Why can’t Big Government replicate this kind of joy on a bigger and more accessible scale? Given that most people, even most Sisters of Charity, wouldn’t survive sixty years or even sixty days of what Teresa went to Calcutta to do at the beginning, why can’t we just translate the old nun’s joy into a calmer, secularized way of feeling good by letting Big Government redistribute our national wealth? Maybe because, in any situation less melodramatic than Calcutta, attempts to copy Teresa’s heroic acts become histrionic, or even hysteric, rather than heroic. Maybe because when you institutionalize and professionalize and depersonalize anything, you lose the joy. Maybe because Big Government is not a saint who has devoted her or his individual life to channelling the spirit that was in Jesus. All I know for sure is that, during the twentieth century, nearly every country on earth experimented with some sort of Welfare State, and although countries like Sweden and the United States still seem to have some chance of surviving if we abort the experiment fast, no country that made the experiment has profited by it.
This is getting political, and I apologize to the memory of Mother Teresa, who was not political, but in my country the personal is political. I think Americans need to bear these political thoughts in mind when we reflect on this book. Teresa served people who were already paupers, disabled, dying; she didn’t make anyone a pauper. When able-bodied people stayed with the Missionaries of Charity, she put them to work. When she said, “What you can do is pray for us,” she was talking to individuals who were flat on their backs, barely strong enough to swallow water—not to a generation of young people who are being denied the basis of membership in adult society, the right to earn honest wages for honest work.
So, the little nun did something awesome, for God, for India, and for herself. Merely reading her story can do some people some measurable medical good. I recommend that everybody own a copy and read it every five or ten years. But I also recommend that we in the United States read it with more awareness of its historical context than many American readers have shown. If you want to serve the Highest Good of people who are not dying in gutters, you must never talk to them as if they were. Taking this beautiful book too much on its face value, in the United States, has done some of us harm rather than good.
Suffering Into Joy is not difficult to find. Mother Teresa no longer needs a dollar. Eileen Egan no longer needs a dollar. If Kathleen Egan needs a dollar, I'm not seeing evidence of it on the Internet. So, if you can get this book cheaper elsewhere online, or in real life, and send more money to the Missionaries of Charity, please feel free to do so. If you buy this book from me, it'll cost $5 + $5 for shipping it (anything else I can squeeze into the same package).