There are many Christians, especially Catholics, who believe that Mother Teresa was a holy woman who dedicated her life to the sacred cause of helping the poorest of the poor. She suffered all her life for the sick, and well deserved to be called the Saint of the gutters of Calcutta. She did all that because she loved her hero and idol Jesus Christ. She was so devoted to Him that she saw His face in every suffering human being. She believed that Jesus on the cross was the ultimate symbol of suffering. She served Christians, Muslims, Jews, believers and non-believers alike, if she found them in pain and dying. She was an ocean of love. Many Christians believe that were we to choose one person as the Prophet of the 20th century, Mother Teresa would win that accolade because of her selfless and altruistic deeds. They believe she was the modern Messiah for a suffering humanity.

          On the other hand there are many atheists, Communists and feminists who believe that she was a religious fundamentalist, a fanatic and one of the biggest frauds of the 20th century, and that she did more harm than good. They say that she abused her power to collect millions of dollars in donations from kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers and richest of the rich for the poorest of the poor of the world but did not erect even a single modern hospital for the sick. In their view, she glorified suffering as she was in love with it, and she perpetuated the oppressive tradition of the Catholic Church by recruiting thousands of innocent girls as nuns, asking them to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She continued the cycle of oppression and abuse. She violated women’s rights by her opposition to abortion and contraception. She tried her best to drag the 20th century back into the Dark Ages and was a great obstacle to modern enlightenment.

          Being a Secular Humanist, I do not believe in gods, prophets, scriptures, divine revelations or life after death, but I respect people from religious, spiritual and secular traditions who sacrifice their lives to help suffering humanity.

          As a student of human psychology and a practising psychotherapist, I am fascinated by the religious and cultural conditioning of children and the psychology of free thinkers who challenge their religious traditions. I am also intrigued how cultural myths and mythological characters are created and maintained.

          For me, judging Mother Teresa positively or negatively on religious grounds does not help us in understanding her personality and the dynamic interaction with her environment. A mythological character is created only when there is active participation by the whole community and culture. In my mind no child is born a saint or a sinner, a soldier or a serial killer, a king or a pope, a general or a president—communities and cultures create them. To understand that process we need to understand the individual’s character from a psychological point of view and the reactions of their environment from a sociological perspective.

          In the last decade I have studied the biographies of many creative personalities, whether poets or philosophers, reformers or revolutionaries. In my book Prophets of Violence, Prophets of Peace I analyzed the personalities of reformers like Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr., who tried to bring about social change through peaceful means, and revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela who believed in armed struggle resulting in revolution. In spite of many differences, all these creative personalities had one thing in common. They provoked intense emotional reactions. People either loved them or hated them. Mother Teresa seems to be no exception. Some think she is holy and saintly, while others see her as fanatic and fraudulent. In this essay I will discuss the evolution of her personality and lifestyle from a psychological point of view. Such a review will also help us gain some insights into the 20th century culture that created the mythological character of Mother Teresa.


Mother Teresa began life as the child Agnes, in a conservative, traditional and religious family. Her mother, a dedicated Catholic, exposed Agnes to Christian values. Agnes and her sister used to sing in the church choir and were known as “nightingales”. (Ref 1 p 8) Her father was a political activist during the politically turbulent times for Albania. When Agnes was only eight years old her father was killed. It must have been a great loss for Agnes at that very vulnerable age. Some psychiatrists and psychologists believe that people who have to deal with the death of a dear one as children are more vulnerable to suffer from depression in their adult lives. At an early age Agnes developed a special relationship with Jesus Christ as for her He was the ultimate symbol of charity and sacrifice. As a teenager, when her brother announced that he was joining the army to serve King Zog 1 of Albania, Agnes said, “But I am serving the King of the whole world.” (Ref 1 p 11)


            As a teenager Agnes decided to dedicate her life to Jesus Christ, leave home and go to far off lands to serve humanity. From a psychological point of view, for a teenager to join a convent and become a nun is not an easy choice to make. While other teenagers of her time were no doubt experimenting with their sexuality and pushing for personal freedom, Agnes’ cultural and religious conditioning must have been very strong, so that it seemed quite natural for her to take the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. A product of her Catholic upbringing and Christian ideology, she gladly chose to suffer herself, to help the world. Interestingly, she grew up in a community and country where the population was only ten per cent Christian, the remainder being Muslim. I wonder whether being a member of the religious minority played a significant role in strengthening her Christian identity. I also wonder whether her special connection with a Heavenly Father was a compensation for losing her earthly father at an early age.

At the age of 18, Agnes entered a convent in Ireland and from there was sent to India. She did not know the language or the culture of her new homelands. She not only had to overcome her nostalgia for Albania, but also adjust to her new surroundings. In a leap of faith, she had accepted that the world was her home and humanity her family. After serving her church and community for a number of years as a Loreto Nun, she dedicated her life to God and was given the name Mother Teresa. Her biographer Kathryn Spink writes, “On 24 May 1937 in Darjeeling Sister Teresa committed herself to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for life, and in doing so became, as was then usual for Loreto nuns, ‘Mother Teresa’”. (Ref 1 p 17)

While Mother Teresa was a teacher in a convent in Asansol, a town close to Calcutta, she spent a lot of time in prayers and meditation. She touched the hearts and minds of other nuns and people she served. In a letter to her mother she wrote, “This is a new life. Our centre here is very fine. I am a teacher, and I love the work. I am also Head of the whole school, and everybody wishes me well.” (Ref 1 p 19) It appears that Mother Teresa had made a reasonable adjustment to her new surroundings and found a role to play that she enjoyed and felt proud of. But she had a restless personality that wanted to do more, do better and serve more. She was one of those who were not satisfied with a small dream. Mother Teresa had the personality of an idealist with high expectations of herself. She wanted to make a difference in the world. In spite of accepting her role in the convent, at some level she found it restrictive, as she wanted to serve the whole community, not just Christians. Every Sunday she used to go for a long walk and provide care to the people living in the slums of Calcutta.


In 1946, at the age of 36, when Mother Teresa was traveling to Darjeeling she had a number of extra-ordinary experiences in which she heard the voice of Jesus Christ asking her to leave the convent and start a new charity organization to serve the poorest of the poor of Calcutta. She also had a number of visions in which she saw Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and a crowd of poor people inviting her to serve them. (Ref 2 p 99) Those spiritual experiences convinced her that she had to leave the convent and her habit behind and put on a sari to serve the poor. Kathryn Spink writes, “On 10 September 1946, a date now celebrated annually by Missionaries of Charity and Co-workers throughout the world as ‘Inspiration Day’ on the rattling, dusty train journey of Darjeeling, came what Mother Teresa would subsequently describe as ‘the call within a call’. It was an experience about which she would say little. ‘The call of God to be a Missionary of Charity’ she once confided, ‘is the hidden treasure for me, for which I have sold all to purchase it…’”(Ref 1 p 22)

Mother Teresa repeatedly requested the higher authorities of the Catholic Church to let her go but they asked her to wait, a time of great frustration for her.  The church authorities finally gave her permission to leave the convent to serve people on the street.  She promptly bought a new sari and began her mission. For Mother Teresa to take off her Catholic habit and wear an Indian sari was quite symbolic. It transformed her religious image to a secular image. At least in her attire she looked more local than foreign, more Indian than an import from the Vatican.

          At the same time, India was attempting to gain independence from Britain and there were violent confrontations between Muslims and Hindus in the streets. Mother Teresa witnessed the deaths of hundreds of people on the streets of Calcutta. Those experiences moved her deeply.


In August 1952, Mother Teresa started her first home for the dying called Nirmal Hriday (Home of the Pure Heart). Although she started her mission in a modest way, increasing numbers of people were impressed by her dedication and commitment and joined her in her voluntary work. Men and women from all over the world offered to help her organization, considering it an honour to serve and support her. Eventually her services expanded to cities outside Calcutta. Kathryn Spink writes, “For nearly ten years after the inception of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Charity, its work was confined to the diocese of Calcutta.” (Ref 1 p 77). The first home she opened outside Calcutta was in Bombay.

As Mother Teresa’s services expanded in India, more and more people from all traditions and faiths developed a regard, respect and reverence for her. If Mother Teresa had died in 1970 at the age of 60, after serving the poor and dying for a quarter of a century, she would have never faced many criticisms and might have never become the centre of worldwide controversies. But then some interesting things happened that changed Mother Teresa’s life and her image in the world.


In 1970 Mother Teresa decided to take her message to the Western world so she and visited England to open a home in London to train her Sisters. That was the first step in her exposure to the Western world. She told the British government and public that there were poor people living on cardboard on the streets in rich countries and if they were not taken care of they might die in those “cardboard coffins”. One of the many people she inspired was British writer Malcolm Muggeridge who wrote a book, Something Beautiful for God, “the book which was to open the eyes of the world to the work of Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity…” (Ref 1 p 11).

As Mother Teresa became a symbol of serving the poor she was not only praised by the Catholic Church but was also acknowledged by secular international organizations and she received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Mother Teresa was no longer Mother Teresa of the gutters of Calcutta; she became the symbol of charity for the world. She was acting on the world stage. Many presidents, prime ministers and monarchs, whether Indira Gandhi of India, Lady Diana and Margaret Thatcher of England, Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton of America, invited her to visit to offer awards and acknowledge her services. The more famous she became, the more vulnerable she became, to be used by the Catholic Church and abused by the very rich.


After hearing Mother Teresa’s story, some of my psychiatrist colleagues wondered whether Mother Teresa suffered from a mood disorder. They felt that Mother Teresa might have been euphoric, even hypomanic, when she heard the voice of Jesus Christ and saw visions of the Virgin Mary and later on had episodes of depression. When I was studying the biographies of other creative personalities, I came across many artists and writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemigway who suffered from mood disorder and ultimately committed suicide. We do not have enough information about Mother Teresa to make a conclusive impression, but in her recently published letters she shares her inner darkness and her feeling of being rejected and abandoned by Jesus Christ after she stropped receiving messages from Him. She expressed her feelings in these words,


“Now Father…since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss…this untold darkness…this loneliness this continual longing for God…which gives me that pain deep down in my heart…Darkness is such that I really do not see…The torture and pain I can’t explain…”(Ref 2 p 1)


“Darkness is such that I really do not see…neither with my mind nor with my reason…The place of God in my soul is blank…There is no God in me…”(Ref 2 p 210)As this inner darkness and silent suffering continued Mother Teresa gradually learnt to endure and accept it, and even rationalized it in these words, “For the first time in 11 years…I have come to love the darkness…for I believe now that it is a part a very very small part of Jesus’ darkness and pain on earth.”


Mother Teresa had such a strong psychological identification with Jesus Christ that she wrote, “You have taught me to accept it [as] a ‘spiritual side of your work”. (Ref 2 p 208)

Mother Teresa’s description of her inner darkness might have been a reflection of chronic depression. Her sadness and depression also reminded me of all those care givers, whether mothers or nurses, social workers or psychiatrists who become tired and exhausted after years of taking care of others and suffer from burnt-out, as they forget to take care of themselves. Mother Teresa did not take care of her own emotional needs and experiencing the tiredness of a marathon runner, endured silent suffering in her own heart. There were times her cross was almost too heavy for her to carry.


While millions of men and women from all faiths and traditions have had great respect and regard for Mother Teresa, others have been very critical of her ideology and lifestyle. In the forefront of these critics were Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens; the latter made the film Hell’s Angel and wrote a book The Missionary Position criticizing her practices. In that book Hitchens calls Mother Teresa “a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly secular powers.” Hitchens notes that Mother Teresa took donations from some of the most corrupt people of the world including the dictator of Haiti knowing very well that “Haiti has been renowned for many years, and justly so, as the place where the wretched of the earth receive the cruelest and most capricious treatment.”

          Hitchens also criticizes Mother Teresa for not building a modern hospital for the poor in spite of having huge sums of money. He wrote, “Bear in mind that Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal…Around $50 million had collected in one checking account in the Bronx.” (Ref 3 p 41 and 47)

          One of the most contentious issues Mother Teresa had to deal with was her belief about abortion. She was accused of promoting the political agenda of the Catholic Church. Her Nobel Prize speech in Oslo became controversial because in it she stated, “Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace….Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing.” (Ref 4 p 57) Hitchens found those ideas grotesque and wrote, “But given how much this Church allows the fanatical Mother Teresa to preach, it might be added that the call to go forth and multiply, and to take no thought for the morrow, sounds grotesque when uttered by an elderly virgin whose chief claim to reverence is that she ministers to the inevitable losers in this very lottery.” (Ref 4 p 59)

          For her views on contraception and adoption, Mother Teresa has also  been criticized by many feminists including Germaine Greer. Spink wrote,

 “Germaine Greer, who saw Mother Teresa as a religious imperialist, was one of them. In an article published in the Independent Magazine on 22 September 1990 she wrote of Mother Teresa’s treatment of the rape victims when she was invited to Dacca after its liberation from the Pakistanis in 1972:

Three thousand naked women had been found in the army bunkers. Their saris had been taken away so that they would not hang themselves. The pregnant ones needed abortions; Mother Teresa offered them no option but to bear the offspring of hate. There is no room in Mother Teresa’s universe for the moral priorities of others. There is no question of offering suffering women a choice.” (Ref 1 p 253)

Mother Teresa had such blind faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church that she could not see the plight of those suffering young women.


Mother Teresa who lived from 1910 to 1997, from the beginning to the end of the 20th century, has become a mythological figure like Vladimir Lenin. Princess Diana, Ho Chi Minh, John Lennon, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Some people love them while others hate them. With the passage of time it is becoming more and more clear that Mother Teresa had a dark side to her personality. After her death in 1997 Frontline, India’s National magazine remembered her in these words, “Mother Teresa, then, had two personas. One was the ideologically retrogressive adherent of the views of the Papacy under John Paul ll. The other was the trailblazer who put Christian charity into action as no one else has done in the modern age. It is the second persona that the world will remember…Mother Teresa of the Poor”. (Ref 5)


Mother Teresa’s story is a story of an ordinary woman who had an extra-ordinary dream. Her life is a testament that to serve humanity and to do voluntary work, one does not need a PhD in psychology or a fellowship in medicine; it just takes a caring heart, a compassionate mind and two willing hands. Whether we go to Asia or Africa, the Middle East or Latin America, Europe or North America, even today we see millions of homeless people sick and suffering and dying on the street, waiting for a Mother Teresa to care for them. Mother Teresa saw human beings even in lepers and accepted them into her loving arms, rather than judging them. That was her greatness. Those poor, sick and dying people did not care whether she was inspired by religious, spiritual or secular motives. Those homeless people appreciated that they were given a home and offered a dignified death.

            Some atheists, Communists and feminists are very critical of her while there are others who, in spite of their ideological differences with Christianity and Catholicism, have great respect for Mother Teresa for her efforts to decrease human suffering and provide a caring home for the dying homeless people in the streets of Calcutta and elsewhere. Mother Teresa, who was an ordinary nun, became an extraordinary healer the day she wrote, “I saw a woman dying on the street outside Campbell Hospital. I picked her up and took her to the hospital but she was refused admission because she was poor. She died on the street. I knew then that I must make a home for the dying….” Mother Teresa was a practical woman. Rather than making passionate speeches criticizing others, she spent her time on the streets helping the poor. She said, “Today it is very fashionable to talk about the poor. Unfortunately, it is not fashionable to talk with them.” (Ref 3 p 23)

            Mother Teresa, like many other creative personalities, had her unique emotional dilemmas and social conflicts but those conflicts did not paralyze her. She rose above them to complete her mission to serve the poor, the sick and the dying. Her legacy will be a lasting one. People can praise her or criticize her, but cannot ignore her. While lighting a candle of hope for the whole world she also had to endure her inner darkness.



1. Spink Kathryn…Mother Teresa…A Complete Authorized Biography. Harper Collins Publishers New York USA 1997

2. Kolodiejchuk Brian…Mother Teresa…Come Be My Light Double Day Books USA 2007

3. Mother Teresa In Her Own Words. 1910---1997 Gramercy Books New York USA 1996

4. Hitchens Christopher…The Missionary Position…Mother Teresa In Theory and Practice Verso Publishers New York 1995

5. Frontline…India’s National Magazine…Cover Story…A Life of Selfless Caring Sep 20---Oct 3, 1997