REVIEW: TO LOVE AND BE LOVED: A PERSONAL PORTRAIT OF MOTHER TERESA by Jim Towey, Simon & Schuster

The time-honored adage is clear: Never meet your heroes because they will most likely let you down.

Jim Towey, the devoted friend and longtime lawyer of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, had no such misgiving when that happened to him. A high-flying Republican Senate aide whose mental equilibrium had been rocked by the suicide of a close friend, Towey was trying to fill an ache in his soul when he booked a ticket to India in 1985. At the time Mother Teresa was as popular as any rock star, celebrated and revered for her ground-breaking work treating lepers in India and AIDS patients in America. She was building a religious order which had attracted thousands to emulate her dedication to helping the poorest of the poor.

Towey tells us in his book To Love and Be Loved, that he shamelessly used his political connections to meet Mother Teresa for the first time and that the moment changed his life. He found the petite, Albanian-born nun awe-inspiring, someone who radiated goodness, purpose and filled his spiritual bucket which had run dry.

“In an instant, I realized that she was everything I wasn’t,” he writes in the memoir about their 12-year friendship. “She was focused, purposeful, cheerful — I was struck by how fully alive she seemed.”

Towey has produced a slender but insightful book about the Catholic Church’s most well-known modern saint, a woman whose devotion to the poor and marginalized sadly remains as urgent a calling as it did when she founded her Missionaries of Charity almost 75 years ago. What Towey sets out to do is to cement her reputation in a world which has, in many ways, grown more materialistic, brutal and unequal.

Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu Aug. 26, 1910 in Skopje, in what is now Macedonia, the contemplative young woman left home at age 17, traveled to Ireland to join a venerable order of nuns and then traveled halfway around the world to India to devote herself to the poor in Southeast Asia. By the time she died in 1997, her religious order had established itself in more than 30 countries.

Towey was drawn into voluntary service with the Missionaries of Charity in the late 1980s. He then became the order’s legal adviser. His book details some of the ways in which he helped shape Mother Teresa’s reputation as she walked the tightrope between the secular world and the saintly. Within his pages he helps paint a more complete portrait of a woman who is often described in hagiographic terms.

Towey provides anecdotes about Mother Teresa’s frustrating stubbornness as she aged to accept doctor’s orders, her sweet tooth — in her final days she enjoyed her favorite custard, for example — as well as her zealous insistence that suffering was the pathway to knowing Jesus.

For Catholics like myself who followed her journey to canonization and sainthood, Mother Teresa’s years of doubting God and her own calling is well-trodden information — after her death, her confessor published letters she had written and wanted to keep private. Towey details this spiritual struggle as an example of how us mere mortals can connect to the struggles of a saint.

But Towey’s book holds back in one key part of Mother Teresa’s life: He sheds no light on how the nun reacted to or reflected on the fierce criticism that her pastoral care and actions have evoked over the decades.

Mother Teresa radically broke taboos in the course of her work. She and the MC sisters brought attention to millions of people forgotten and ignored within their own societies: AIDS patients dying alone in Washington D.C., orphans of the so-called “untouchable” families in India. In many ways her MC movement popularized hospice care. But she and her religious order drew scrutiny and condemnation for a lack of hygienic standards and perceived callousness and rigidity to change, even as medical standards and duty of care protocols had evolved.

Towey cursorily dismisses Mother Teresa’s naysayers by reducing them to ideological firebrands whose progressive and leftist political views are unworthy of contemplation. “In all the years I represented her, she never defended herself publicly against the false claims or disparagement leveled against her. She felt God would protect her name if He had need of it,” Towey writes. That view is hard to digest, however, when some critics have revealed that the Missionaries of Charity kept pain medication from suffering patients and that the sisters themselves were put in harm’s way by a lack of sanitary conditions in MC centers. In those cases, those who believe Mother Teresa’s reputation must be defended at the expense of the safety or wellbeing of the people she and her order want to help are troubling.

History shows that the moral and spiritual leaders shine brighter when acknowledging their failings as well as successes. Towey describes Mother Teresa who was not afraid to ask forgiveness in her everyday interactions. In terms of structural or institutional missteps, however, she remains aloof and an enigma.

By recounting his 12-year relationship with Mother Teresa, Towey clearly hopes to keep her memory alive lest the secular gods of history tarnish her mountain of good deeds. For Christian readers, the book will likely accomplish that. For nonbelievers, or skeptics of sainthood, the book will likely fail to bring them closer to this extraordinary woman.

Margaret Coker, the editor-in-chief, started her two-decade career in journalism at Cox Newspapers before going to work at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. In that time she covered stories...

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