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REVIEW: ‘To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa’

• November 13, 2022 4:59 am

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Princess Diana is having a "moment" right now. She’s been hailed by Vogue as a "Gen-Z influencer" in the crusade to resurrect '90s fashion. But there’s another '90s queen who warrants revisiting: the princess’s spiritual mentor, Mother Teresa, who died five days after her in 1997, having captured hearts to a degree only Lady Di could rival.

A new book from Jim Towey tells the story of the unlikely kinship between the tiny missionary and glamorous monarch, as well as others he witnessed as legal counsel and devoted friend to the saint. To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa is a powerful "white pill," masterfully weaving together vignettes from Towey’s own life with the arc of the Albanian nun pursuing the will of God.

In the opening, Towey is a winsome twenty-something D.C. staffer for Republican senator Mark Hatfield. He’s on the political fast-track by day, and barhopping by night—yet unfulfilled. Meanwhile, Mother Teresa, who grew up Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, is a child coming of age amid complicated civil unrest, helping her mother provide for the family after her father is poisoned by political rivals.

One of the most moving moments early in the book is when Mother Teresa says goodbye to her mother, Drana, at the age of 19 to enter the Sisters of Loreto and begin missionary work in India. "They would never see each other again," Towey writes, describing what would become an excruciating cross for both to bear.

Likewise, Towey’s story is not without crosses. In a heartbreaking passage early on, his best friend commits suicide shortly after college, following a failed marriage and bout of despair. Towey describes the "snide cynicism, nurtured by the phony social rituals and mercenary friendships of Capitol Hill" he cultivated following the loss.

It’s in this sullen state that Towey first encounters Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity (MCs) on a trip to Calcutta on Hatfield’s behalf. At first, he’s disgusted, assaulted by the "smell of sewage and burning garbage" of the decaying city. But during his brief meeting with Mother Teresa, whom he calls "Mother" throughout the book, she persuades him to visit Kalighat, her Home for the Dying, and later, the MCs in Washington, D.C.

The trip to Kalighat is a disaster, humiliating the "white-bread congressional staffer" who fails to embrace the service tasks assigned to him before retreating from India altogether to a luxurious vacation in Hawaii that puts his spiritual angst into perspective. But when he returns to D.C., he resolves to honor his promise to visit the sisters living there—and finally a spark ignites. Towey falls in love with the MCs, eventually quitting his job to pursue full-time volunteering, and even discerning with the MC fathers at their Tijuana seminary.

After realizing he is not called to the priesthood, Towey begins to serve the MCs in a legal capacity, offering advice as the order blossoms internationally. Meanwhile, he paints a picture of Mother’s significance in a fast-paced 20th century that sees the disabled, the elderly, and even the unborn, as increasingly inconvenient.

It’s important to understand the scope of her accomplishments: "By the time of her death, she had 3,842 sisters, 363 brothers, and 13 fathers operating more than 650 soup kitchens, health clinics, leprosy centers, and shelters for the desperately poor and sick, in 120 countries," Towey writes.

But Mother Teresa did not build her "multinational empire" for fame or success. Throughout the story, she rejects "hacks" that could increase the efficiency of the order but are misaligned with the charism to share "the poverty of those they served." At one point, when someone suggests the sisters could serve more souls if they used washing machines instead of laundering saris by hand, "Mother responded that she had taken a vow of poverty, not efficiency." Similarly, when a critic points out that she could never help every single street dweller in Calcutta, she responds: "God doesn’t call me to be successful. God calls me to be faithful."

Such a philosophy is a shot through the heart of a convenience-driven, efficiency-obsessed culture. Carter Snead describes it well in What It Means to Be Human, which shares in Mother’s spirit, encouraging society to honor those whose bodily impediments exclude them from "expressive individualism." Similarly, Ross Douthat’s book, The Deep Places, condemns excessive meritocracy, suggesting that suffering, which our technocratic world lacks the categories to appreciate, is replete with inherent value.

Mother Teresa understood that well. Towey describes her crippling battle with "darkness," based on revelations that surfaced after her death. While those surrounding Mother assumed her relentless capacity for service was driven by an intimate relationship with a God "whispering sweet nothings into her ear," the reality was bleak. The saint spent decades of her life in impenetrable darkness, carrying the private cross of almost unbearable spiritual anguish. "Even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness," she wrote. "It pains without ceasing."

What’s remarkable is that she persisted despite such desolation. "Mother knew her life was not about her," Towey writes. Following a mystical call from God she received on a train to Darjeeling in the foothills of the Himalayas, she pursued her vocation despite the complete stripping away of every possible comfort, physical and spiritual.

Such heroic selflessness reaps rewards. Resplendent moments of grace are scattered throughout the book, including one told through the voice of the tormented princess of Wales: "Today, something very profound touched my life—I went to Mother Teresa’s home in Calcutta and found the direction I’ve been searching for all these years. The Sisters sang to me on arrival, a deeply spiritual experience and I soared to such great heights in my spirit."

Perhaps the only faint shortcoming of the book is that it’s situated too squarely in the era of dignitaries like Princess Diana, and her peers Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and John Paul II, all of whom appear in the story. Indeed, while Towey addresses Mother’s critics from the left, offering a beat-down of Christopher Hitchens, he fails to address critics from the increasingly traditional rightward flank of the Church, who raise questions about her ecumenicalism or reception of Communion in the hand.

Then again, while the edgy Dimes Square crowd might call saints like John Paul II and Mother Teresa "normies," it’s important to understand their profound spiritual legacy, more relevant now than ever. In defending the dignity of suffering against a culture that increasingly valorizes euthanasia as a solution to conditions like John Paul II’s Parkinson’s, or Father Stu’s muscle degeneration as dramatized in the eponymous film, luminaries like Douthat and Snead write in a rich tradition that the Polish pope learned from his spiritual sister, Mother Teresa. It’s one we must urgently recover—and Towey lights the way.

To Love and Be Loved: A Personal Portrait of Mother Teresa
by Jim Towey
Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $27

Nora Kenney is director of media relations at the Manhattan Institute.

Published under: Book reviews