By Jerry Bowyer
The new Mother Teresa biopic, The Letters, was conceived on 9/11/2001. The writer, director and producer of the film, William Riead, says that it was in the contemplation of complete evil that he began to search for the opposite, complete good. A clergyman told Riead that there is a duality to life, and that if there is an evil, there must always be a countervailing good.
If bloodthirsty men could send the world a message of terror and hatred, Riead wondered, could filmmakers send the world a message of selflessness and love? That idea gestated for fourteen years and was born into the theaters last Friday, Dec. 4th.
Riead, raised Roman Catholic and now a self-described “pragmatic guy,” believes that there is a reason that this film came out shortly after the ISIS attacks in Paris and closely on the heels of the ISIS-inspired massacre in San Bernardino. On Friday as the world’s news was opening the doors to the interior world of the San Bernardino shooters and their treasure trove of deadly weapons and deadlier propaganda, another door was simultaneously opened to the life of Mother Teresa. Her battle plan, prayer; her weapon, bread; her army, young women who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
It’s easy to forget that Teresa was not just a religious and humanitarian figure, but in many ways a political, even a geopolitical, figure.
Having lived many of her formative years behind the Iron Curtain, she launched her ministry in India coincidentally with Indian secession from the British Empire. Her early years of growth occurred amidst the religious/political/military tension of the partition of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state. We know that Teresa began her work amongst the poorest of the poor, among economic desolation, but we tend to forget that it was economic desolation surrounded by a military tinderbox. It was the kind of environment in which even Gandhi would be assassinated. I suppose that in the search for the requisite number of miracles required for canonization, the Vatican could reasonably have begun with this unlikely event: she lived those early years as a foreign, Christian, female public leader in an environment of Hindu-Muslim nationalistic tension without herself being assassinated.
Though assassins were never able to touch her, character assassins took their shots. The late Christopher Hitchens produced a vicious documentary about her life, adolescently titled The Missionary Position. One of his many trumped up charges was her alleged political associations. Hitchens was wrong to falsely accuse her, but he was right to see that she was a major figure, that her actions helped steer the course of nations. It was a Nobel Peace Prize that she won.
We don’t see Teresa through the eyes of the media. Quite to the contrary, we see the media through the eyes of Teresa.
And through those eyes, she was not impressed. The woman was devoid of interest in fame. It’s hard for us to imagine an attitude like that now. It comes off as quaint, even aloof. We have reality TV stars as presidential candidates. We have political primaries which for most of the contestants are reality shows by other means. Pundits appear on news shows with their twitter ID showing on the chyron beneath them. And there we see a woman who doesn’t have time to answer questions from the global media because she’s got toilets to clean, and wounds to bandage. And when she did finally engage that global media, she did so in ways that showed that she did not fear it at all. Toward the end of the film, we’re shown her Nobel Prize acceptance speech. She doesn’t talk about ‘faith’, but about God, and not just about God, but about Christ, and not just about Christ, but she then prays to Him in front of the group. She prays not just in front of them, but leading them in prayer. Fearless — not afraid of Muslim secessionists, nor Hindu nationalists in India; not afraid of her own Church’s bureaucracy in Rome, nor of what Kierkegaard called Christianity’s ‘cultured despisers’ in Stockholm.