First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
I’ve always thought Mother Teresa had the eyes of a shark. Dead eyes. Ominous. Unfeeling. For me, there is no difference between the look in her eyes and the look in Charles Manson’s, for example.
In the contemporary world – and due to popular opinion and demand – it’s fair to say that Mother Teresa, that elderly, tiny-framed, white-and-blue-sari-clad saint, falls into the conventions of your ordinary and human deities.
Her life was celebrated. Her death was mourned. But so is every other human’s. I guess the obvious has to be pointed out: she was a saint not because she was human, but because she operated according to the message of some higher power and spread this message the world over where she had other sisters, who were part of her Missionaries of Charity organisation, carry out the same service that she was providing in India.
But unbeknownst to many of us, these sisters – who were forced to live an “elevated life” – were never trusted to be on their own, and they were rebuked and punished for forming friendships or displaying acts of love. Acts of love?
Their ideologies on the frugality and simplicity of life, as ordered by the Mother, were taken to extremes all in the name of elevating and alleviating poverty. But did the tiny nun really elevate it, or did she fetishise it? And were her actions overlooked and deemed more acceptable because she identified with the Catholic Church while behind the pulpit, where many a cult-like indoctrination was instilled and many an inhumane, socially unacceptable practice was carried out?
You see, all cults and any textbook monastic religions – be they Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Judaism – raise the same questions, the first one being: Are religious communities and their strict and tightly run operations any different from what is often looked on as absurd cults?
The second question, of course, being: Between the two, is the only difference that the latter is seen as more socially acceptable because it is an operative faith that has existed for a long time while the former is frowned upon because it is an offbeat and unusual fringe movement desperately sought out by those who want to give their lives some meaning and purpose outside of what other more conventional leaders may offer? Leaders like Jesus or a divine God or Noah (whose folklore, in my opinion, does not get as much attention as he deserves – but that’s a story for another day).
Anyone who has broken free from the chains of orthodox organised religion or your bog-standard, off-the-shelf cult will know that the lines that separate the two are very, very blurry. It is my opinion that this line is a desperate attempt to normalise conventional religion. But, in fact, the line does not exist at all.
Both cults and well-known religious organisations are stockpiled with rules and regulations. They’re a mess of strict adherence. They’re a hive of ideologies as ordained by some higher power whose messages are delivered from the mouths of chosen ones.
This coercion is also known as psychological abuse. A conclusion that can only be drawn when removed from the field of obsessive adoration.
In The Turning, nuns who were part of Mother’s mission speak about the fear of leaving, manipulation and being ordered to beat themselves. They use words like isolation, brainwashing and loneliness. All at the behest of the Mother, who is said to be so dark that she tied children and patients to beds and whose stinginess allowed the reuse of needles and required people to defecate in front of one another – as reported in The New York Times.
If you need convincing of the Mother Teresa cult, listen to the podcast. If you need more convincing, consider this: her fellow missionaries had to call her Mother – a demand that falls into not one but two categories of cult leader: the delusional martyr and the preacher-turned-egomaniac. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.