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How Did Mother Teresa Contradict Herself? And What Did It Teach Me?

photo: Denise Krebs on flickr

photo: Denise Krebs on flickr

Where do you fall on the Mother Teresa fan-spectrum?

Love her? Indifferent to her? Admire her work but have a problem with the institution with which she was aligned?

From my quick scan of Wikipedia extensive research on the topic of Mother Teresa’s life, I am aware of her multiple contradictions. Her selfless service to the poor, and her arguably punitive methods of caring for the sick. Her devotion to God, and her confessions of feeling disconnected from the Divine.

Given these contradictory impulses, I was not surprised by a story about Mother Teresa by Lynne Twist.

Ms. Twist is the author of the excellent book, The Soul of Money. In the book, Twist describes an encounter she had with Mother Teresa in the early 1990s.

Twist, on the MT fan-spectrum, falls solidly on the Enthusiast Side.

photo: Jiaren Lau on flickr

photo: Jiaren Lau on flickr

She was so excited to meet Mother Theresa, she worked herself into a tizzy. When Twist was finally face-to-face with the famous sister, she kneeled in front of her and kissed her hands and feet.

They proceeded to have a conversation about their work, Mother Teresa in her Missionaries of Charity, and Twist in her work with The Hunger Project.

As they were talking, the two women were interrupted by an Indian couple, a man and a woman. As Twist describes them, the couple appeared to be quite wealthy, with bold, flashy jewelry and expensive clothes. The man had a ring on every finger.

photo: liz west on flickr

photo: liz west on flickr

The couple demanded to have a picture taken with Mother Teresa and enlisted Ms. Twist to snap the photo. In the process of taking the picture, the woman placed her hand under Mother Teresa’s chin and forced her head upright so it could be seen more clearly in the photo.

Ms. Twist, understandably, was shocked by the woman’s behavior.

After the couple left, she was so angry and upset, she had a difficult time focusing on her few remaining moments with Mother Teresa.

When she returned to her hotel room, Twist wrote a letter to Mother Teresa describing her reactions to their visit, including the rage and upset she’d felt about the couple who interrupted them. Twist was embarrassed by her lack of compassion for the couple, and asked Mother Teresa’s forgiveness and counsel.

A few weeks later, Twist received a letter from Mother Teresa. In the letter, Mother Teresa admonished her.

Now, I have to say, I always get confused by the word admonished. Is it a good thing? It sounds like admired. But no, that’s not what it is. It means to scold or reprimand. Admonish.

photo: Steve Browne and John Verkleir on flickr

photo: Steve Browne and John Verkleir on flickr

Mother Teresa pointed out that the wealthy are in need of our love just as much as the poor. She pointed out that wealth brings its own traps and problems, and that Twist had shown little understanding or compassion for this issue.

I agree with what Mother Teresa was saying.

Indeed, the idea that wealth can bring as much pain and suffering as a lack of wealth is eye-opening. In her book, Twist informs us that this letter from Mother Teresa led her to a greater compassion for the wealthy, including a discovery of the abuse, addiction, and other dysfunctions that often accompany the lives of those with lots of money.

photo: Jesus Solana on flickr

photo: Jesus Solana on flickr


I couldn’t help but notice that, in Mother Teresa’s admonishment of Ms. Twist, she seems to have displayed a lack of compassion for Ms. Twist.

Yes, the poor deserve our compassion. Yes, the wealthy do as well.

And so do those who have preconceived ideas about the poor and the wealthy.

Like Ms. Twist.

We all deserve compassion, right?

photo: Jesslee Cuizon on flickr

photo: Jesslee Cuizon on flickr

Of course, this is where I realized that I was feeling all holier-than-thou because I had caught Mother Teresa – the holy woman herself – in contradictory moment.

And, in the process, I was withholding my compassion from her.

Gosh, this spiritual growth thing is relentless, isn’t it? You think you’re doing so well, and Bam! You’re judging a holy woman from India for some random comments she made in a letter to someone you don’t even know.

Alrightee, then!

So where does that leave me?

In spite of the admonishing tone with which the message was delivered, Mother Teresa’s advice gave me a greater compassion for the plight of the wealthy.

I also gained a greater compassion for my own holier-than-thou tendencies.

And, last but not least, I learned you should never, ever, under any circumstances mess around with someone’s chin when you’re taking their picture.

It’s just not nice.

photo: Tony Alter on flickr

photo: Tony Alter on flickr

Have you ever caught yourself in a holier-than-thou moment? Share your comments below!

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8 Responses to How Did Mother Teresa Contradict Herself? And What Did It Teach Me?

  1. Diana December 17, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Z…..as always love your blog, Mother Teresa, Lynne Twist, your insights and humor.
    I have always strongly disliked the term… “holier than thou”….of course my reaction to it is revealing in itself and worth the time of excavation and acceptance.

    Initially, I believe, it stems from childhood, where numerous adult accusations/judgments were mistakenly used to shore children up, who were being delightfully, and perhaps, irritatingly, full of themselves… when perhaps, it was the adults, who may have lost their way and their own sense of innocence or oneness, feeling separate and imposed that separateness on others for company by a judgment of “Holier than Thou”.

    If we are all indeed One with….are we all not Holy in our unique and individuated ways? But ‘holier than “thou”…hmmmm…would love the origin of the first use of that term. To judge ourselves or each other with the “Holier than Thou” label, for me, only reinforces playing in the EGOIC field of separation and judgment from each other…. disguising from view, our Humanness and our Divinity….

    Thank goodness the journey in living is to re-member both, compassionately choose to accept each other and ourselves. Life provides us endless opportunities to keep lovingly, noticing, practicing and choosing to catch and embrace ourselves being Humanly Divine and Divinely Human, compassionately remembering our Oneness and Holiness and Wholeness. From our beloved Saints and to the many humble and (yes even the not so humble) contradictory Way Showers…..Blessed Be to us All! Thanks Z for your Tuesday heart nourishing Soul food!

    • Z Egloff December 18, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

      Hi Diana,

      There are lots of great ideas here. I agree with you that the term “holier than thou” speaks to something that is ultimately impossible: no one can ever be more holy than anyone else. I also agree that such a term stems from the egoic sense of separation – from others and our own oneness with the Divine. I can totally understand why you don’t like the term and wouldn’t want to use it! :)

      For me, the use of the term is a playful nod at that part of me that thinks it can be separate from – or better than – others. And your comment reminds me that what works for me doesn’t work for everyone! Which is also part of the beauty of being alive.

      Thanks, as always, for stopping by. Happy Holidays to you!!


  2. Jill Shinn December 17, 2013 at 11:41 am #

    Me, holier than thou? Heavens, no—that would never happen! I am impeccably humble, immaculately pure of intention, and gracious as a role model to the less spiritually advanced :)

    • Z Egloff December 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

      Hi Jill!

      We are truly fortunate that someone as advanced as you would grace us with your presence. Wow! :)


  3. Karen December 17, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    Great post and fascinating anecdote about MT. And I love Jill’s humble comment. Haha!

    Very true — we can end up judging someone for judging others, and it can become complex.

    I’ve come to ask myself simply, “Does the thought or attitude I have about this person or situation feel good to me?” If it does, I’m seeing things in the same way that my joyful Inner Being does. If it doesn’t, then I try to find thoughts that feel better.

    It’s not about trying to be a more spiritual being. I’m already Source Energy at my core, and that’s as good as it gets. But it IS about aligning more with that Source Energy by seeing life as IT sees things and feeling good. Whoa, doggies, that’s why I’m here — for the joyous, good-feeling adventure of it all.

    And I suppose that my Inner Being wouldn’t mind one bit if someone grabbed my chin for a photo, but I might have to rearrange their face, I mean, my ideas about that one. :)

    • Z Egloff December 18, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      Hi Karen!

      Abe is certainly a wonderful barometer for seeing our level of alignment with the Divine. I especially appreciate that they remind us that even when we’re not feeling good, it’s just a moment of contrast that can serve in our greater expansion. The latter idea helps me be gentle with myself when I find myself in those moments of contrast – like judging Mother Teresa, for example. It’s all an opportunity to remember who we are, and why we’re here. And to have fun in the process!

      Thank you for your comment! :)


  4. Karen January 14, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Z, you are amazing. Thank you for all your blogs, and while I am a bit late in reading this one, it came at the perfect time.
    Am going through a bit of contrast myself right now, but your fun, fun way of sharing some truths, and giving us things to think about has brightened my day. Thank you for that.
    Hope your day is a wonderful one!

    • Z Egloff January 14, 2014 at 11:41 am #

      Hi Karen,

      Thank you so much for this comment. I’m glad that you read this post at the perfect time. Nothing like moving through that contrast, is there? I’m happy that you are in a brighter place with it all.

      Hope your day is wonderful as well! :)


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