Perspectives | Books

Reviewing ‘Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation’

A look at Gëzim Alpion’s latest work on the world’s most famous Albanian.

By - 12.08.2020

My friend and fellow Albanian scholar, Gëzim Alpion, who teaches at the University of Birmingham, has dedicated a good chunk of his academic career to probing, highlighting and disentangling the extremely complex personality of Gonxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu. She is better known to the world as Mother Teresa.

I consider Alpion’s dedication to be a sacrifice from his side (I have not been able to dedicate to a single research topic), but a sacrifice that has paid off. He is considered “the most authoritative English-language author” on St. Teresa of Calcutta and “the founder of Mother Teresa Studies.” He is today probably the world’s best known author on Bojaxhiu, and one cannot research on such a topic without extensively referring to his work.

His new book, Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation, was released by Bloomsbury Academic Publishing on July 31. In some countries the book will be issued on August 6 and September 15. 

Before I turn to his work, a quick note on Mother Teresa herself. She is someone whom I met twice, cordially, unceremoniously and without any lasting impact on me. I am not among those who worship her, nor among those who erect monuments for her having denied her — for several decades — family unification with an ill mother and marginalized sister; nor am I one of those who curse her as an infidel and satanic

I have read credible critique against her by Indian doctors and world intellectuals, but am also inclined to admit that her powerful human will helped to change the Western world’s understanding of Third World poverty, transformed the concept of charity, and helped to shape many 20th century views on religious institutions as social work organizations. 

Alpion argues that Mother Teresa’s life and her nation’s history are interconnected.

Mother Teresa spearheaded a major social transformation in interclass exchange and, by humanizing the destitute, offered an opportunity to the wealthy to find their own humanism. That was revolutionary in and of itself.

In his latest work, Alpion’s main theoretical argument states that a personality of Mother Teresa’s caliber and global reach does not come about by chance. 

To provide a well-rounded portrait of this influential figure, the book approaches her in the context of her familial background and ethnic, cultural and spiritual milieus. The author explores her life and work in the light of newly-discovered information about her family, the Albanian nation’s spiritual tradition before and after the advent of Christianity, and the impact of the Vatican and other influential powers on her people since the early Middle Ages. 

Focusing on her traumas, ordeals and achievements as a private individual and a public missionary, as well as her complex spirituality, Alpion argues that Mother Teresa’s life and her nation’s history, especially her people’s relationship with Roman Catholicism, are interconnected. Unraveling this interconnectedness is essential to understanding how this modern spiritual and humanitarian icon has come to epitomize her ancient nation’s cultural and spiritual DNA.

In this work Alpion focuses on the Illyrian-Albanian spiritual tradition before and after the advent of monotheistic faiths. He offers information on the pivotal and unmatched role ancient Illyrians played in providing Christianity with a European home more than three centuries before Rome’s official conversion. Alpion highlights the Illyrian apostolic tradition to show that, in this respect, Albanians have a record second to none in Europe. Moreover, the book argues that ancient Illyrians’ welcoming of this faith was a reflection of the homogeneity of this “composite race.” 

Moreover, such earlier embrace of Christianity, then the religion of the slaves, the humbled and the oppressed, carries important implications about both Illyrians’ social status in the Roman Empire and their sentiments toward Rome at that time. Therefore, Alpion argues that the adoption of Christianity by Albanians’ ancestors was neither a need to fill in a spiritual vacuum nor an attempt to acquire a new national identity.

For Alpion, Albanians are innate pragmatists. Their pragmatism, which is manifested especially in their spirituality and religious choices, illustrates, above all, this people’s most defining characteristic. Albanians have never put religion at the heart of their identity; no faith has ever been their raison d’être or their main national identity marker. 

Instead, in Alpion’s analysis, it sounds plausible to argue that early Christianity simply provided the Illyrians with their liberation ideology more than a source of national identity and/or individual spirituality.

The attention Alpion pays in this book to the Albanian nation’s ancient Christian heritage has nothing to do with the view put forward by some — foreigners and Albanians alike — that this religion is this people’s “authentic” faith. 

For Albanians, national identity is a notion that includes and transcends their pre- and postmonotheistic existence.

Unlike Christianity, Islam was brought to Albania mainly by the invading Ottomans. Nevertheless, this faith should not be seen as an imposition on Albanians’ identity and heritage that they have to dispose of. Like Christianity, Islam also constitutes an element of Albanian identity. 

Alpion argues that both of these religions have benefited Albanians spiritually. They illustrate this people’s remarkable ability to take in, embrace and apply new creeds with the kind of liberal ingenuity that is characteristic particularly of ancient nations with a sophisticated philosophical outlook, never allowing any orthodoxy to claim absolute control over their lives. 

This explains why, for Albanians, national identity is a notion that includes and transcends their pre- and postmonotheistic existence. In my opinion, the latter is an elegant argument, which helps to understand both the unique Albanian attitude toward religion and the remarkable interfaith tolerance among Albanians. 

Alpion has shown that Albanians’ measured attachment to and skepticism about religions are also determined by their painful experiences with creeds and religious institutions.

For reasons outlined throughout the book, the Vatican’s involvement in the shrinking and disappearance of the Roman Catholic Archdioceses of Dardania, Ohrid, Tivar and Skopje, and in the depletion of Mother Teresa’s native Catholic community in Skopje, indicates that this organization, together with the Serbian Orthodox Church, has played a role in undermining Christianity amongst Albanians and, as a result, contributed to their “Slavicisation.”

Albanian Orthodox Christians, for their part, have also for centuries been under the pressure of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox Church, whose efforts to Hellenize them continue to this day.

Equally painful has been and remains the experience of Albanian Muslims. The threat the Ottomans posed to Albanian national identity and cohesion has now been renewed by the relentless efforts and unlimited funding from Turkey to “Turkicise” Albanian Muslims across present-day Kosovo, North Macedonia and Albania.

Similarly to his previous work, in this new book Alpion applies a sociological perspective to construe and test his theoretical arguments. In his 2007 Routledge monograph Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity? and in a 2019 study on the reasons behind the absence of religious personalities in celebrity studies, Alpion has highlighted the need for a sociological perspective in addressing religion issues/themes and personalities, instead of leaving them exclusively to theology and hagiography. 

In this new book Alpion highlights the significance of employing a sociological imagination in studying the interplay of individual and society, the intersection of biography and history and the transformation of “personal troubles” into “public issues.” 

With its complex argument, this study presented Alpion with several daunting epistemological and methodological challenges. While essentially a sociological study, as in other research enterprises, in this monograph Alpion performs interchangeably as a theologian, historian, anthropologist, psychologist, political scientist, cultural studies expert and media analyst. 

One of the most fascinating topics that Alpion has probed in his research on Mother Teresa is the darkness of soul.

For his field work, Alpion travelled extensively to a number of countries (India, Australia, Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Italy) to meet Mother Teresa’s relatives, colleagues and volunteers who have assisted her congregation. 

He also extensively used Albanian National Archives in Tirana, the Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania, and the Archive of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Tiranë-Durrës. Alpion was also given access to documentation and Mother Teresa’s private letters stored in a number of family archives and never used before in Mother Teresa scholarship.

I have always been fascinated with Alpion’s work on Mother Teresa because he has persistently maintained emotional and spiritual distance from his subject, making him necessarily and reasonably objective in studying the difficult topic of Mother Teresa’s personality and spirituality. 

In this new book, Alpion nicely combines his expertise in sociology of religion, nationalism, fame, race, media, film and great literature style. 

One of the most fascinating topics that Alpion has probed in his research on Mother Teresa is the darkness of soul. From my long virtual conversations with him (and occasional meetings and discussions over a cup of coffee), I have come to realize that Mother Teresa’s darkness of soul (which she admits in some of her letters), has inspired in Alpion a new research opus. 

In his recent publications, Alpion has turned to exotic and esoteric concepts such as charism/a from a sociological and public theology perspective, Enoch Powell’s populist rhetoric in the context of the eugenics discourse, and the reasons for the absence of modern spiritual icons in celebrity studies. 

Along such lines of thinking, Alpion is currently developing the idea of “fame capital” as a variable in an intranational and international context, where he inquires into the “The Dark Night of the Soul” phenomenon from a sociological perspective, and explores the role of religion in fabricating national identity. 

This most recent book is a culmination of such efforts.

Feature image: Cover of the book “Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation” by Gëzim Alpion.