The impact of the Skopje years on Mother Teresa’s calling and ministry
On 29th September 2020, Professor Gëzim Alpion gave a Zoom talk to the AAA about Mother Teresa. Gëzim is Professor of Sociology at the University of Birmingham and has recently published a book, ‘Mother Teresa: the Saint and her Nation’. In the book, Gëzim argues that Mother Teresa’s life and her nation’s history are interconnected. He says that if we can unravel those connections we will be better able to understand how Mother Teresa has come to epitomise Albania itself. In this article written specially for the Gazette, Gëzim sets out his arguments.
When I initially took an interest in Albanian-born Mother Teresa (née Gonxhe Agnes Bojaxhiu) in the early 2000s, what struck me most was the paucity of information about her background in her already vast literature. Mother Teresa is one of the most written about global icons of the modern age. Nonetheless, her complete biography has yet to be written.
Since the first booklet about her - Peter Dwan’s ‘Mother Teresa: Apostle of the Unwanted’ - was issued in 1969, her life and work have been covered by a number of experienced writers. Even in their works, however, Mother Teresa’s roots and the 1910-1928 period she spent in her native Skopje are mentioned only in passing and at times with an indifference that verges on cynical disdain. This trend began with Malcom Muggeridge who, in his 1971 book ‘Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta’, concluded that ‘the wholly dedicated like Mother Teresa do not have biographies’ because ‘biographically speaking, nothing happens to them’. The shoddy treatment of Mother Teresa’s Albanian roots by her biographers and hagiographers is hardly surprising. After all, none of them is an Albanologist or a Balkanologist.
This is not to say that Albania and the Balkans have been studied thoroughly and objectively by self-styled experts in Albanian and Balkan Studies. In my book ‘Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation’, I contend that, notwithstanding the important information that has come to light over the last four centuries about Illyrian civilisation and Albanians’ ancient genealogy, apart from a few exceptions, the scholarship about Albania, like that of the Balkans, continues to be dominated by what K. E. Fleming calls a ‘‘freelance’, ‘pseudo-academic’, ‘cottage-industry of “specialist”’ interested in the matter when circumstances render it ‘timely’.
In the same monograph I contend that, notwithstanding his outstanding devotion to and prolific publications on Albanian Studies, Robert Elsie also belongs to the category of ‘freelance’ type specialists. Elsie wrote on anyone who is anyone amongst Albanians. Yet, this scrupulous scholar never showed an interest in Mother Teresa. Elsie’s reticence about Mother Teresa should be seen in the context of his refusal to accept that Albanians are descendants of Illyrians, and his hasty contentions that the Christian faith is ‘an imported goods’ in Albania, that there are no ancient Albanian saints ‘in the ethnic sense’, and that Albanians’ claims regarding the Illyrian-Albanian ancestry of ancient and modern personalities are ‘pure nonsense’. Elsie ignored Mother Teresa because she did not fit the mould. Her status as a global spiritual and humanitarian icon defied his apparent belief that no figure of international standing could come from the ranks of a nation of shepherds.
Using Mother Teresa as a case study, over the last twenty years I have endeavoured to argue that not only Christianity remains firmly embedded in the Illyrian tradition but that it also constitutes one of the long-ignored links between modern Albanians and their Pelasgo-Illyrian ancestors. Equally important, I argue that Mother Teresa’s ethno-spiritual roots, and her own attitude towards and application of the Christian faith illustrate some perennial features of her nation’s spiritual tradition that can be traced in the ancient Illyrians’ belief systems.
Mother Teresa’s understanding and application of Christianity offers new evidence that ancient Illyrian civilisation is at the heart of the triadic composition of ancient European civilization, and that Illyrians played a key role in laying the foundations of Europe’s two other ancient civilisations. Just as ancient Greek civilization is a derivative of ancient Egyptian and other ‘prehistoric’ civilisations, ancient Athens and Rome would not have risen without the direct and multifaceted contribution of ancient Illyria. Ancient Illyria paved the way for the emergence of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations just as Mother Teresa’s formative years are vital to understand the extraordinary religious and humanitarian figure she eventually became.
To provide a well-rounded portrait of Mother Teresa, I approach her primarily in the context of her familial background and ethnic, cultural and spiritual milieux. This does not mean that I preclude that there is such a thing as ‘religious calling’. Rather, I contend that this prescient moment should not be seen exclusively through a religious lens. In my 2007 book, ‘Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?’, I argue that her two epiphanic moments in 1922 and 1946 - otherwise known as her two ‘calls’ from God - were largely subconscious reactions to what was going on in her life as a twelve-year-old child in Skopje and a thirty-seven-year-old woman in Calcutta, respectively.
Mother Teresa’s life turned upside down at the age of nine when her father Nikollë died from poisoning in 1919. This was most likely a political assassination carried out by Slav nationalists because of his devotion to the Albanian cause. Shortly after losing her father, Mother Teresa lost her only uncle and six members of his family that lived close by in Skopje. They all died from the Spanish flu (1918-1920). Mother Teresa lost her maternal grandmother Drane in 1922. This means that in less than three years she lost nine people who were very dear to her. It was in that year that Mother Teresa received, what she calls, the ‘first call’ from God.
The events illustrate, to borrow a phrase from an American reporter currently writing a piece on my work on Mother Teresa, a ‘psychological causation’. In addition to the above bereavements, Mother Teresa’s life was affected also by the dreadful impact of World War I (1914-1918) on the people around her. Living close to the city’s train station, she must have seen hundreds and thousands of Albanian Muslims from Montenegro, Serbia, Kosova and Macedonia forced by Ottoman and Serbian authorities to embark on a one-way journey to Turkey under the pretext of being ‘Turks’.
Those painful memories stayed with Mother Teresa to the end of her life. Having witnessed the violence that erupted in the streets of Calcutta in the summer of 1946, especially the bloodshed on 16thAugust, known and the Day of the Great Killing, her traumatic past in Skopje came back to her as a series of disturbing flashbacks. This is illustrated from a scene in the 1997 film ‘Mother Teresa: In the Name of God’s Poor’ directed by Kevin Connor. The details recorded in this scene about her father’s killing and how she coped with the loss could have come only from Mother Teresa who was close to Dominique Lapierre, one of the two scriptwriters.
Mother Teresa claimed that she experienced the ‘second call’ from God on 10thSeptember 1946, that is less than a month after the Calcutta bloodshed. As in the case of the first call, the second ‘epiphany’ was clearly triggered by the impact of earthly events, and the fact that by then she was going through, what Carl Jung calls, ‘individuation’. Different from other Roman Catholic mystics, Mother Teresa always denied she had any ‘vision’.
In ‘Mother Teresa: The Saint and Her Nation’, I offer a detailed explanation of the events that led to Mother Teresa’s calling, and her decision to leave Loreto in 1946, set up her congregation of Missionaries of Charity in 1950, operate outside of India from 1967 onwards, and visit ‘ungodly’ communist countries during the Cold War and especially Albania between 1989-1995.
Ignoring some of the personal events mentioned above, one can draw the wrong conclusion that Mother Teresa was born at eighteen and that she was a one dimensional missionary.