Thursday, October 23, 2003

Mother Teresa, St. Augustine, and the "Real World"

Christopher Hitchens's screed against Mother Teresa in Slate this week hasn't attracted too much attention in the blogosphere; Matthew Yglesias gets in a nice joke about it, thereby unleashing a torrent of commentary on his site, but that's about it. Perhaps not much attention is being paid because everyone has heard Hitchens's line on Mother Teresa before; indeed, he got a whole book out of it: The Missionary Position. (Ha! Good one Chris.) I read that book; and believe it or not, I found it deeply persuasive. But not in the way Hitchens intended, of that I'm certain.

Is there real substance to Hitchens's claim that Mother Teresa was "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud"? Let's concentrate on that last one, because I think it is entirely possible that, in terms of Catholic orthodoxy, Mother Teresa and those who knew her would happily reply "guilty as charged" to the labels "fundamentalist" or even "fanatic." So what about the fraud bit? Well, she claimed to be working to help the poor, but Hichtens writes: "MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan." There is plenty of evidence to back up those claims, though the evidence can be read in different ways. And regardless, it is reasonable to assume that all the money and adulation which flowed towards Mother Teresa later in her life and work resulted in an environment (which Mother Teresa herself could not avoid being part of) that sometimes probably took on suspicious "cult of celebrity"-type air, with unseemly consequences. "The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been...and her order always refused to publish any audit," Hitchens writes. "But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?" Good question. However, the terms by which Hitchens comes to his conclusion are flawed. He misunderstands the measure of her life, because he does not believe in the manner of measurement appropriate to it.

The upshot of Hitchens's accusations is that Mother Teresa was only interested in "selfishly" pushing her "ideology" (we would say, her mission), and cared not one whit about how or through whom that ideology/mission found expression. She accepted donations (probably knowingly) from crooks. She wrote kind letters of appreciation to dictators. She posed for photos (perhaps knowingly) with blackmailers and murderers who allowed her sisters to operate in their territories. All this screams "hypocrite!" to Hitchens, who sees her as nothing more than faker (either wittingly or unwittingly so); as one who didn't care about her actions, but only her cause. Which certainly is hypocritical--if you think that cause and action are connected, as they are in this world. But what if you aren't of this world? Then, perhaps, we can call it something else: saintly. That is, a life lived not in the world--a life characterized by a mission that demands such self-sacrifice and commitment that worldly consequences and ramifications and reputations are swallowed up in the saint's creation of a space governed not by the struggle for human virtues like justice and freedom, or human goods like liberation and enlightenment, but by a devotion to something, strictly speaking, inhuman.

This is where St. Augustine comes in, who teaches the believing Christian that, while human virtues and goods aren't bad in themselves, they certainly aren't good in the eternal measurement of things. What matters is one's citizenship in the City of God; that is, what is crucial is where one's heart is. If one's heart is not here, in this world, then the measure of the world is more or less irrelevant. Of course, this is not the only possible way of being a consistent Christian in our fallen, political, economic, material world--but Augustine makes a powerful case for it being the only truly saintly way of being. Did criminals and murderers and wicked men contribute money to Mother Teresa's cause, hoping to gain something from their proximity to her? Very likely. Should that have troubled Mother Teresa? Not at all. After all, as Augustine reminds us, outside the City of God (and not one of us is fully in it, not now, not until the rest of God takes us), we're all criminals anyway:"What are kingdoms but great robber bands? What are robber bands but small kingdoms?" (City of God, Bk. 4, Chp. 4) This is hardly a good way to interact with others in a political sense: we must seek out standards of justice, build communities that exclude and include, form principles of law, all so that the limited goods of this life can be shared, rather than made subject to raw power and wealth. This is solid Catholic doctrine, and solid Christian doctrine as well: "If you want peace, work for justice." And it's true. But it's only true right here, right now, and the final supreme good of the believing Christian is neither here nor now: it is the eternal peace which the rest of God promises. In the meantime, justice is, well, valuable--but, in a very fundamental sense, it is limited too. "What about justice, whose function is to render to each his due, thereby establishing in man a certain just order of nature, so that the soul is subordinated to God, and the flesh to the soul, and consequently the flesh and the soul to God? Does it not demonstrate in performing this function that it is still laboring at its task instead of resting in the completion of its goal?" (City of God, Bk. 19, Chp. 4) Justice, and all mortal concerns, are by definition incomplete. Holiness, by contrast, in wholeness. If one wholly adored God, then the moral complications of discerning between what some deserve and others do not, of working out compromises when faced with hard moral choices, of deciding between just and unjust wars, indeed of all the necessary vicissitudes of ordinary life, would not trouble you one bit--and, as Hitchens proved (to me at least), that describes Mother Teresa's lack of care for the "real world," or "the big picture," or "the long term" very, very well. In short, I think Hitchens helps us understand why Mother Teresa really was a saint--and why most of us don't want to be one.

Fact is, few of us are cut out to be, or should seek to be, saints. And it's very possible that those who think they are cut out for such are in fact being motivated at least as much by some quirky, desperate, not-entirely-respectable complex of, shall we say, "inhuman" emotions as they are by the Spirit of God. Not too long ago, First Things ran a wise, somber essay asking a rather difficult question: why is it that Mother Teresa, who was a living saint if anyone was, apparently went throughout her life without much by way of spiritual comfort? What could drive a woman to so fully resign their citizenship in this world--its rewards and pains, its pleasures and difficulties--in favor of one which, by her own testimony, offered her little emotional solace? Perhaps she was crazy. Or perhaps, just perhaps, she had a saint's faith, a faith that took her completely out of this world. This is the conclusion reached by one anonymous respondent to Hitchens's piece; the author plainly isn't particularly religious, and I'd hardly agree with all his sentiments. But at least he or she recognizes that Mother Teresa demands a measurement which this "real world" can barely provide:

"Mother Teresa was not perfect. Whether she ought to be a 'saint' or not, I could give a rat's ass....But here's the thing. Is there any denying that this woman spent her entire life in the service of people so repulsive and destitute and unwanted that no one, not even God himself, gave a shit about them? Is there any hypocrisy, moral failing, misjudgment, or lapse that can trump that? If so, I'd like to know what it is....Recently, it was reported on NPR that, contrary to what many people, including myself, thought, Mother Teresa was not buoyed and comforted by any continued ecstatic experience of Christ or the presence of God. She apparently went virtually her entire life without feeling the presence of God at all—struggling alone with only other puny, weak and vacillating human being to help. She spent an entire life of service to others on pure faith. That kind of strength of character is beyond comprehension. It is beyond anything that Mr. Hitchens can accomplish if he had another 40 lifetimes of gin swilling and pontification."

Amen.