Innocent as a dove, but not wise as a serpent

Book review by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, 28 October 1995, p. 1380.

The Missionary Position. Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, by Christopher Hitchens, Verso £ 7.95

A Simple Path, by Mother Teresa, Rider £ 9.99

For decades I have watched Mother Teresa with a mix of esteem and alarm, ever since I heard her dismiss the All India Seminar of 1968. The Seminar transformed the Catholic Church in India as we then knew it. Six hundred delegates from all over India met for ten days to apply the renewal of Vatican II to education, ecumenism, liturgy, dialogue and the pastoral ministries. It was the culmination of two years’ consultation in a hundred dioceses. Mother Teresa made it publicly known that she considered the whole exercise a waste of time. “Prayer and simple action”, she declared, “are worth more than all this useless talk”. It shook my faith in her judgment.

To millions of people world wide, Mother Teresa is the nearest thing to being a living saint. Her courage in picking up the dying from the streets of Calcutta and caring for them, captured the imagination of Christian and non-Christian alike. It was the image of her that Malcolm Muggeridge immortalised in Something Beautiful for God. Her example was soon institutionalised in the foundation of her Missionaries of Charity who now, with over 3500 members, staff clinics, shelters and homes in 123 countries. It is the reason why she received numerous awards: the Indian ‘Padmashri’ in 1963, the Pope John XXIII Peace Prize in 1971 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. But while she remains above reproach to her admirers, she seems to have laid herself wide open to serious allegations.
Christopher Hitchens argues that Mother Teresa should not be judged by her reputation, but by the facts. She claims to care for the poor, but she associates with right-wing exploiters such as ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier of Haiti, the Contras in Nicaragua and General Mengistu in Ethiopia. She declares herself above politics while publicly backing anti-abortion politics in the USA, Ireland, the UK and in other countries. She protests not to work for money, yet she stoops at nothing to get it. She takes huge bribes from political activists, cult leaders and convicted criminals, and refuses to return a one-million dollar grant though she knows it was embezzled from pension funds.

Hitchens adds another damning accusation. Mother Teresa is hailed as a helper of the poor, a servant to the suffering, a friend of the friendless; in reality she is a ‘missionary’ who is not interested in the real plight of people. The poor and the dying are just objects on which she can exercise piety ‘for the sake of Jesus’. She is a scheming religious fanatic whose deceit survives because the West seeks to vicariously redeem in her its own guilt towards the Third World poor. Hitchens concludes that Mother Teresa is a fundamentalist, a hypocrite, an impostor who hides her guile behind a smokescreen of ‘holy’ innocence.

It is difficult in Hitchens’ caustic account to separate proven fact from insinuation, fair assessment from anti-religious bias. But the case he presents calls for an answer. I agree with him that Mother Teresa’s protestations of ignorance and simplicity appear to offer a shaky defence.

We live in a complex world. When we take responsibility, we have to face all the complex implications of that responsibility. Hitchens and other critics are right to demand that the care of the sick and the dying must be accompanied by competent medical advice. The relief of the poor must entail addressing the wider issues of eradicating the causes of poverty, of promoting social awareness, of enabling the poor to rebuild their lives. Mother Teresa’s well-known comment that “we are not social workers, not teachers, not nurses or doctors. We serve Jesus in the poor”, repeated again in A Simple Path, is not to the point. In our present-day world, service of the suffering and marginalised should not stop at an embrace of love. It requires long-term strategies, professionalism, social efficiency.
Consider the case of women, for example. Mother Teresa is quoted in The Simple Path as saying that she has no time to worry about feminist issues. The implication is that she is too busy. “There is too much to do in my everyday’s work”. But, without having the time to really study the issues, she travels far and wide to throw her weight behind campaigns that deeply affect the wellbeing of women. She dismisses population control out of hand with the assurance: “God will provide”. She endorses anti-abortion legislation without conceding to others the right of conscientious objection. She virtually equates contraception with murder. These are moral issues on which Mother Teresa is entitled to have her opinion. But may she pretend that they can be decided without serious study and discussion?

Discussion is a word foreign to the spirituality subscribed to by Mother Teresa. Her Simple Path lacks the virtues so recommended by the universal Church in the documents of Vatican II: respect for the freedom of individuals, allowing people to grow to a personal maturity, encouraging dialogue and shared responsibility. “God is the boss. Do as you are told”, is her message. I fear that this approach will have serious consequences for her Missionaries of Charity who may turn out to become a willing flock without mind. St. Teresa of Avila, her namesake, prized knowledge above devotion. “Go to a spiritual guide who is learned”, she said, “rather than to one who is saintly”.

Simplicity is also the excuse for Mother Teresa’s entanglement with dictators, wily politicians and shrewd businessmen. “She takes people as they are. She does not judge anyone”, we are told. Sure, we cannot examine everyone’s credentials. Even the astute are manipulated by the con men of this world. But every relationship does entail a measure of complicity. Here again careful scrutiny, listening to others and taking advice would help.

But while we may rightly regret Mother Teresa’s narrow outlook, the evidence does not warrant that we ascribe to her wilful corruption and deceit. Mother Teresa is not a trickster, a charlatan, an impostor as Hitchens alleges. She is extremely single minded in pursuing her vision. If mistakes are made, they come from a spiritual variation of the Peter principle: her being promoted to speak or act on matters that lie outside her charism. Christ warned us to be prudent as snakes, but simple as doves. Can we always be like snakes and doves at the same time? In the spiritual desert of our time, do we not need the prophetic impact of Mother Teresa, in spite of frayed edges and clumsy manoeuvres?

Mother Teresa’s strength lies in her living a spiritual vision. Our world only makes sense if we discover the dimension of mystery, of God. And God has revealed himself as Love. Love gives meaning to suffering, to selfless service, to values such as humanity, forgiveness and healing. This is a dimension Hitchens is unable or unwilling to see, by his own admission. How then can he presume to judge a person like Mother Teresa whose whole life is an embodiment of spiritual values?

Mother Teresa’s spirituality, though pre-Vatican II, manifest depth and power. In A Simple Path she speaks of prayer, faith, love, service and peace. Her words strike a chord because they obviously spring from deep convictions. Some sayings need to be read with care, or they could mislead. “We serve Jesus in the poor. We nurse Him, feed Him, clothe Him, visit Him, comfort Him in the poor, the sick, the orphans, the dying.” “The poorest of the poor are for us a means of expressing our love for God.” Hitchens takes such protestations to mean that Mother Teresa does not really care about the poor themselves. They are just ‘occasions of piety’ for her.

There have, indeed, been anti-world aberrations in nineteenth-century spirituality. Again, Mother Teresa’s lack of sophistication is her worst enemy. The excessive God-lovers came close to despising people while smothering them with love for the sake of God. This, I am quite sure, is neither the view of Mother Teresa nor of her followers, even though they use phrases open to misunderstanding. As Jesus holds out in the Gospel, it is our neighbour himself who matters. We nurse, feed, clothe and comfort people because they are in need and we are concerned about them. In actual fact, God considers this done to himself – whether we are aware of it or not.

Some six years ago I attended another meeting addressed by Mother Teresa. When she began to speak I was conscious of my wary skepticism. She totally disarmed me by giving an account of a woman she had found dying in a gutter. The woman was undernourished, covered in sores and shaking with typhoid fever. In spite of her own condition, the woman kept worrying about her son – who had run away from her. “I love him”, she kept saying. “I forgive him. I am sorry I could not care better for him.” Mother Teresa concluded that human love is the most important reality in everyone’s life. “What people need is love”, she told us. By the time she finished, I had tears in my eyes.

Mother Teresa has focused our attention on the plight of those who are utterly abandoned. She reminds us that they too are human beings. Her message is short and direct: we will only be happy if we learn to love, love as understood by the Gospel. Love involves action. The testimonies of Mother Teresa’s followers show that all found the deed to be crucial: the actual reaching out, holding a dying AIDS patient by the hand, spending time to comfort a blind child. In this sense Mother Teresa is proposing a simple path that could revolutionise the world. “Prayer in action is love, and love in action is service. Try to give unconditionally whatever a person needs at the moment. The point is to do something, however small. Sometimes this may mean doing something physical, at other times offering spiritual support. You may worry about why problems exist in the world: do not make it an excuse – just respond to people’s needs.”