A Saint and a Cynic

Mother Teresa in 1979 (Keystone Features/Getty)
On the canonization of Mother Teresa

I only encountered the late Christopher Hitchens once. It was ten in the morning, at a funeral, and he was drunk. I would have liked to have asked him about Mother Teresa, about whom he wrote a daft and uncharitable book that has always seemed to me to exist as an excuse for its title: The Missionary Position.

Mother Teresa, born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, is to be canonized in September, which is to say officially recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. She was among other things a living rebuke to the shallow Nietzscheanism of which Hitchens eventually repented, the “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” foolishness that can be attractive when you are young and healthy and in possession of the knowledge that some day this camping trip or personal-trainer session will end, and that Starbucks awaits.

For those Mother Teresa served, that which did not kill them kept right on trying — until it did. Her organization, the Missionaries of Charity, did (and does) its best to make them comfortable, to care for them in their final agony — to love them. But they do die, often in pain. They do not die alone.

Hitchens, a cultured and cultivated man who nonetheless was as unthinking a partisan of the man-as-meat school of philosophy as anyone of his time, objected to that. Human beings, in his view, were livestock requiring husbandry, and Mother Teresa, as a Catholic, was in his view morally responsible for the very suffering she sought to alleviate by encouraging human fecundity in line with the teaching of her Church. From The Missionary Position: “Given how much this Church allows the fanatical Mother Teresa preach, . . . the call to go forth and multiply, and to take no thought for the morrow, sounds grotesque when uttered by an elderly virgin whose chief claim to reverence is that she ministers to the inevitable losers in this very lottery.”

Hitchens never quite seems to have understood it was he, and not those who encouraged and/or assumed the normal course of human reproduction, who was the one advocating “a livestock version” of reproduction, as he put it. (Compulsory reproduction, in his overegged wording.) Hitchens was very much a product of the 1960s counterculture and its saccharine delusions about the connection between sex and reproduction, a philosophy of foot-stamping that thrives still.

Of course life isn’t a lottery — or not only that. Mother Teresa was born in a particular time and place, under particular conditions: in 1910, in what is today Macedonia, into a fairly ordinary family. Her subsequent work, founding a missionary order that would eventually come to do its good work in more than 100 countries, bringing an arresting and sometimes even shocking version of Christian love to a world that had not in a very long time seen anything quite like Mother Teresa’s example.

The Missionaries of Charity played a small but important role in my own conversion. Raised a lightly committed Methodist, I had been a lifelong National Review reader and an admirer of Bill Buckley’s light religious touch. (Largely unsentimental, but it is impossible to fail to be moved by his reflection on the last days and death of his mother: “Well done, Lord.”)  I had found myself over the years drawn to the Catholic Church: First and especially for its unyielding commitment to the sanctity of human life (I am Catholic in part because I am pro-life, not the other way around), but also for its beauty, its order, its necessarily and healthful reliance upon hierarchy, etc.

I’d gone through my Hitchenesque phase as an adolescent, albeit without anything like the energy or flair that the man himself brought to the enterprise, the shock of discovering that hypocrisy exists having worn off for me in a way that it never seems to have for him. For me, callow little snob that I was, T. S. Eliot (“classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion”) had made Christianity intellectually acceptable to me in general (I am sure Thomas Aquinas had been eagerly awaiting my judgment), and on the question of the Catholic Church in particular I was a little like the two-T’s Elliott from The Razor’s Edge, who came to understand the Roman church as “very like a select club that a well-bred man owed it to himself to belong to.”

Not that I was well-bred.

There was a kind of simplicity in Mother Teresa’s vision — to perform acts of care and kindness for those who have no one else — but it isn’t actually simple. It is profound.

There are things you do if you are a foreigner living in India, which is what I was after college: You visit the Taj Mahal, you read The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and you visit the Missionaries of Charity. The first of these I put off for many months, eventually out of pure perversity. (“You’ve never been to the Taj Mahal? It’s three hours away!”) The second I had done before arriving, and the third came late in my stay. I have never had anything that I would describe as a supernatural experience, and I certainly didn’t when I visited Mother Teresa’s gang in Calcutta. It was hot, and sweaty, and it smelled — which is to say, it was a great deal like much of the rest of Calcutta. There are better and worse ways to die, but there aren’t any good ones.

But I was left with a deep and unshakeable impression that something serious was going on with these women. That has, for me, been more significant than any homily or any of the striking religious images for which the Catholic Church is rightly famous. There is, I cannot help but see, something serious at work there. There was then, there is now. There was a kind of simplicity in Mother Teresa’s vision — to perform acts of care and kindness for those who have no one else — but it isn’t actually simple. It is profound.

As noted, Hitchens eventually had second thoughts about his position on Nietzsche. (I do not believe the rumors of his deathbed Christian conversion.) Suffering horribly from cancer, Hitchens wrote: “One thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound.”

Indeed, one wonders.

Teresa of Calcutta will be canonized on September 4. I’ll say a little prayer for the peaceful repose of the soul of Christopher Hitchens, who, if he is annoyed by that, will be gratifyingly shocked that he retains the capacity for annoyance.

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