The Corner

Mother T. in Oslo

On this big day for Mother Teresa, I would like to recall one moment of her life: her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. This episode is, of course, included in my history of the Nobel Peace Prize, Peace, They Say. Let me provide a brief excerpt:

Did the Nobel prize make Mother Teresa famous? She was well known before 1979, the year of her prize. In the late 1960s, Malcolm Muggeridge, the eminent British journalist and intellectual, traveled to Calcutta to make a BBC documentary about her: Something Beautiful for God. He later wrote a book about her, using that same title. And, inspired by Mother Teresa’s example, he converted from atheism to Catholicism. In December 1975, Mother Teresa was pictured on the cover of Time magazine, for an article on “Living Saints.” She won many awards before the Nobel — but this grandest of all prizes catapulted her into a truly colossal fame.

A living saint indeed, she was the “saint of the gutters,” ministering to “the poorest of the poor”: the starving, the leprous, the dying. On hearing that she had won the Nobel prize, she said, “I am not worthy.” But she knew that winning this glittering and lucrative award would help the poor, who were her concern. …

Mother Teresa gave a most unusual Nobel lecture. Simply yet profoundly, she talked about Christ and human obligation. She said, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself.” This is not typical Nobel talk, very far from it. And, obviously, it did not sit well with many. Also, she told stories, about the people she encountered in her daily walk and work. There was a man immobilized, flat on his back — but he had the use of his right hand. He used it to smoke, his one pleasure in life. But he gave up smoking for a week, and sent the money he saved to Mother Teresa — who used it to buy bread for the poor.

The night of the prize ceremony, there was no banquet, as there traditionally is: Mother Teresa had requested that the organizers cancel it, and give the money to the poor. They did. And, of course, the poor got Mother Teresa’s prize money. In 1964, Pope Paul visited India, and gave Mother Teresa the limousine he used. Without ever getting into it, she raffled it off, and applied the money to her leper colony. Mother Teresa had her critics and detractors, because everyone does, it seems. But acquaintance with her life confirms that she was as good as her reputation. …

Nobel peace laureates have been giving lectures since 1901 — that’s a lot of lectures. And the two most unusual lectures, in my judgment, are George Marshall’s in 1953 and Mother Teresa’s. (Go here and here.) Marshall’s is unusual in that he defended military might, at the disposal of democratic countries, as a great force for peace. Mother Teresa’s is unusual for its attack on abortion.

I often quote Robert Graves, who said (something like), “The thing about Shakespeare is, he really is good.” I discovered, in looking into Mother Teresa’s life, that the thing about her is, she really was good. She had her enemies, heaven knows. She was better than they.

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