11 NOVEMBER 1995, Page 52

All made of faith and service

Nigel Spivey

THE MISSIONARY POSITION: MOTHER TERESA IN THEORY AND PRACTICE by Christopher Hitchens Versa, £7.95, pp. 98 A SIMPLE PATH by Mother Teresa Rider, £9.99, pp. 192 Saints take opprobrium. It is a sort of dietary supplement which helps them to thrive. So there is no harm in repeating the current charges against Mother Teresa, imminently of the company. Which are that she is a pernicious bigot; that she has pledged the propagation of a faith whose tenets descend from the worst excesses of the Counter Reformation; that she has gar- nered large amounts of global cash from her base in Calcutta, most of which has gone to extend and sustain the worldwide diffusion of a fundamentalist cult; and that in furtherance of this aggressive mission, she has happily laundered the proceeds of thieves, and furnished despots with her blessing. Hers is one of the great religious frauds of the century, if not the millenni- um. Impeccably celibate, she has endeared herself to the world as simply 'Mother'.

Her canonisation is assured.

`Who would be so base as to pick on a wizened, shrivelled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and destitute?' In his opening lines, Christopher Hitchens reasonably congratulates himself on a certain reckless bravado in his attack upon the saint-in-waiting. Most Western liberals are nauseated by Mother Teresa's grotesque views upon contraception, abortion, women priests and so on, but will indulge her these mediaeval follies on account of the balance of good works and practical idealism. Many Indians, though puzzled by the gap between the reported quantities of money attracted by Mother Teresa and the miserable quality of medical provision at her sanctuaries, nonetheless revere the lady. She and her staff, they say, provide at least direct, hands-on help for people afflicted with repellent diseases. So there is a gutsy basis to the Hitchens performance. And much of his polemic strikes sweetly on target. He attributes the universal reverence for Mother Teresa's work to a 1969 documentary made by Malcolm Muggeridge, in which miracles of light appeared to be captured on camera, and Calcutta's streets shown plunged in deepest black despair. The halo around Mother Teresa turns out to be the effect of a new type of film. As for Calcutta, Hitchens is absolutely right to feel cheated by Muggeridge's presentation of the city as hell. Calcutta is not heaven, but it is a city of extraordinary hope, where even those reduced to the pavements seem to be busy as individuals, scraping a living together somehow or other. And though the problem of poverty is not resolved there, neither is it screened away.

But does Mother Teresa really care about poverty? The question, apparently fatuous, is tackled head-on by Hitchens. His answer is that so long as she rejects birth control, she cannot. And if one browses through the collection of prayers, sentiments and hagiographic testimonies collected in A Simple Path, there are certain passages which support his case. `Suffering', declares Mother Teresa, 'is a great gift of God.' So let it be abundantly distributed and shared in the world. And why? Because all the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed, and we must share it, for only by being one with them can we redeem them, that is, by bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.

Here is the revelation of purpose. In 195Q, with the Vatican's sanction, Mother Teresa founded an order called the Missionaries of Charity. As the obsequious compilers of A Simple Path relate, in a peri- od when vocations elsewhere in the Catholic church have been steadily declin- ing, the sisters and brothers of the Mission- aries of Charity have burgeoned in number, now totalling 4,000. Cynical connoisseurs of such statistics will note that although the Poor we have with us always, fighting against birth control is one good way of ensuring that their numbers will increase in the future. So many more souls, then, to be redeemed.

`Mother Teresa has never pretended that her work is anything but a fundamentalist religious campaign'. If Hitchens is right in this claim, it detracts from his case. He cannot unmask an open face. In fact he could surely have made more of the covert Proselytising done by the Missionaries of Charity. A Simple Path deceives its readership into believing that the order is ecumenical, and accordingly contains nothing but an anodyne selection of saintly precepts. And in the relatively free- thinking environment of Bengal, Mother Teresa must take care not to appear as a post-colonial bearer of salvation from Rome. But her dogmas are those of the current Pope; and at least one renegade member of the Missionaries of Charity has told of instructions, from Mother Teresa herself, secretly to baptise dying Hindus and Muslims into the faith.

Whether the mission will survive the eventual elevation of its founder is doubt- ful. Mother Teresa is an irreplaceable icon. And she has shown that she knows how to exploit the value of icon-status. It was Jean Baudrillard who characterised the capitalist Western charity machine as 'the New Sen- timental Order' — making spectacles of Third World poverty and catastrophe sim- ply in order to knock up a spurious moral equilibrium. We have damned the people of Calcutta and elsewhere by the terms we set in the GATT world trade treaty. Thank God, then, for Mother Teresa, and the countless opportunities she has offered the Reagans and Thatchers and Maxwells and others to juxtapose their suits and coiffures next to a hunched and humble nun. Thus the West even monopolises the virtue of compassion. (Hardly anyone outside India is aware of the staunch work of the indige- nous Ramakrishna mission).

Given the strength of the New Sentimen- tal Order, it is unlikely that Hitchens will accomplish any serious iconoclasm. Mother Teresa is such good copy for top-ups of conscience and contrast (in this month's Italian edition of Elle, for example, she and her retinue of Calcuttan skeletons appear right amidst all the fur coat advertise- ments), and in any case Hitchens himself is too vulnerable to righteous indignation. Intelligent fundamentalists (if they exist at all) could certainly quiz him on the popula- tion problem: he deplores Vatican policy, yet he also castigates Indira Gandhi for her campaign of forced sterilisation — so what does he propose to do about it? But Hitchens is up against forces he can hardly hope to overcome. And he never quite registers the extent to which his world of reasoning and Mother Teresa's empire of faith are divided, doomed never to con- verge. In a footnote, he records Mother Teresa's reported reaction to the documen- tary he made about her last year, impugn- ing her in similar terms to the present book. 'Her response was to say that she "forgave" us for making it. This was odd, since we had not sought forgiveness from her or from anyone else'. But what did he expect? Mother Teresa does not operate to the rules of liberal debate. The epigraphs peppering Hitchens' text are those of classic anti-clericalism, from Hume and Paine and so on: but Mother Teresa and her devotees have made their Kierkegaar- dian 'leap of faith', into the ecstasies of a self-fulfilment gained by helping others, and can afford to express their disregard as forgiveness. Of course, it essentially remains disregard: but Hitchens is naive to ask of Mother Teresa, 'who is she to for- give?' She is, to those who adore her, a conduit of God's grace. Whether Hitchens likes it or not, Mother Teresa probably now includes him in her prayers on a regu- lar basis.

I approached the Hitchens attack with the woolly or mellow attitude that whilst Mother Tei-esa does not actually do very much good in the world, neither does she do much harm. In his conclusion, Hitchens nails me and my sort as guilty of intellectu- al snobbery. We do not ourselves believe in laying on of hands and rosaries and terra- cotta idols of the Blessed Virgin.— but we consider them quaint marketing devices of hope, the easy comforts and gee-gaws of lesser mortals. Another palpable hit.

But what shall we do? In his final sen- tence, Hitchens demands that we subject Mother Teresa to 'rational critique'. But there is no getting away from the fact that Mother Teresa belongs, profoundly, to a tradition which has only one ultimate answer to rational critiques. Burn them.