The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
by Christopher Hitchens
Verso, 98 pp., $12.95
Eric Partridge has informed us that “the missionary position” is an expression of South Sea islander coinage. If Christopher Hitchens did not share the widespread misapprehension of blasphemous intent in his grand remonstrance against Mother Teresa, he could scarcely have chosen to present it under a rubric so resounding with echoes of pagan disdain for piety’s disabling effect upon investigative curiosity.
Hitchens would have little cause to boast or blush if he were indeed the blasphemer that he mistakes himself to be. It is by no means a certainty that blasphemy is a trespass that much disesteemed by the Maker of Heaven and Earth. His complaints to Isaiah against the stiflings of His nostrils by incense powerfully suggest zests for the combat mode that would much prefer contending with Athalia’s heartful Baalist conviction to coughing with the smoke of Saul’s unfelt oblations.
But Hitchens’s stirrings are so far from blasphemous as almost to resonate with the severities of orthodoxy. He came to scoff, but the murmurings that recurrently rise from his place in the pew unmistakably imply the man who has remained to pray. Mockeries suffuse his tones; but their charms, seduce us though they may, cannot conceal the fierce purpose of their employment, not in God’s despite but on His behalf. The compelling impulse in The Missionary Position‘s heartbeat is not to make fun of a holy woman in her wither but to chastise a heretic.
There aren’t many heresies older and none perhaps worse than Mother Teresa’s, because it abides in stubborn disdain for the sacred obligation to preserve life on earth. “Reverence for life, especially in its vulnerable condition in utero, is the sine qua non of Catholic teaching,” Hitchens reminds us with proper respect, “and one which possesses a great moral strength even in its extreme forms.” However unquestioningly the Church must accept “Thy Will Be Done” as the one be-all-and-end-all passage in scripture, it charges itself with the barely secondary duty to resist and defer the applications of the Divine Will so long as life still breathes in any soul under its care.
What then are we to make of the evidence that Hitchens piles up to persuade us that Mother Teresa’s hospitals work so pitilessly not to prolong the sufferer’s earthly existence but to teach him how to die?
When The Lancet‘s Robin Fox visited her in Kalighat in southern Calcutta, at her “Hospital for the Dying”—a grisly label long ago expunged from hospital nomenclature elsewhere—his manners could not disguise the shock of his discovery that recourse to medical advances in diagnosis, treatment, and the easing of pain are “seldom permissible” because “such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home.”
For all the weight of its professional authority, Dr. Fox’s testimony is less telling than Hitchens’s reminder of the care for self that Mother Teresa has habitually displayed on the several occasions when she has “checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age.” We could ask for no harsher judge of the quality of the healing endeavors she dispenses to others than this woman who regards herself as too precious a vessel of God’s purposes on earth to trust her life to the ministrations of her nuns and sisters. In the absence of a doctor or so who drops in now and then, they are left, by Dr. Fox’s witness, to “make decisions as best they can.”
It is a trial for the patience more than trifling to contemplate the smugness of her serenity when she passes the highest compliment she can think to tender to her Kalighat hospital, which is: “They die content. 23,000 have died there.”
Her love for the poor is curiously detached from every expectation or even desire for the betterment of their mortal lot and is concentrated upon accelerating their progress toward “the greatest development of the human life, to die in peace and dignity, for that’s for eternity.”1 Those still sentient who repair to her arms would apparently be wise to arrive well short of being half in love with easeful death. The mind still slightly ajar that Hitchens brought to his initiation into her presence was quickly closed when his eye was struck by the sign on the door of her office that read, “He that loveth correction loveth knowledge.”
The open gates of our own minds will, I’m afraid, be as swiftly and effectually shut at the juncture where Hitchens takes account of how many HIV-positive residents of Mother Teresa’s branch in the Castro District of San Francisco, “The Gift of Love” hostel, have been ejected in short order for coming home in drag.
But narrowly chasten though she may the ward who cannot pay, Mother Teresa is expansively latitudinarian with those who can. The swindler Charles Keating gave her $1.25 million—most dubiously his own to give—and she rewarded him with the “personalized crucifix” he doubtless found of sovereign use as an ornamental camouflage for his pirate flag.
She has uplifted the Mayor of Washington with the revelation that “the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor,” almost as much, Marion Barry might well have reflected, as his District’s poor have helped him with the infinite patience of their sufferance of his sins.
She once said to Malcolm Muggeridge that “the poorest of the poor are the means of expressing our love for God,” and in 1988 she told an assemblage gathered to celebrate the freshest flower in the cluster of her authorized biographies that
Leprosy is not a punishment, it can be a very beautiful gift of God if we make good use of it. Through it we can learn to love the unloved. 2
Such is the spirit that breathes so incessantly as to make loud the undertones of an insistence that the poor have been placed among us for the primary purpose of affording the comfortable a chance to discover how virtuous they are. Thus the beauty of leprosy is a gift not to those who are leprous but to those who aren’t, and are also possessed of the complacency requisite for conjuring up images of the self as feeler of the pain of others.
Hitchens does not hazard a guess whether, when this more inspiring than fostering mother yields up the ghost, it will travel to the canonization that is already hers to enjoy less formally but even more universally from the secular order. If her shade does wriggle through the snares and deceits of the devil’s advocate, the faithful of a generation hence will be venerating a sanctified image unique in the calendar of saints, whose hand with miracles had been applied until now to the cure of fleshly and spiritual distress, while hers has unremittingly been devoted to miraculous dispatchings of souls to heaven in wholesale lots, and, in too many instances, rather far in advance of the schedule the will of Heaven had appointed for them.
If her luck holds and she is blessed by posterity with anything like the outlandish kindness her contemporaries have accorded her, she can look forward to becoming the first saint who struck the rock and let premature death gush forth.
Her hagiographers are particularly at one in certifying the ecumenism with which Mother Teresa distributes her beneficences with impartial indifference to distinctions of creed between Catholic and Moslem, Hindu and Bantu. And yet Susan Shields, one of a number of apostates surprisingly large for a true prophet, has recalled to Hitchens:
In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptize those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a “ticket to heaven.” An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient’s head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa’s sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems.
Some of those thus surreptitiously snatched from the burning had to be so far in moribundity as to be incapable of informed consent; and this glimpse of her style with conversions licenses us to add to the catalog of this woman’s heresies the extraordinary notion that the gate of Heaven, instead of being as strait as she was taught as a novice, gapes instead so wide as to accept tickets of admission contrived in stealth and sealed with a fraudulent stamp.
Hitchens does not engage the mystery of why the Church puts up with such effronteries. Now and then there bobs up in the effusions of her ecclesiastical superiors a hint or so that the insistences of Mother’s self-will can be felt among the thorns that come with their calling. The tone that implies slight tinctures of discontent is, always, one of circumspect jocularity, because lapse though she often does from the daughterly virtues of humility, she can be trusted to march in step down the rockiest stretches of the Church’s earthly course and sound the loudest trumpet in the host. She is as ardent in exalting the right to life as her hospitals seem to be languid in preserving those who can still struggle to hold their claim to it.
She is singular among messengers of her Faith for condemning mothers who abort their children as incarnations of “the worst evil” and “greatest enemy of peace” around the world. Her strictures upon genocide are so severely confined to birth control that in 1985 on a visit to Guatemala, with the shades of fresh-killed Indians rustling in the air around her, she burbled, “Everything was peaceful in the parts of the country I visited. I do not get involved in that sort of politics.”
This narrowly excluding view of social evil hardly comports with that held by the Vatican, whose posture toward the coarser specimens of secular power has so often shown tastes distinctly better than our own State Department’s. Still, the Church can occasionally be wrong and, when She is, Mother Teresa surges forth as Her staunchest champion in error.
When she departed Haiti with the Légion d’Honneur she must have shared with a good number of exemplary Tontons Macoutes, her bread-and-butter letter to First Lady Michèle Duvalier crested with the attestation, “Madame President, the country vibrates with your life’s work.”
This encomium survived to flourish on Madame Duvalier’s behalf until she and her husband gathered up the remaining shards of the national treasury and decamped for the South of France, acutely missed by a Haitian archdiocese that had stuck by them even after their abandonment by the National Federation of Voodoo Priests, whose quasi-official pope had been Madame President’s father-in-law.
But then the Church was impelled to stomach the Duvaliers in preference to gagging over Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the forcibly separated Brother who, in trampling on the flowers of doctrine, had shown an altogether gentler foot than Mother Teresa often condescends to trip. Her service at Madame Duvalier’s altar was thus an auxiliary service to this Mother’s Church. Mother Teresa’s taste in these matters is not, to be sure, unvarying in its conformity to the teachings of Fathers ancient and contemporary. She once took a check for $10,000 from the Insight cult, and as ever sang for her supper by standing for her photograph jointly with John-Roger, Insight’s entrepreneur and unchallengeable holder of the world record for blasphemy which he established by crediting himself with “a spiritual consciousness” in advance of Jesus Christ’s. No matter how rancid the catch, all’s fish that comes to Mother Teresa’s net.
All the same her vagaries must be endured in all their varieties of disorder. Perhaps such is the price for possessing the treasure of a presence so useful as stimulant to the idolatry of the class that Hitchens defines, with a nicety of precision, as “the vaguely religious.” Or perhaps her bishops must suffer her because she is the CEO of a huge multinational corporation, the 456 centers of The Missionaries of Charity in more than a hundred countries, and thus due the respectful bearing that Teresa of Avila prescribes for those who travel the Way of Perfection:
Is there anyone, however ill-mannered, who would not consider beforehand how to address a person of high rank of whom it was necessary to ask a favor? Would not one be careful to gratify him, to avoid offending him, etc.?
There must be better stuff than that in Teresa of Avila; but this is the worldly lesson that lit the soul of a novice from Skopje, Yugoslavia, to guide her into the Way of Career and to sustain her upward journeyings into a life grander in compass and nearer to infinity in terrestrial fame than her patron Saint could ever have conjured up in her meditations, walled and shoeless among the Carmelites.
But then who could conjure up an unlikelier apparition than the sight of Christopher Hitchens heaving his cutlass as defender of the faith profaned? The imagination settles back upon him as a schoolboy conscripted to Sacred Studies and chained to Chapel through times immemorial. We can feel his puzzlement when Elisha turns the bears on the naughty children and sense his confusion with the moral ambivalence of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward until he arrives at last at the solaces of alienation. And yet all the while the sweet seductions of the Faith have been breathing in the air around him, penetrating his subconscious and finally and permanently imbuing it with the sacred obligation the honest unbeliever owes to orthodoxy.
Outraged propriety like this is a kind of religious expression, and seemlier than many others more current. Hitchens might not stir a finger for the Glory of God; but he has stood at His Right Hand and held the bridge for His Dignity. A day will come, prayerfully well hence, when his fellow communicants will command his departed soul with strict attention to the Articles of Disbelief; and its travels thereafter might just possibly find a destination that offers two surprises. The first would be the discovery that there is indeed a gate of Heaven. The second will burst forth when the Recording Angel opens his book to cry out with holy glee, “Christopher Hitchens? Bully for you.”
In Defense of Mother Teresa September 19, 1996