November 1995
by David Warren


By treating poverty where she finds it, without regard to politics, she has become a target. It's hard to be a saint these days.


Christopher Hitchens says Mother Teresa is a "wizened, shrivelled old lady." This is hard to deny. Whether she is also "a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers" is disputable, but Hitchens has fun saying it. He'd already said it a few times in magazine articles, and in "Hell's Angel," a TV documentary on Britain's "arts" Channel Four. And now it's in his new book, The Missionary Position: The Ideology of Mother Teresa. This last can expect to ride the huge international publicity that will accompany an "autobiography" by Mother Teresa herself. Entitled A Simple Path, it has been ghostwritten by Canada's Lucinda Vardey, and is about to appear in a first printing of 500,000 copies. It remains to be seen which book was the worse idea.

A brilliant English writer transplanted to America, Hitchens has for more than a decade been pouring his caustic substance through a dozen small reviewes. His column in The Nation has become a literary institution, as have his frequent fighting essays in the London Review of Books. Today he is probably better known for his regular contributions to Vanity Fair, and as a talking head on both British and American public television. The audience grows for his anecdotal drollery, boyish insolence, and cutely winking sarcasm. The Missionary Position is his tenth book; one of the previous nine was an attack on the queen.

Hitchens's own ideological pose is that he carries the flame for the minority side in the "unending argument between those who know they are right and therefore claim the mandate of heaven, and those who suspect that the human race has nothing but the poor candle of reason by which to light its way." Since he takes belief in God to be prima facie irrational, it tends to follow that anyone who believes is a malicious idiot.

The demolition of Mother Teresa begins with a long meditation (for such a short book) on a portfolio of photographs Hitchens has culled from newspapers. In these, Mother is shown beside the wife of "Baby Doc" (the former tyrant of Haiti); receiving a cheque for $10,000 from "John-Roger" (self-appointed Messiah of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness) then flanked in prayer by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Marion Barry (the mayor of Washington who went to jail on drug convictions). Much is insinuated, but nothing quite alleged. Hitchens mentions that, for research, he called up books about Mother Teresa on the electronic index at the library of Congress. He dismisses them, however, judging from the titles that they are all devotional pamphlets, then proceeds on hearsay. This is (as they say in India) the full charge-sheet:

1. If she's going to be a Catholic saint, there must be a "miracle," and sure enough Malcolm Muggeridge seemed to declare one during the making of Something Beautiful for God, his BBC documentary of 1969. His cameraman told him it would be impossible to shoot the interior of Mother's Calcutta "Home for the Dying" because the light was too dim, but he tried anyway. When the rushes came back the scene was bathed in a soft, spooky light in which every detail was discernible, whereas a scene in the brightly lit courtyard outside, shot with the same film stock, came out dark and confused. Muggeridge provocatively called •this "the kindly light," but the cameraman now says it was just a new film stock from Kodak.

2. Calcutta isn't as bad as people say, and when Hitchens was there he enjoyed it. Mother Teresa's heroism is exaggerated.

3. Her views on population policy are wrong. She is against not only abortion but also birth control.

4. Dr. Robin Fox, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, visited the same Home for the Dying last year and pronounced some of its medical practices to be inadequate by Western standards.

5. In Mother's San Francisco hostel for homeless gay men with AIDS, the nuns won't let the inmates watch TV, smoke, drink, or have their friends over.

6. There are stories that some of her nuns in India have secretly baptized non-Christian patients on their deathbeds, asking them only if they wanted a "ticket to heaven."

7. Even though her order forbids begging for more money than is immediately needed, people give huge sums and there must be extra cash piled up in bank accounts somewhere.

8. When Mother herself took ill (she had a heart attack in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1992) she was taken not to the Home for the Dying in Calcutta but to a high-tech medical facility (nearby). She received further treatment in a good hospital in Rome (after having a relapse there). (Hitchens does not supply the details in brackets.)

9. Mother accepted a gift of money from Charles Keating, now serving a ten-year sentence for his part in the U.S. savings-and-loan fiasco. When a Los Angeles deputy district attorney wrote to suggest that she therefore return the money, he didn't get a reply.

10. Mother was born Albanian and, in 1927, King Zog of Albania signed a protection pact with Benito Mussolini. "Before the war, the ideas of fascism, Catholicism, Albanianism and Albano-Italian unity were closely identified." Moreover, Mother appears in a picture with Enver Hoxha, another Albanian despot, fifty years later.

11. She is mentioned approvingly by Ann Landers.

By the end of the book, we are back in Hitchens's photo album, where Mother Teresa may be seen with Ronald Reagan and his chief of staff, Donald Regan; with some right-wing Spanish legislators; and with Margaret Thatcher. Surely, this man has a strange little hobby.

Mother Teresa was born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu to Catholic Albanian parents eighty-five years ago at Skopje, now the  capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia but then a town of some 20,000 souls in the Balkan reaches of the fading Ottoman Empire. All evidence, including her own and that of her more talkative brother Lazar, is of a happy childhood in a deeply religious household, from the bosom of which, at the age of twelve, she first sensed the calling to be a nun.

The calling persisted, and by the age of seventeen she felt drawn to be a missionary in India. She had doubts, and consulted a priest, who told her that the Call of God is accompanied by a deep feeling of joy. She felt great joy, and so embarked on her journey, bidding her mother goodbye, for life, at the railway station in Zagreb, on her way to Rathfarnham in Ireland, where for two months she began to learn English and studied as a postulant. From there she went by sea to Bombay, and by the Bombay Mail across India to Howrah Station at Calcutta. Her novitiate was spent with the Loreto Sisters at Darjeeling, a hill station far to the north, under the strict regime of the Mistress of Novices, a Sister Murphy. On March 24, 1931, she gave her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, taking her new name from that of a French nun, St Thérèse of Lisieux, who had loved humble tasks and prayed for missionaries.

For seventeen more apparently happy years she taught at St Mary's School, part of the Loreto Convent at Entally, a Calcutta suburb. (The elite of India attend such schools, which also take students from impoverished families.) After Final Vows at Darjeeling in 1939, she returned to the school to be made principal, but continued to teach, especially world geography and catechism. Many pupils attest her liveliness and skill in the classroom. The Second World War went by, the Great Famine of Bengal claimed 3-million lives; there were communal frenzies between Muslims and Hindus on the Calcutta maidan as independence approached; in the partition of India, a million desperate refugees streamed into Calcutta from the separated state of East Pakistan; and Sister Teresa continued teaching. But on September 10, 1946, she heard another call, a "call within a call" as she describes it, telling her to go into Calcutta's most wretched slums to help the poorest of the poor.

Two years were spent pondering this before action was taken. When the archbishop of Calcutta was informed, he was appalled. Two more years were needed to overcome his resistance, and with support in writing from the mother general of Loreto, Sister Teresa received the Vatican's permission for her exclaustration. She took a brief course in nursing at Patna, then entered Calcutta's Motijhil (a much-improved neighbourhood today, but in 1950 it was ghastly), wearing the cheap sari of her new order and with five rupees for tram fares.

A school was started in the open air. Mother Teresa attracted pupils by kneeling with a stick in the dust, writing out letters of the Bengali alphabet. Within a few months a schoolhouse was donated, with room for a small dispensary. The first recruit arrived, a Bengali girl named Subhasini Das, today the formidable Sister Agnes. Ten more of Mother's former students were enlisted. A rich Muslim provided the building in the Lower Circular Road which is still Motherhouse (managing international operations with three old typewriters and one telephone line). Soon there was Nirmal Hriday (that home for the dying), Shishu Bhawan (a nursery for unwanted and abandoned children), Titagarh (a lepers' colony), and a parallel order of Brothers (she needed men to do heavy lifting; the Sisters taught them carpentry).


I will jump ahead. Several non-devotional books exist. The best is by an Indian civil servant (who is incidentally not a Christian), Navin Chawla, entitled simply Mother Teresa and published in 1992; other good ones are by Eileen Egan, Kathryn Spink, Desmond Doig, and Edward Le Joly. The best known is Malcolm Muggeridge's Something Beautiful for God written after the film in 1971. It helped make Mother Teresa universally famous, and brought Sisters to her from every corner of the world.

Today, Mother's Missionaries of Charity preside over a multinational enterprise that expands faster than it can be audited. The most recent complete information I could find was for 1990, but from this and partial accounts my best estimate is that there are now 600 centres in perhaps 120 countries. Half a million families are being fed, their children taught, a quarter-million sick are being treated. There are hostels for AIDS patients, for abandoned children, for the crippled and mentally retarded, for unwed mothers, for alcoholics, drug abusers, destitutes of all sorts. There are innumerable catechetical classes, prayer and Bible study groups, slum schools, sewing, commercial, and handicraft classes, preschool and afterschool programmes. There are visitors to prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, shut-ins. There are dispensaries, leprosy and TB clinics, rehabilitation and malnutrition posts, food and clothing relief, night shelters, soup kitchens, dry rations, mobiles. There are day crèches and - are you still reading, Mr. Hitchens? - a host of natural-family-planning centres.

If Mother were peddling fast food, I suppose all this would place her somewhere between Burger King and McDonald's - fewer franchises but more global reach - and I wait for some American management guru to discover the secret of her success, which is to give the product away. She has a staff that works for nothing, and suppliers who surrender raw materials free.

As to Mother Teresa's reactionary opinions, there is no doubt of them. She hardly agrees with Hitchens about anything. She considers abortion to be murder. She repeats the Church's warning against artificial methods of birth control whenever she is asked, and often when she is not asked. She takes no interest whatever in the systemic causes of poverty and alienation, but rather, treats them where she sees them. She has not signed a single petition, nor joined a march to fight government cutbacks. She obeys every command of Mother Church, punctiliously following the rules pertaining to missionary orders.

And yet she is no respecter of persons, to judge by a remark recorded by Muggeridge twenty years ago in the London Times. He had complained to her about dissident priests and the complacent Church hierarchy. She said, "Jesus hand-picked twelve disciples, one of whom proved to be a crook and the others ran away." Muggeridge drew the obvious implication: "Why then should we expect popes and suchlike to do better?"

Baby Doc's wife was not the most questionable person in authority that Mother Teresa ever flattered with a visit. Take Saddam Hussein, on whom she came to call after the Gulf War (her letters to President Bush and to Saddam, begging them to call it off before anyone got hurt, having gone unheeded). The "perfume of Baghdad," as he is known to his guards, granted permission to open six centres in Iraq for orphans and the disabled.

This extraordinary woman, who retires at 2 a.m. each night, then rises at 4:40 each morning, will appear beside anybody if she can get something from them for her poor. Her handwritten notes, on cheap foolscap, are among the most-framed correspondence on the walls of presidents and prime ministers. She in turn has been seen discarding their replies after reading them. (As the father of an avid nine-year-old philatelist, my reaction was, "The stamps! Save the stamps!") I have no doubt that had she flourished sixty years ago, she would have visited Hitler with a scheme for housing his unwanted cripples, insane, and mental defectives. I am not even sure that he could have resisted her entreaties. And I suppose the Hitchens of that day would use this to prove her complicity in Nazism.

Mother Teresa's position is an absolute rejection of politics, not for others but for herself and for her Sisters. Asked by Navin Chawla why she did not take part in any peace movement, she said: "But I won't mix in politics. War is the fruit of politics, and so I don't involve myself, that's all. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving. Because I will have to stand by one, not by all."

Notwithstanding, I feel bound to supply a sampling of her views on several of what might be called policy questions.

On capital punishment: "I don't understand it."

On family values: "We must make our homes centres of compassion and forgive endlessly."

On the work ethic: "Our work, to be fruitful, and to be all for God, and to be beautiful, has to be built on faith."

On the need for leadership: "Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person."

On welfare reform: "You have a welfare state, but I have walked at night and gone into your homes and found people dying unloved."

On trickle-down economics: "It is not a sin to be rich. There must be a reason why some people can afford to live well. They must have worked for it. But I tell you this provokes avarice, and there comes sin. Richness is given by God and it is our duty to divide it with those less favoured."

On the cost of medicare: "I wouldn't touch a leper for a thousand dollars; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God."

On how to achieve world peace: "Children, ask your parents to teach you how to pray. That is the beginning."


My puzzlement over the purpose of A Simple Path, Mother Teresa's contribution to the literature about her, was not diminished by Ballantine Books, its New York publisher, who would not show me a review copy ahead of publication (usually an admission that the book is dull). Lucinda Vardey, the book's Canadian connection, spoke about it in her Cabbagetown home, and kindly smuggled me a copy of the dust jacket.

I am puzzled that Mother would write a book at all. Unlike John of the Cross, or Thomas a Kempis, or even Francis of Assisi, she has not been a literary aspirant. Even The Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity (the 275 rules of her order) were drafted and polished by another person, Mother's priest and spiritual adviser, Father Celeste van Exem. Anyone who has previously asked permission to write about her has been told to write instead about her Sisters' works; and if they do, she tells them, "Go publish it everywhere." She claims, truthfully I think, not to have read any book or article about herself- behaviour unimaginable to a person who cannot think what it might be like, to give yourself away in love for Christ Jesus. On the other hand, she has never hesitated to do anything legitimate to raise money for her poor.

What I am tentatively suggesting is that, though it may raise a bundle, a ghostwritten book by Mother Teresa is not necessarily a good idea; that while I'm eager to keep St John's Dark Night of the Soul, St Thomas's Imitation of Christ, and even St Francis's Little Flowers (which has its sickly moments), I doubt that A Simple Path will prove so retainable. We need many books about a saint, and few by. And a book about should be as factual as possible, quoting Mother as she really speaks. There is an Aramaic touch to the sayings of Jesus in the Greek New Testament. Mother Teresa speaks with an enchanting Bengali-Albanian accent. She uses pithy, short, often peremptory sentences, that do not unwind into stories.

That Ms Vardey was not the ideal ghostwriter is suggested by her editing of God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing; which also appears this season. It is the 900-page fruit of prodigious reading, surveying a heterodox field in six parts and twenty-two sections, and including everyone from the obedient Mother Teresa to those twin thorns in the head of the Catholic hierarchy, Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeeckx; from sherry-drinking C.S. Lewis to the hallucinating Carlos Casteneda; from dour Alexander Solzhenitsyn to feel-good Michael Ignatieff. It is like the whirling scene in The Wizard of Oz: somewhere before morning we have encountered Alan Watts, Mahatma Gandhi, Krishnamurti, Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama, Albert Schweitzer, Martha Graham, RD. ("Knots") Laing, Carl Gustav Jung, Abraham H. ("Primal Scream") Maslow, E.F. ("Small is Beautiful") Schumacher, Paramahansa Yogananda, and, God help me, Philip Larkin. There are over a hundred more Names in the book, most of them having been mass-market famous for at least fifteen minutes, and some genuinely religious. I have not felt so punch-drunk on setting down an anthology since, in adolescence, I tried to read Bartlett's Familiar Quotations right through; and compared to this, it had a theme.

I adored Ms Vardey, and it pains me to think that she may never speak to me again, but I must tell the truth about this book. A general and part-introductions give some hazy guidance through the welter, but the impression of flakiness is accentuated by ridiculous anachronisms and factual errors. (The opening sentence on the first page, for instance, contains three anachronisms that lead to four factual errors and at least six misleading inferences.) And the book is defaced with psychotic blather, for example Matthew Fox's "Litany of Deliverance," in fact not a litany but a commination against "patriarchy" and its abuse of women, homophobia, sadomasochism, reptilian brain, cannibalism, matricide, and several dozen other attributes from which Fox prays, "Spare us, O Divine One." It is the most memorable residuum of section seven, "Awakening the Great Mother," from which I found myself praying to be spared.

It is a relief to return to the solid earth of Mother Teresa, after the pharmaceutical joyride of so much modern spirituality. She is order and discipline: her words have strictly delimited meanings, and acts follow from them. Yet there is nothing narrow in the spirit that inhabits that short, fragile, aged human body, or in her vocation. She is a conventional Roman Catholic. If she is converting anybody to Christianity, it is by a powerful example, not by exhortation. Though deeply respectful of other ways and traditions - in Calcutta she mingles comfortably with Hindus, Muslims, Jains - she does not wander off to get lost in their theologies. Her Catholicism is adequate to her purposes, which are to feed, nurse, and bring comfort to the poorest of the poor.

The poor need God, and she is practical about it. In Yemen, an entirely Muslim country, she found a community with no place to pray, and so persuaded a local rich man to build a mosque. She encourages Muslims to read their Koran, Jews to keep their fasts, Jains to shelter injured animals; sends the bodies of Hindus who die in her hospitals to be cremated according to their rites. This is the normal way to treat one another - with love, with true respect, with reticence about what is not our own, and without fuss.

Whether she is a saint is a moot point, she has always tried to be one, naturally assuming that that is what God wanted her to be. I do not know whether she can work miracles; she notices them around her every day. The person who walked into Nirmal Hriday to find two American senators and the plump wife of a prominent Nigerian general on their knees scrubbing the floor probably thought that he had witnessed a miracle. And even the media were impressed when she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, a place where the rules say there must be no public prayers, and had even the Communist delegates clasping hands, repeating a prayer of St Francis of Assisi. But these were only minor occasions.

The source of her power might well be just what she says, Jesus Christ. And the method behind her cool-headed madness I found perfectly explained in this last anecdote, from Kathryn Spink's book, For the Brotherhood of Man. It is of watching a young novice cleansing a dying woman's gaping wound.

"The raw flesh was alive with squirming maggots and the novice, quite understandably, was removing them with a pair of tweezers held at arm's length. In an instant Mother Teresa, by this time in her late sixties, was by her side. Using a scalpel, she deftly began to cleanse the wound, her face close to the repulsive mass, apparently oblivious to the stench which was intensified by her probings. 'You must understand that this is Jesus. We are cleansing the wounds of our Lord,' was the instruction delivered to the young girl, who obediently took the scalpel and bent over her patient until her face was within inches of the putrid flesh."

Christopher Hitchens wanted a miracle. Perhaps it is that in this cynical age; with our media everywhere crouched and ready to jump into action with a cry of "Gotcha!", the reputation of Mother Teresa has survived, and will survive, though she will soon die.