Where Do We Take Our Instructions?
We tend as a society to remove from sight those realities that may disturb our sense of order, of control, of comfort, of civilised pleasantness. It is very tempting to arrange things so that one lives a predictable and well-cushioned life shielded from the human wreckage that lies just below the surface. Yet something as simple as spending an hour or two in a railway carriage outside of peak hour can reveal how wafer-thin the veneer of social order and civility can be. And the surprising number of young people begging for food and money in and around the streets of central Melbourne reveals further what lies behind the façade of affluence and self-satisfaction that is everywhere projected. One does not need to walk the streets of Calcutta to know the faces of the dispossessed and the privation and deep need that everywhere burdens the life of so many.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta was born of a peasant family in Albania in 1910. Her father died when she was a young child and she was raised in the simple faith of her community. She joined the Loreto Sisters at the age of 18, having already decided when she was 12 years old that she would one day serve as a missionary in India. After a short stay in Ireland, she arrived in north India in 1929. Over the next 20 years, she formalised her religious vows and served as a teacher in a Loreto convent school for girls in Calcutta.
In 1948 after experiencing a profoundly transformative personal revelation, she departed the convent, replaced her regular Loreto habit with a plain blue-lined cotton sari, and immersed herself in the street life of Calcutta. After securing modest accommodation, she immediately started a small school for girls and began visiting the destitute and the dying who were everywhere to be found in the city. Her work was sanctioned by Rome in 1952 and the small group of women that had formed around her took on the name "Missionaries of Charity."
By the time Mother Teresa departed this world in 1997, her order had grown from a group of 13 women living in a small convent in Calcutta to over 600 missions housing 4,500 nuns in 123 countries. Among those missions were numerous hospices, centres for the care of leprosy, tuberculosis and AIDS sufferers, orphanages, refuges for the destitute and homeless, and schools. This simple woman from Albania had in a short 50 years brought selfless service and loving presence into the lives of the most neglected and abandoned among us in over 100 countries throughout the world.
While listening to Radio National some time ago, I caught the unmistakeable tarnished tones of Christopher Hitchens speaking at what was obviously a large public gathering. My attention sharpened when I heard an oblique mention of Mother Teresa's name, and roars of laughter and applause from a clearly adulatory audience. This unexpectedly brought to mind an article I had read some months earlier in which Hitchens had relentlessly attacked the life and work of Mother Teresa.
I decided to look into this a little further. There was no shortage of material on the Net. It is no secret that Hitchins has had it in not only for organised religion, but particularly for Mother Teresa for many years. One particularly abundant source of written, audio and video material regarding Hitchins and his ideas is the website of his close friend, Richard Dawkins. There is clearly a brotherhood of sorts among a small and vocal cadre of militant atheists who have made it their mission to dispel the darkness and folly of religious thought and aspiration with the enlightened understanding that this world is an essentially groundless and meaningless phenomenon wrought of the play of random chance and mindless chaos.
The English-speaking world was introduced to Mother Teresa and her work through Malcolm Muggeridge's film "Something Beautiful For God" which was broadcast by the BBC in 1969. Twenty-five years later, the English-speaking world was given a differing view of Mother Teresa and her work by Christopher Hitchins. His film "Hell's Angel", co-written with his then-ally Tariq Ali, was broadcast by the BBC in 1994. Like Muggeridge, Hitchens followed up with a book which was provocatively titled "The Missionary Position."
Hitchen's film is a breathtaking assault on Mother Teresa. In it, he describes her as "a demagogue, obscurantist and servant of earthly powers." After dismissing "that old fraud and mountebank" Malcolm Muggeridge, Hitchins begins his harangue by criticising the modest facilities and rudimentary methods used in the House for the Dying in Calcutta.
Nowhere is there any acknowledgement that Mother Teresa and her nuns were working voluntarily under near-impossible conditions with no institutional support. Nowhere is there any mention that the derelicted men and women in the House of the Dying had been literally gathered from the streets, having been ignored and sidestepped by passers-by. And nowhere is there any mention that even if they somehow managed to get themselves to any of the public hospitals in Calcutta, they would not have been admitted. Such was the reality of life for the dispossessed in Calcutta.
Nor does Hitchens bother acknowledging that Mother Teresa and her nuns always maintained respect for the wishes and beliefs of those who were brought to the House of the Dying. Muslims were read the Koran, Hindus were brought water from the Ganges, And Catholics were administered the Sacraments. From Hitchens' elevated perspective, such ministrations were quaint and essentially useless exercises.
Speaking in front of a grotesque caricature of Mother Teresa which was an ever-present background image, Hitchens directed his silken vehemence towards her views on abortion and on her occasional meetings with politicians of influence. He effectively glossed over her work with the dying, with lepers, with the orphaned and the homeless as a well-meaning but misguided and inconsequential form of social work.
Nowhere does Hitchins reflect on the fact that, unlike himself, Mother Teresa's place was always with the lowly, with the abandoned and the damaged; that her work was based on love and on a transcendent vision of humanity and divinity; that she was a simple but strong-minded nun working selflessly within the framework of an institutional Catholicism laden with its own share of anachronisms and neuroses.
Regardless of Hitchens' cynical and stone-hearted polemic, the fact remains that through the drive and dedication of this woman, hundreds of thousands of individuals have been graced by the experience of human warmth and loving presence during their time of greatest frailty and vulnerability. Like Brother Francis of Assisi before her, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was gifted with the capacity to see and to honour the presence of divinity within every broken life that she encountered.
We are assailed on all fronts by conflicting views of what is in our interests and what is not, of what is correct and what is erroneous, of what is necessary and what is expedient, of what is fact and what is fable. Argumentation may win or lose debates, but matters of human truth cleave more to simple turnings of the heart than clever turnings of the tongue.
Vincent Di Stefano is a retired osteopath and author of "Holism and Complementary Medicine. History and Principles" published by Allen and Unwin in 2006. He lives in Australia and can be contacted at The Healing Project.