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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa's name is synonymous with saintliness, even if she has yet to be fully canonized by the Catholic Church. Certainly, on the surface, anyone who has devoted her life to caring for the poor of Calcutta would seem saintly. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II (this is the third of four steps to official sainthood).

Yet it's hard not to be a bit suspicious of such a pristine public image. Especially when such great care seems to have been taken to burnish that image.

Christopher Hitchens' book about her, "The Missionary Position" was published in 1995, two years before Mother Teresa died. The book details the life of an extremely ambitious woman who cultivated the rich and famous, but who did little real good for those to whom she was supposed to be ministering.

Mother Teresa, born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, was always secretive about her Albanian origins. Her father, who evidently was involved in Albanian politics, died when Agnes was nine. Agnes left home at age 18 to join the Sisters of Loreto; after that she never saw her mother or sister again. This makes one wonder what kind of family bonds she had. If she had any love at all for her family, one would think she would have made some small effort to see them, at least once. But she could never be bothered.

Question: if Agnes had no real love for her own family, how much love could she really have had for those to whom she ministered later in life?

Agnes soon thereafter took the name Teresa, after Therese de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries.

In 1952 Mother Teresa converted an abandoned Hindu temple into the Kalighat Home for the Dying. According to Wikipedia, "Those brought to the home were afforded the right to die with dignity, according to the rituals of their faith: Muslims were read the Quran, Hindus received water from the Ganges, and Catholics received the last rites."

Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, "A beautiful death is for those who lived like animals to die like angels."

Mother Teresa also opend an orphanage and a home for lepers, who received medical attention. The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, however, both criticized the quality of medical care she made available, reporting reused syringes, poor living conditions, and cold baths for all patients. Patients who might otherwise have survived died of infection and other easily diagnosable diseases because of the slipshod practices at her hospices. Mother Teresa herself did not believe in pain relief: she felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus.

As Hitchens points out in his book, Mother Teresa could have taken the considerable war chest she had accumulated, which amounted to over $50 million, and built the finest teaching hospital in Calcutta. But instead she chose to keep the money in the bank, and instead merely have hospices, which generally consisted of large rooms with straw mats for the indigent and dying to lie on the floor.

The money she did spend went mostly toward building new convents, the purpose of which was to spread her religious beliefs.

(When Mother Teresa herself had a heart attack, she wanted nothing to do with her own clinics. Instead she opted to be treated at a fully equipped hosital in California.)

Mother Teresa interpreted the teachings of the Church so strictly and literally that she saw no room for alternative interpretation. She said that even when a husband regularly beat his wife, the wife should not leave because divorce is a sin. However, when it came to her friend Princess Diana, Mother Teresa said that she deserved a divorce, because she had "suffered enough."

She cultivated other rich and powerful friends, for instance the Duvaliers of Haiti. Baby Doc, son of Papa Doc, and his wife Michelle, who basically stole the entire national treasury of $800 million when they left the country, may have hoped to achieve some measure of redemption through their association with her. What Mother Teresa wanted from them was probably money.

Mother Teresa also became friends with Charles Keating, of Lincoln Savings and Loan fame. She would occasionally travel on his corporate jet. When Keating was on trial in Los Angeles for fraud, she wrote a letter on his behalf to Judge Lance Ito (yes, that Lance Ito) pointing out that Keating had donated $1.25 million to her Missionaries of Charity, and asked him to "look into [his] heart" and "do what Jesus would do."

Deputy DA Paul Turley, who was prosecuting the case against Keating, then pointed out to Mother Teresa that Keating was on trial for having stolen more than $250 million from over 17,000 investors. He wrote to her:

"Ask yourself what Jesus would do if he were given the fruits of a crime; what Jesus would do if he were in possession of money which had been stolen; what Jesus would do if he were being exploited by a thief to ease his conscience? I submit that Jesus would promptly and unhesitatingly return the stolen property to its rightful owners. You should do the same. You have been given money by Mr. Keating that he has been convicted of stealing by fraud. Do not permit him the 'indulgence' he desires. Do not keep the money. Return it to those who worked for it and earned it! If you contact me I will put you in direct contact with the rightful owners of the property now in your possession."

As Hitchens then pointed out, "Mr. Turley has received no reply to his letter. Nor can anyone account for the missing money: saints, it seems, are immune to audit."

When Mother Teresa had an audience with the Pope, she flew to Rome on a private jet. Then, once in Rome with the press watching, she rejected an offer of a limousine ride to the Vatican as too ostentatious. Instead she took a bus, because that's what the common people take.

On another occasion, she visited a convent near Washington D.C. The nuns who were hosting her, excited to have such a famous guest, gave her the nicest room at the convent. But Mother Teresa, upon arriving, insisted that the room be redone in a more austere fashion which would suit her image better. So, at great expense, the nuns had her room redone.

(Wouldn't a real saint have just stayed in the room without putting her hosts to so much trouble?)

One scene from Hitchens' book has stayed with me. At one point a suffering patient at her Calcutta hospice begged her for medication, saying that his pain was just unbearable. Mother Teresa, who didn't want to spend any of the vast fortune she controlled on painkillers, refused. Instead her eyes lit up, she grasped his hand, and said, "My child, the pain means that Jesus is holding you."

It was the part about her eyes lighting up which really struck me: it was almost as if she were enjoying and savoring his pain. What kind of person enjoys this? I'm reminded of Jack Kevorkian, another who devoted his life to working with the terminally ill, and who also saw himself as a saint. There was an unquestionably ghoulish aspect to his work.

I'm even reminded of Ted Bundy, who once early on worked at a suicide hotline, theoretically helping those at the end of their tethers. Why would he, a man who clearly enjoyed causing others pain, have done this? One can only conclude it was because, at a certain level, he enjoyed savoring their pain.

I meet good, decent people all the time. They love their families and none could imagine purposely cutting off all contact with them after age eighteen. They tend to express their goodness in small but telling ways. They don't crave reputations for goodness, let alone saintliness. It's the people who express their "good character" in loud, splashy, public ways who make me suspicious. When I see a new wing of a hospital with some hedge fund billionaire's name on it, it doesn't make me think, wow, he must be a really good person. What I think is, hmm, he really wants public acclaim.

Now devoting your life to the poor of Calcutta is certainly an altogether different matter from peeling off one percent of your wealth to slap your name on a public edifice. But it's not that different than the work that Jack Kevorkian did, at least before he went to jail. And one can make the case that he actually alleviated more suffering. Mother Teresa was not interested in actually curing the ill or eliminating poverty. (In her words, "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of poor people.") She was much more interested in giving them a place where they could die in a religious atmosphere. While burnishing her public image.

But would a real saint campaign for sainthood?


Anonymous said...

Maureen Dowd has a good line in her column today "Rome Fiddles, We Burn":
"If Roman Polanski were a priest, he'd still be working here".
To me it's not too surprising that the reality of Mother Theresa should be rather different from the PR, given her membership of a morally decadent institution that it seems to me lost touch with the teachings of its "founder" and his inspirer at least a millennium ago.
It's more surprising IMHO, that so many still seem to look to this institution for spiritual and moral guidance and channel billions of dollars into its coffers. (But you already know of my odd Quakerish tendencies. :))
I like the irony that RP's name can be translated "Polish pilgrim to Rome".

John Craig said...

Roman Polanski worked in Hollywood, and if it were up to Hollywood, he'd still be working there, too. And the NY Times would never object, since he pretty much shares their sensibilities. As a matter of fact, he still gets to direct movies, his career only suffered to the extent that he had to make smaller European movies rather than big budget American movies. Also, one difference between Polanski and the pederast priests was that the priests generally didn't drug their victims before having sex with them.

It's my impression that with most religions, the people who are members of the church (i.e., the flock) are generally pretty decent people, whereas the people who lead the flock, i.e., claim to have the direct line to God, are corrupt. It's not just true of the Catholics (though I agree that the Vatican seems like a pretty corrupt place). This is true of almost all religions. Look at the televangelists, many of whom are from the South and most of whom are various shades of Protestant: they are as dishonest as they come. There have been plenty of rabbis who have been involved in off-limits sexual activity, though it doesn't get reported. I think shamans and witch doctors from Day One have pretty much all been con men. Anyone who claims to have contact with God and then uses that "fact" to make money is a charlatan.

It wasn't my intention to pick on the Catholic Church here, just to point out that Mother Teresa herself was not what most people think of her as.

Anonymous said...

I'm mystified by why "decent people" follow the priests, televangelists, shamans, and other con men given all the evidence of their corruption and venality. (Actually, maybe this applies to politicians too.) Is it not possible to be "decent" and sensibly cynical too?
PS BTW, interesting post on MT. I would never have looked closely at the story behind the public image (because I don't really care), but it's another reminder that history is more about reputation/image building (or destroying) than truth. Even George Washington was a more complex character than his popular image allows.
PS Got you going on RP ;)

John Craig said...

The answer to your first paragraph is, because they're gullible and they were brought up to be religious. I agree, you'd think that after all the scandals that people would wise up, but...

Yes, it's possible to be decent and cynical: you're an example of that.

And yes, you're right about history. As far as RP, his existence and crimes don't bother me so much as the fact that he highlights Hollywood's immense hypocrisy. Hollywood liberals (and liberals in general) decry, for instance, aggression against women, as the recent publicity about Mel Gibson shows. But when it comes to one of their own, like Roman Polanski or Bill Clinton (who was accused of rape by Juanita Broaddrick as well as harassment by Paula Jones), it's okay. I remember when Paula Jones came out with her claims against Clinton, and all the Democrats --who are always claim to be on the side of the poor and downtrodden -- called her "trailer trash." Hypocrisy writ large.

Anonymous said...

Mother Teresa was not a perfect human being; she understood the power of celebrity to gain money for a cause--but her commitment to Calcutta's poor shows she's not the devil Hitchens makes her out to be. She was a celebrity and she knew it--why is that something to condemn her over? She's dead; let's remember the great legacy and move on.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- The question is, was she dedicated to Calcutta's poor, or were they just a means to her own beatification? I think the latter.

I'm not saying she didn't do any good. But I'm interested in the question of her character, especially since she is up for sainthood.

Anonymous said...

That story about the painkillers is just warped. I've lived with a sociopath and even he would give me painkillers when I needed them (although I noticed a packet of tramadol suspiciously disappearing from my room after I stopped needing them, but that's another story). It really does sound like this woman was a hypocrite and merely after publicity. A real philanthropist would build one well-equipped hospital for the benefit of patients, not lots of poor quality hospices for publicity. I'm interested in reading Hitchens' book now to get more info on this.

John Craig said...

Anon --
You're right, and I think you used the right word there: sociopath (though in another context). I'm actually convinced she was one.