My original intention with this blog was to begin with an explanation of the name and a description of the community I would like to foster here. Those posts will be forthcoming (God willing), but I thought it might be more interesting to start with a story of my own disappointment with secular, intellectual discourse and turn towards faith.
In 2009, I moved to Beirut to study Middle Eastern politics and Arabic. Christopher Hitchens, a writer I had long admired, was a sort of legend in the city. Hitchen's local acclaim was due to his uncharacteristic (for a western journalist) fluency in the personalities and attitudes of the region as well as a supposed violent confrontation with members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party near the Syrian embassy. There were also stories regarding his legendary drunkenness leading to less heroic behaviors, but these are unconfirmed so I'll leave it at that. I never ran into Hitchens in Lebanon, but it was a period during which I was veraciously making my way through his catalog, including his essay collection Love, Poverty and War (a gift from my brother and one of the few books I brought with me to Beirut.)
For whatever reason, during my consumption of Hitchen's works I had managed to miss his efforts at undermining the legacy of Saint Teresa of Calcutta (known colloquially as Mother Teresa). Hitchen's first foray in this area was a documentary called "Hell's Angel" which built upon the work of Indian critic Dr. Aroup Chatterjee. Dr. Chatterjee charged that Mother Teresa offered no real medical care, forced deathbed conversions on her wards, and maintained associations with racist, colonial figures throughout her time in India. Apparently the title "Hell's Angel" was not polemical enough for Hitchens, who expanded on these criticisms in his own long essay "The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice."
At the time I stumbled upon these two documents, I was probably an agnostic. I had a vague sense of a spiritual world, but was raised Unitarian Universalist by an Atheist and a lapsed Catholic. Nevertheless, and as was no doubt the point, I felt scandalized by Hitchen's portrayal of a woman I had admired and considered a moral model for human beings of any metaphysical disposition.
Hitchen's attempt to discredit Mother Teresa can be deemed a success I think, as conversations about her legacy still reference the complaints first made by Chatterjee and popularized by Hitchens. The staying power of this counter-narrative is due to (at least in part) Hitchen's rhetorical prowess. Here are just a few examples of the strongest and most Hitchensy lines from his essay:
“The rich world likes and wishes to believe that someone, somewhere, is doing something for the Third World. For this reason, it does not inquire too closely into the motives or practices of anyone who fulfills, however vicariously, this mandate.”
“I began the project of judging Mother Teresa’s reputation by her actions and words rather than her actions and words by her reputation.”
And in a later article in Slate: ''Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God.''
The last two quotes in particular represent Hitchen's favorite rhetorical construction, an inversion of expectation in both syntax and meaning. You can imagine Hitchens, if he were particularly drunk or simply feeling himself, saying something like: "The Iraq war was not bad for Iraqis, Iraqis were bad for the Iraq war."
For Hitchens, if we are to believe that he was ever sincere, the problems humans face exist because there are simply too many stupid and evil people. Put another way, there are not enough people as clever as Hitchens. This was the Utopianism that animated Hitchen's early Trotskyism(which he claimed he never abandoned) and found its way into his various neoconservative projects.
For me, Hitchen's attack on Mother Teresa was a betrayal. After enjoying so many of his dubious provocations, he had now hit upon something I held sacred, and his casual derision transformed his image in my mind. Hitchens went from the owner of an incomparable and uncompromising intellect to a sort of snide youth. Why would a man of such considerable gifts only deploy them to prove to the class he was smarter than the teacher. What, after all, is the point of ruining Mother Teresa's legacy? The truth? Some people may be genuinely committed to removing misinformation from the public square, but I don't think that was Hitchen's game. I think his game was to make others feel a fool.
I will never know as much about history or the Catholic Church as Hitchens did. I went to public school. What I was acquainted with at a young age was death, and it was this acquaintance that led me to see Hitchen's writings on Mother Teresa as cruel and shallow. I have been in the room for the deaths of two people I loved. First, the death of my father in 1993, after years battling AIDS and in a room surrounded by dozens of friends and family. The second was the death of my grandmother in 2015, similarly attended by a score of those who loved her. Here, I will concede to Hitchens bleak secular outlook, that in both instances, the terror and confusion of the end may have overwhelmed any sense of comfort or warmth we were able to provide to the dying. Modern medication complicates this further, as morphine and other drugs add to the chaotic environment of a mind facing its own destruction.
This is the truth in Hitchen's worldview. Even in a crowded room, death is a solitary process, and having your hand held by a loved one may go unnoticed or even become a cloying tether as you approach the gaping blackness. But Hitchen's view has its own infantile attachments. While religion and spiritual guidance, the type of companionship that Saint Teresa of Calcutta offered to hundreds of dying women, may not have succeeded in easing the pain or terror of death, it is an approach that acknowledges death's reality. In Hitchen's estimation, the only intervention worth making is a material one. In other words, slap away the comforting hand of a nun in favor of the penicillin filled hand of the doctor.
This is a practical but temporary preference. We will all die. A willingness to take part in another's end, and risk exposing oneself to that boundless terror is a brave and selfless act. If I lay dying and hear a voice back in the world saying, "we loved you and we will miss you," I don't know if I will find comfort in it. But whatever the impact of our presence and love on the dying, it's the only gift we have for them. Saint Teresa of Calcutta spent most of her life offering it to strangers.