Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Saint Teresa

The news that Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church has declared Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, popularly known as Mother Teresa, a saint will come as no surprise to those who have interest in these matters, and, therefore, make it their business to follow what is going on in the world of Roman Catholic Churches. Anjeze (English equivalent is Agnes) was born in the former Yugoslavia, in 1910, although it wasn’t called that at the time of her birth. Skopje, where Agnes was born, to devoutly Catholic ethnic Albanian parents, was, at the time of her birth, a part of the Ottoman Empire. Later it became part of Serbia, then Yugoslavia, and currently (after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in the 1990s) it is in the Republic of Macedonia.

Agnes arrived in India in 1929 (she was not Teresa yet; that would happen two years later, in 1931, when she took her religious vows and chose to be named after Therese de Lisioux, the patron saint of missionaries). Why India? I hear you asking. Why not India? I ask back. If you are naturally drawn towards poverty then you have rich pickings in countries like India, where, even now, despite the country being in the top ten economies in the world, people die in the streets of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), according to an article I read in the Guardian. And one can imagine things being a lot worse during the British Raj if one takes the position that the British Empire had no interest in improving social conditions of its subjects in the colonies. Kolkata (Calcutta) was where Agnes lived and worked all her life, “defending the unborn, sick and abandoned”, and “shaming the world leaders for the crimes of poverty they themselves created”, according to Pope Francis who confirmed earlier this month that Agnes was now a certified saint.  Indian Government has expressed delight at the news (which is very generous of it, seeing as there would have been no need for Agnes and her types had the successive Indian governments looked after the citizens better).

That Teresa (Agnes chose the Spanish name, Teresa, when she took her religious vows because another nun from the convent had beaten her to the name Therese) would be declared a saint was on the cards. In December 2015 Pope Francis attributed a second miracle to the Catholic Missionary, who shuffled off her mortal coils in 1997, following years of ill-health. (That Teresa lived till the advanced age of 87 despite mounting health problems that did not spare any organ in her body could be said to be a miracle, but of modern medicine; and I am not sure that the Catholic Church is interested in such miracles). I do not know what the second miracle was. The first miracle posthumously attributed to Teresa, in 2003 (in order to be declared a saint you must perform miracles from beyond the grave), was as follows: An Indian woman by the name of Monica Besra claimed that a beam of light emerged from the photograph of ‘Mother’ Teresa (hung, no doubt reverently, in the livening room of the Besra family) and cured the cancerous tumour in Besra’s stomach. Besra’s physician, one Dr Ranjan Mustafi, cast aspersions on this claim, which was so obviously (in the eyes of the Catholic Church) a miracle. Mustafi (who probably knows nothing about miracles) insisted that Besra did not have a cancerous tumour in the first place. What she had was a tubercular cyst for which she was on medication. Mustafi, in his ignorance, claimed that it wasn’t any miraculous beam from Mother Teresa’s photograph but modern medicine that cured Besra. I am sure the second miracle was in similar vein which the non-believers would describe as improbable (that’s the point of miracles; like the thought processes of schizophrenics, the ordinary human mind can’t even begin to understand them).

The British atheist Christopher Hitchens was generous in his florid criticism of Teresa, and insulted her (both in her life and after she was dead) with venom and fluency which were only to be expected of him. Hitchens famously described Teresa as a “fanatic, fundamentalist and a fraud”. Uncertain whether that conveyed appropriately the depth of his feelings towards Teresa, Hitchens also described her as a “lying, thieving Albania dwarf”. In 1994, that is three years before Teresa’s death, Hitchens produced a documentary Hell’s Angel, based on the work of (no doubt a disgruntled) Indian doctor by the name of Aroop Chatterjee (these doctors are trouble). Chatterjee had worked briefly in one of Teresa’s Homes in Kolkata (Calcutta), and, instead of bathing the dying and shoving down food (and Catholicism) down the throats of the dying destitute of the city (very important that they were baptised before they died), had gone around snooping into financial dealings of Teresa’s Order. (Teresa formed the Order in the 1940s, after much lobbying with Vatican.  Apparently getting Vatican to agree for you to form an Order is more difficult than bringing a rogue African leader to justice in Hague. Teresa taught in a convent school for almost twenty years when, on a train journey, she experienced an epiphany, or what she herself chose to describe as a “call within the call”, or what sceptical doctors such as Ranjan Mustafi would choose to describe as sub-clinical psychosis. She was going to devote her life servicing the poor, and she was going to form her congregation. Teresa was eventually (in 1950) granted permission by the Vatican to start the congregation, which would come to be known as Missionaries of Charity.)  Hitchens's documentary (which I have not seen) aimed to debunk the myth of Teresa as some sort of Guardian Angel in a white saree of the poor. Hitchens followed this documentary with an extended essay entitled Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in theory and practice (which I have not read, but I plan to, one of these days, having bought it for 99 p from Amazon Kindle a few months back; I suspect it is not complimentary towards the Catholic Missionary).

I should like to think that I have an open mind about this. There are those who are critical of Teresa, and have questioned her motivation behind helping the poor. There are many in India who believe that Teresa’s main motivation was spreading of Christianity and proselytization. Excuse me, but she was a Christian Missionary; and that’s what the missionaries do, the last time I checked. They go round spreading the word of Jesus; and whatever good work they do (and they do a lot of good work) they do it in the name of Jesus. India is also a country where, despite its recent economic success, rather a lot of desperately poor people live. Educational opportunities, health care etc., are, presumably, not great (or evenly distributed, shall we say?) in that country; and, one would imagine, they were even direr a few decades back. These are generally the situations to the likings of Christian Missionaries: they can distribute free medicines and clothes (something which the elected governments ought to do, anyway) in return for the “natives” calling themselves “John” and “Mary” and going to churches. (Whether the natives choose to become Christians because they discover the superiority of Christianity over their earlier Faiths or whether they choose to become Christian because that is the condition on which they are allowed access to the basic amenities is debatable. One might say that bartering of this kind (which, according to many critics of the Christian Missionaries, is rampant in developing and underdeveloped countries) is not something Jesus would be pleased with; however, it might also be argued that those who choose to become Christians do this knowingly, whatever their motivation, and who are we to question them?) Some may find the proselytization, using these allegedly questionable methods, distasteful, but there is no law against it. India declares itself to be a free, democratic country, where proselytization is allowed. (I have read that in India a number of Hindu organizations are going round bringing back these “Christians” back to the fold of Hinduism; and I do not somehow think that they are doing it by reciting the Bhagwad Geeta to them. They are probably using the same tactics the missionaries have been using for decades. This, I think, is good news for the natives. They are in a powerful position. They are the customers, and they will choose only that religion which brings them the best dividend.) Teresa never claimed that she was secular; she had always declared herself to be devoutly Christian in her beliefs. She once famously said that she was Albanian by blood, Indian by nationality, and her heart belonged entirely to Jesus. Different motivations draw people to helping the poor, and is it right to question them, so long as they are doing good work (and doing no real harm)? So Teresa’s motivation for helping the poor was not secular. She helped and looked after the poor with the aim of bringing them nearer to Jesus. That’s what she always said; the woman can’t be accused of being a hypocrite. In this she was no different from scores others who go around peddling whichever doctrine (religious, political etc.) they happen to believe in and therefore want to peddle. (A few years ago a Jehovah’s Witness arrived at my doorstep, and looked astonished when I invited him in, offered tea and declared my availability to discuss theological matters with him. He told me that this was not the reception he was accustomed to. This first meeting was the beginning of what for me was an entertaining series of meetings (one per month) which went on for roughly four months. The man didn’t work and was on benefits; he said that he was a full-time carer to his wife (also a Jehovah’s Witness) who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The man gave me videos to watch, and numerous booklets to read. He talked about prophesies in the Bible and endeavoured to prove that everything that had happened in the twentieth century  (including Communism and the subsequent collapse of Soviet Union, the Second World War etc.) was predicted in the Bible. He gave comprehensive explanation (at my behest) of the refusal of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to accept blood transfusion (it had, if I remember correctly, something to do with the literal interpretation of what Jesus is supposed to have said or done; and nothing to do with the perception that they are a bunch of nutters, which, he assured me, was a popular, though regrettable, stereotype of the Jehovah’s Witnesses). The man was very concerned about me, in particular what was to become of me when I died and when the world ended (whichever was earlier). You see, only the Jehovah’s Witnesses are allowed in heaven; the rest will, I don’t know, hang around in the purgatory, or, worse, languish for eternity in Hell in the company of George W Bush and Donald Trump. This meant that if I were to save myself from this outcome, which was worse than Arsenal not winning the Premier League Title (yet again), I needed to take urgent reparative measures to save my soul, and start attending Kingdom Hall meetings without undue delay. The man was (most probably) very knowledgeable about what was given in the Bible, and was very sure of his interpretation, which he expressed semiarticulately. At the same time, and unsurprisingly, he was utterly incurious about other philosophies and faiths. That, I guess, was only to be expected: once you are convinced about the righteousness and loftiness of your belief and cause you wouldn’t want to waste time knowing other theories, which are clearly inferior to yours. The man stopped coming after he concluded that the chances of me attending the Kingdom Hall were less than the second coming of Christ. It may have something to do with me introducing Buddhist and Hindu philosophies in what passed for discussions between us (not that I know anything about these philosophies; but I was sure he wouldn’t, either; and I chose them as something that was so very different from his beliefs that I hoped (correctly as it turned out) he would lose interest in bringing me to the flock. From my point of view, I too wanted these meetings to end; the man's trick of breaking into insane-sounding laughter as a way of getting himself out of the conversational minefields he regularly walked into was beginning to lose its entertainment value for me). This man had many endearing qualities, but a sense of humour was not one of them. Indeed, I am beginning to suspect that in order to qualify as a religious preacher of any kind, you need to have the organ of humour surgically removed. Nathan Price (I know, I know—he is a fictitious character from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible—but he is so believable), in addition to being batshit mental, was utterly lacking in humour. Maybe Teresa, like the Jehovah’s man and Nathan Price, lacked humour; but, surely, that is not a crime.) 

If you are of an atheistic or agnostic disposition, you may say that you can’t identify with the motivation of the likes of Teresa, but, surely, you have got to accept that the act itself (of helping the poor) is a good act. Also, so far as I know, Teresa did not stop others of secular leanings from helping out the poor. No doubt, atheism or agnosticism was as incomprehensible to Teresa as her Catholic religious beliefs were incomprehensible to the atheists like Cristopher Hitchens.

Hitchens also described Teresa as a fanatic and fundamentalist. You might say that she was both, in the true senses of these words, and not the pejorative and negative connotations these words have acquired in recent times, which, no doubt, Hitchens had in his mind when he used them to describe Teresa. She was very passionate—fanatic—in her beliefs (which happened to be Catholic); and she was fundamentalist in the sense that she believed (fanatically, lest I forget) in the fundamentals of the Catholic brand of Christianity. Nothing wrong in that as far as I can see. You may have your criticism of the beliefs, but that should not make you a fraud. I do not know why Hitchens thought Teresa was a fraud (maybe there were financial irregularities in Teresa’s charity, but, even if there were, was she involved in them; was she complicit?) I shall have to read his railings against her. It has been alleged that some of the charities Teresa founded do not do any charitable work whatsoever, devoting themselves, instead, to the conversion of the natives in underdeveloped countries. If that is the case, the recognitions of these charities should be taken away by the respective governments. Also, can Teresa, who died nineteen years ago, be held responsible for the alleged mismanagement of the charities, now?

I read in WikiPedia that Teresa accepted an honour from the Haitian President, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who, it was revealed after his death, had embezzled millions of dollars out of his impoverished country. I fail to understand how this reflects poorly on Teresa. Did she know at the time of accepting the honour that the Haitian dude was a sleaze-bag? Even if she did, by refusing to accept the honour from him she would have been passing judgment on him; and maybe that’s not what the Catholic Christian Missionaries are instructed to do—everyone being the same in the eyes of Jesus and all that. Thus by accepting the honour from the Haitian dictator, I’d argue, Teresa brought some joy to the life of the benighted man: he was given the satisfaction of acknowledging a truly good work. It also proves that while Duvaler might have been a scum-bag, he was also capable of recognising and honouring noble work. Teresa also apparently endorsed the regime of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator of Albania, and placed a wreath on his grave—which had Christopher Hitchens foaming at the mouth. I can’t understand what is there to get so upset about? Does it not show the broad-mindedness of the Albanian nun? She might have been a dwarf as Hitchens commented (and her face might have resembled a dried prune), but she was broadminded enough to embrace even an anti-God Communist dictator (Jesus loves everyone). Teresa accepted money from Robert Maxwell, the late British tycoon, who, after his death, was revealed to have embezzled millions of pounds from his employee’s pension funds. Again, how does that become Teresa’s fault? No one knew what Robert Maxwell was up to (no good as it turned out) until after he died.  Even if someone can prove that Teresa was somehow aware of Maxwell’s shenanigans at the time she accepted the donation, you can argue that by accepting the money she saved Maxwell’s soul, as, at least a proportion of his ill-gotten wealth was used for a good cause.

There is this theory, I remember reading somewhere, that for all of us there is a place on this earth where we belong. It’s just that very few of us find it because God (if you believe in Him, or Her) is so capricious. You may live all your life in California (and be convinced you are having a swell time sucking on oranges), and will never know that the place you really belong is a village in Northern Italy. Teresa was lucky in that sense. She was born in the Balkans but realised early on that her place was somewhere else (India). She was one of the few who knew what their calling is and lived, for all outward appearances, a good life. Of how many people can we say this?

Catholic Church has decided to canonise Teresa as a saint on the basis of the aforementioned miracle. Even if one is not imaginative enough to believe in miracles ( am not), with the possible exception of Dr Ranjan Mustafi (who might feel aggrieved that the dead nun has grabbed the credit which belongs to him—but even he would have to concede that it is hardly the fault of Teresa who died in 1997), no one could begrudge the miracle posthumously attributed to Teresa. 

Teresa might not have been a saint in the true or figurative sense, and she might have been a self-publicist in her later life. It must be immensely satisfying when real life lives up to your dearly held prejudices; however, I find it impossible to convince myself that Teresa was a bad person. She did do some good things; and that is good enough for me.