No Country for Old Saints

What now seems a long time ago (it was when I was deciding to become a Catholic), there was a controversy over Mother (now Saint) Teresa. It was caused by Christopher Hitchens, who seemed rather more controversial to me, and downright trying to be irritating. I had, at that point, never been irritated by a living Catholic saint. (Even though I was still an Anglican.)

I refer, of course, to Hitchens’s book, The Missionary Position, which first appeared in the bestseller charts in 1995. I was given it to review, in an obscure Canadian megalopolis (Toronto), because it was believed that I knew something about Mother Teresa. Not much, mind; but at least more than Mr. Hitchens.

Also, then as now, I liked to feed myself into media sensations. It is a moral flaw that I have come to acknowledge.

The most controversial point Mr. Hitchens raised was not about anything Mother Teresa had publicly done, for in each case an explanation would soon dampen any accusation. This is how “media” controversies work. You don’t have to completely negate a charge, but may consider you have done an adequate job of defense if you simply confuse the issue.

For instance, did the holy nun accept funding from monstrously evil men? Very well. But she’s excused because she didn’t apply moral tests to donors. Call that one a draw.

In one respect, however,  she had committed a wrong so heinous that no forgiveness could be pleaded for.

I could imagine getting a word in debate, if Mother Teresa had been using machine guns and missiles, to blow away progressive nuns; but not for this. The Mother was accused of being unscientific, and that is so much worse.

She had graduated from schools, in Albania and Ireland, that still accepted the Catholic commitment to selfless service, and the Catholic belief in immortal life. Now in her eighties, she was disinclined to abandon these things in favor of some more fashionable ideology. She was, candidly, quite heroically “backward.”

I’d noticed this myself with her, in conversation. She would say things that, in the latter half of the 20th century, you didn’t say. Even today I’m hesitant to quote her, so as not to create a political disturbance, and paroxysms of horror and disbelief.

Like the present pope, Mother Teresa was committed to “accompanying” people, but unlike him, not in the commission of anciently-identified sins, but instead in personal, mostly innocent, difficulties, such as physical sickness. She had a special calling to the ill, but even more to the dying, and tried to bring comfort to them. She found them, and took them in off the street.


There was nothing like the “medicare” facilities in India, that we have and had in America and the West. According to Hitchens, and in truth, this Saint was not investing every available dollar in the latest imported technology.

She did administer some modest, pain-killing pharmaceuticals, in the tradition of all Catholic medical missions, but they were superficial (by medicare standards), and shockingly inexpensive. Her notion of accompaniment was more evident in frequent prayer to God over the patients, and through her own community. By contrast, Darwin and Einstein were seldom invoked.

Our Lord – for Hitchens the great empty, or nothing, or zero – was understood to be present in the nuns’ work. This was, for him, hideously behind the trends of modern times.

It struck me that Hitchens made his most telling case in exposing this “unmodernism.” Indeed, my study of eyeball-rolling among the young and smug tended to confirm this. True, there was a sizable minority, particularly of enchanted young women, who were impressed by Mother’s stalwart life. But among what I was even then calling the “politically correct,” failing to be “modern” was the debate closer.

For the Saint went beyond popular imagination. Old-fashioned Catholics and most other Christians might assume that she could win converts by such behavior, but while the odd convert was won (among the dying, for instance), times had changed. By the end of the 20th century, the West and the “progressive” East, had been inoculated against the temptation to Christianity.

The New Atheism had not exactly won, either. To my mind, the New Glibness had prevailed, in which a majority neither accepts nor rejects religious belief. They can’t be bothered with it. It has nothing to do with their pleasures, or with their fears.

I think this is the challenge now revealed, by the Batflu, to Catholic faith. It hasn’t killed off the faithful, and may have slightly enhanced them in some obscure corners. It hasn’t actually done anything surprising to the life of our “mind,” beyond spreading a bit further the reign of hopelessness and despair.

Rather it has exposed the reality of our society, in the way that carpenter ants expose the structure of a house.

Things that once leaned on each other – without thinking, and without moving, thanks to the exploitation of gravity – now float in space, for a moment, before collapsing. Things that offered shelter – one thinks of verandah roofs – are generally the first to go.

Unfortunately, repair is and will be quite impossible when we have no way of discovering the original plans, or the principles of engineering on which they were developed. We will have to adapt, spiritually, for the foreseeable future, to transient, lean-to structures – like the sort of “third world” frivolities we now see in Chicago and Rome.

Curiously, the biggest thing that is missing in the latest post-modern arrangements is that ancient element of faith, expressed in the forms of kindness.

The role of the nurse is easily abandoned, and it was remarkable in recent Batflu lockdowns and mandates how quickly the genuinely old and helpless were abandoned to their fate. Families were barred from visiting them, as they lay dying, and priests were often among the banished, as unscientific nuisances.

It is no country for old Saints.


*Photo: Mother Teresa visiting patients at the Kalighat Home for the dying in 1979 by Jean-Pierre Laffont [Sygma/CORBIS]

You may also enjoy:

Ines A Murzaku’s Debunking the Myth of a Mother Teresa “Cult”

Mary Poplin’s Mother Teresa’s Sainthood: Wisdom Beyond the Secular

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: