Thursday, September 8, 2016

Their Lady of the Slums

A good friend who is a member of a Baptist church in Des Moines, knowing I was a (lapsed) Catholic, asked me one day to explain to him what a "saint" was. I gave him the definition I had been given: a saint is someone who is deemed by the Catholic church to be a very holy person who performs miracles and who, upon sainthood, is believed to be very close to God and, when called on in prayer, can intercede with God on one's behalf. My friend's next question was, "so Catholics pray to saints?" Yes, and certain saints have specialties - a good example being St. Christopher who used to be the patron saint of travelers. If one were embarking on a long journey, a St. Christopher's medal would be worn on a chain around one's neck, or suspended from the rear-view mirror of one's car. My explanations did nothing but reinforce my friend's dubious opinion of the Catholic church.

Although sainthood is rather ridiculous in the 21st century, saintliness is something we can all recognize to some extent. Mohandas Gandhi was Hindu and was in no way eligible for canonization. But his saintliness was unmistakable. George Orwell recognized it, even if he, too, was extremely dubious of saints. In his late essay, "Reflections on Gandhi," he began by writing, "Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases."

The former Mother Teresa, who was herself the former Albanian woman Agnes Bojaxhiu, was formally canonized in the first week of September. I couldn't get over the amount and the reverence of the CNN coverage of the event. I am puzzled that anyone other than a Catholic would be engrossed by such inherently stupid rituals. But then, it was a stupid ritual - a Latin High Mass for the Dead, the funeral for JFK in 1963 - that filled my mother with such awe at its medieval splendor that she got us all (including my Southern Baptist father) converted to Roman Catholicism.

While I am not as prejudiced about Mother - er, Saint - Teresa as Christopher Hitchens was, who called her (in his book The Missionary Position) "a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermonizer and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers," I can't help thinking of the peculiar odor she must have exuded, how she must have smelled, in the invariable garb, the uniform "habit" of her order of nuns in Calcutta, and the un-Christian-like pride she must have taken in that smell. In fact, she reminds me of Gandhi in his invariable loincloth in the presence of Western heads of state, wearing his poverty and humility like a giant badge (or shield).

Hitchens was correct, I think, about the cult of suffering that Teresa created around her, the ritualized assuming of the suffering endured by the poorest of Calcutta's poor. But, just as Orwell wanted to know "to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity - by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power - and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud?" I want to know to what extent and to what end did Teresa cultivate her celebrity, seeking out photo opportunities with millionaires and pop stars (like Diana, who died just five days before Teresa's death on September 5, 1997)?

One of the things that characterizes Roman Catholicism is its sanctification of suffering. Christ suffered, so when circumstances in life cause suffering, we take some small share in Christ's suffering, and it somehow makes us better people. This is an institutional problem with the Catholic church, this insistence that suffering in life is not only inescapable but a means of bringing one closer to Christ. Pablo Neruda speculated about these "canons of pain" when he wrote about his confrontation with the great Buddhist shrines that he found in Burma:

"Statues of Buddha everywhere, of Lord Buddha ... The severe, upright, worm-eaten statues, with a golden patina like an animal's sheen, deteriorating as if the air were wearing them away ... In their cheeks, in the folds of their tunics, at elbows and navel and mouth and smile, tiny blemishes: fungi, pockmarks, traces of jungle excrement ... Or the recumbent, the immense, recumbent statues, forty meters of stone, of sand granite, pale, stretched out among the rustling fronds, emerging suddenly from some corner of the jungle, from its surrounding site ... Asleep or not asleep, they have been there a hundred years, a thousand, one thousand times a thousand years ... Yet there is something soft about them and they are known for an other-worldly air of indecisions, longing to stay or go away ... And that very soft stone smile, that imponderable majesty which is nevertheless made of hard, everlasting stone - at whom, at how many, on the bloodstained planet are they smiling ...?  The fleeing peasant women passed, the men from the fire, the visored warriors, the false high priests, the tourists who devour everything ... And the statue remained in place, the immense stone with knees, inhuman and also in some way human, in some form or contradiction a statue, god and not god, stone and not stone, under the screeching of black birds, surrounded by the wing beats of red birds, of the birds of the forest ... We are reminded of the terrible Spanish Christs we inherited wounds and all, pustules and all, scars and all, with that odor given off by churches, of wax candles, of mustiness, of a closed room ... Those Christs had second thoughts about being men or gods ... To make them human beings, to bring them closer to those who suffer, midwives and beheaded men, cripples and avaricious men, the inner circles of churches and those outside the churches, to make them human, the sculptors gave them the most gruesome wounds, and all this ended up as the religion of suffering, as sin and you'll suffer, don't sin and you'll suffer, live and you'll suffer, leaving you no possible way out ... Not here, here the stone found peace ... The sculptors rebelled against the canons of pain, and these colossal Buddhas, with the feet of giant gods, have a smile on their stone faces that is beatifically human, without all that pain ... And they give off an odor, not of a dead room, not of sacristies and cobwebs, but an odor of vegetable space, of sudden gusts of wind swooping down in wild swirls of feathers, leaves, pollen from the infinite forest ...."

I think that one of the reasons why Christianity has been in decline for more than a hundred years is precisely because the amount of pleasure that people are getting out of life has increased considerably. The Church's message of suffering has grown steadily meaningless as the materialist approach to life has been embraced by world populations. Figures like Teresa have become not just less meaningful to people but more distasteful. It's what Orwell rejected in his portrait of Gandhi: 

"One should, I think, realize that Gandhi's teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from ... Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one's preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others ... The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid. There is an obvious retort to this, but one should be wary about making it. In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that 'non-attachment' is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is 'higher'. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all 'radicals' and 'progressives', from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man."

Mother Teresa - the tiny, ugly woman whose image was always superimposed on the people, the poor, for whom she ostensibly devoted her life - is now a saint. The Catholic Church was in something of a hurry to canonize her - a fact that aroused suspicion from some quarters. Why this great rush to sainthood, since the Church, which has been around for awhile, has always insisted on taking the long view? It gives me the impression that, as its congregation is dwindling, at least in the developed world, the Church's actions reveal a certain sense of urgency.  

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