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A Reply To Christopher Hitchens From Dr. Anthony Lilles

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I opened my conversation with Christopher Hitchens on Wednesday with a discussion of his Newsweek column on Mother Teresa

Dr. Anthony Lilles, a friend and a theologian, was listening and called in with a short rebuttal to Hitchens’ take on the just published letters of Mother Teresa, and I invited him to write a longer reply, which he has done, and which I am happy to publish here.  If Mr. Hitchens wants to reply, I’ll be glad to post that as well.

Mother Teresa-The Scandal of her Faith

 by Dr. Anthony Lilles
Academic Dean
St. John Vianney Theological Seminary
Denver, Colorado

Whenever someone harshly criticizes a great person, they usually reveal to us more about themselves and their own culture than they actually do about the person they think they understand. This is difficult not to see in Christopher Hitchens’s article, Teresa, Bright and Dark. Although a very intelligent critic of her life, this author betrays a misunderstanding of her faith in general and a bias against her community of faith in particular. Both his bias and his misunderstanding completely color his interpretation of her experience — for him, she is as pathetic as the Church she promoted. This, however, was not what Mother Teresa saw or experienced in the Catholic Church. Instead, her letters show she entrusted the deepest searching of her heart to those in the Church whom she believed could help her remain faithful, even while she felt such faithfulness impossible. In so doing, she witnesses to dimensions of the Christian faith that contemporary thinkers cannot quite grasp, dimensions of faith our western culture needs to rediscover today more than ever.

Before providing alternative interpretation of her faith and of the Catholic Church, we note here that Hitchens not only has a bias against the Catholic Church and Mother Teresa’s life of faith, he also has a peculiar notion of faith, one that reduces faith to some sort of dangerous hysteria. In all likelihood, such a view would be validated by many people who believe themselves to be religious but in fact are irrational. Pope Benedict attempted to address this last year in his address at Regensberg. With this religious irrationality, perhaps because of it, there is a contemporary prejudice that sees faith only in terms of an emotional experience, or else some kind of head trip. Hitchens’s interpretation of Teresa’s faith suggests that he too shares in this prejudice. Further investigation into his notion of faith would be required, however, before one could determine what exactly he thinks faith is. But whatever he thinks it is, it is not what Christians have in mind when they live out their faith. [# More #]

For Christians, those filled with faith love until the end-whether in marriage or in another kind of life devoted to God and neighbor. Faithfulness in love is characteristic of the Christian faith in such wise that it constitutes the very notion of Christian holiness. Hitchens, even when pointing to her mistakes, is not able to avoid the faithfulness of this religious woman. Since his own notion of faith is ambiguous and view of the Church biased, his claim that her faithfulness in love was somehow disingenuous is not compelling. It ignores or downplays overwhelming evidence. Everyone struggles with thoughts and feelings, and only a few great people are faithful in love in the face of these struggles. In light of her faithfulness to those she felt called to serve, a more compelling interpretation of her letters is that this tiny woman may be one of these great people, perhaps among the greatest of our time.

The brightest minds of Western Civilization show us that one of the signs of true greatness is the ability to be transparent and vulnerable at appropriate times and in appropriate ways. Such truly great men and women have the courage to face what most of us do not. Rather than diverting their attention from difficult questions and dissipating themselves in selfish pre-occupations, the truly great among us fearlessly deal with themselves and with others. One sees this kind of candor and courage in St. Augustine’s Confessions. Because of his courage and self-awareness civilization has attained a deeper understanding of the divine in human experience.

Hitchens was selective in the citations he provided in his article but even these suggest we are dealing with a kind of courage and candor very similar to Augustine of Hippo. Both Augustine and Theresa push past the accepted boundaries of piety in relentless pursuit of authenticity. True, her rhetoric is much more simple than that of Augustine. Nor is she posing for the Church a new theological synthesis, like we find in the writings of that 4th Century bishop. What she does provide in her private reflections is the very thing that makes Augustine’s public writings so relevant for people today-honest reflection on the experience of faith. Could her witness encourage others to face the dark difficulties in their hearts, especially those Hitchens considers fanatics?

Mother Teresa was not afraid to accept and explore the most difficult feelings every person suffers-feelings like abandonment. She apparently was also someone humble enough to admit that there were things she could not understand, and she did not try to explain them away. She wrestled with them intensely. And, she did this not only for herself, but also for those she loved. Someone who did not hesitate to embrace those dying in the Calcutta gutters had to deal with such feelings, or she would not be able to console those whose extreme distress pierced her heart. What she shows in this struggle is that faith is something deeper than our feelings and deeper than our understanding. She struggled with what seemed to be the absence of God in her life, and by an act of faith in God’s love even when she did not feel it, she was able to help many others find God’s love, especially those engaged in their final struggle. Furthermore, throughout her struggle, in different ways, she found support for her faith and help in her struggles through the Church.

At its deepest reality, Catholic Church believes it is a communion of love. The Church publically holds this even though human wickedness often appears to be more powerful than God’s love in its own life. For individual Catholics, such faith is a gift from God. But it is not a feeling. It is a decision, the very decision Mother Teresa made everyday of her own struggles. The good news is that Christians believe that they never struggle alone, even when it seems that way. In the Church, believers find support with one another and with God even when human limitations seem overwhelming, and God seems to have forsaken them. Mother Teresa was part of this communion and relied on it as she persevered in her own struggle to love.

If she did not really believe, she could have diverted her attention from this struggle. This is what most of us in fact try to do with our own difficulties. Our marriages and friendships suffer as a result because we do not find what we need to persevere in our love for one another. She, instead, chose to face her struggles and to do so, her letters show that she humbly sought help from those she trusted. The communion of the Church offered her in this way something of a support, enough of a support that she could persevere in her work of love. This is why she knew how important it was for her to serve the poorest of the poor. She understood in a singular way how much they needed someone to help them too.

Another sign of greatness which Hitchens misinterprets is the courage to proclaim what is unpopular even in the midst of one’s own struggles. Most of us when confronted with difficulties turn in on ourselves and we struggle to be of service to others. In fact, we inflict our unhappiness on those around us, knocking them down so that we feel better about ourselves. This is especially true when our personal difficulties are intense and extended over a long period of time.  This tiny woman, rather than writhing in her misery or lashing out in judgment of others, was actually concerned for others beyond herself. Looking past her personal difficulties, she successfully identified the sources of suffering in our culture today and courageously spoke out about them.

It is misleading to say that she towed the party line. In fact, many Church leaders, far from seeing her as a mouthpiece for the Church, started out disagreeing with her. They did not think she truly represented the sense of the faithful, an essential dimension in Catholic teaching. Behind this concern was a deeper question. What she was doing was new and dynamic, but whether it was the real deal was not easy to grasp at first. Some leaders suspected, as does Hitchens now, that she was not a witness to holiness, but an advocate of irrational fanaticism. Most great people must suffer this suspicion at some point. But Mother Teresa was ultimately persuasive for many of her critics because she persevered in her concern for others even as she suffered her own trials of faith. Whenever someone perseveres in love, others are encouraged. In the case of this lady, the hearts of many were pierced because her faith was more than just words. Her faithfulness in love gave her words a spiritual authority difficult to ignore. Her stances on social topics were taken out of a heartfelt concern for others in the belief their lives mattered to the God who loves them, and with the conviction they had the right to know that.

By her faith, what Mother Teresa did what every great man and woman has done, and every true Christian seeks to do. That is this: to live for others. She chose to do this in the context of her faith, even when her emotions and understanding could not support her. Here, the mystery of Mother Teresa’s faith is much richer than Hitchens sees. For Christians, faith means specifically to imitate Christ: to accept God’s love even when it cannot be felt and to love as he commanded even when it does not seem to make sense to do so. By her faith, even when she could not feel God’s love and wondered whether it was real at all, Mother Teresa chose to believe in that love enough to reach out to the world: to the lonely, to the abandoned, to the dying, and to the poorest of the poor. For Hitchens living out such a decision is a scandal. For Christians, it is the mystery of the Cross.


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