TAG | saints
Mother Teresa has been canonized today.
The new saint’s record is more complicated than either her critics or her fans like to acknowledge, but this balanced piece by Mari Marcel Thekaekara in the Guardian is worth a look.
Towards the end, Thekaekara, a formerly fierce critic of Mother Teresa, concedes this – and understandably so:
I cannot in conscience criticise a woman who picked people off filthy pavements to allow them to die in dignity.
But it does appear that Mother Teresa was one of those Christians who subscribe to the morbid idea that suffering is some sort of blessing (I’ve posted about this phenomenon here, here, here and here).
Mother Teresa didn’t deserve Christopher Hitchen’s unadulterated, poisonous vitriol. But her vintage, “There’s something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion,” left me fuming too. How dare she trivialise poverty? But she could. She did. And the world lapped it up. She once comforted a sufferer, with the line: “You are suffering, that means Jesus is kissing you.” The infuriated man screamed, “Then tell your Jesus to stop kissing me.”
US Catholic has a report on Pope Francis’s efforts to clean up the Vatican Bank. It comments that “Francis has repeatedly railed against corruption, and his reforms at the bank are quickly becoming a test case for those efforts”. Fair enough (and a touch belated given the Vatican’s repeated attacks on wicked financiers in recent years), but then came this:
This week, [the pope] took another, less controversial step in that direction, calling for a “spending review” that includes settling on a cap for expenses tied to the canonization causes of would-be saints. In the past, critics charged that figures backed by well-financed supporters usually became saints more quickly than their more meagerly financed counterparts.
One learns something new every day. Amazing.
On a recent shuttle van ride from the Los Angeles International Airport, I directed the African driver to pause before turning left into a blind intersection. Instead, he barreled across without looking. Not to worry, he said, I’m a professional driver and besides I know that my God loves me and will protect me.
That, to me, is the essence of religion: I have a special friend who will keep me safe from the usual disasters that rain down on my fellow human beings (see killer earthquakes and tsunamis, town-destroying tornadoes, fatal car crashes, children born with half a brain, and other Acts of God).
The New England colonists balanced Thanksgiving feasts with petitionary fasting, known as days of “public humiliation and prayer:”
Pleas for rain during spells of drought were the most common reason for fasting. But Puritans also fasted whenever a comet, an evil portent, appeared in the sky; at the start of the Salem witch trials; and throughout the various colonial Indian wars (Mather preached that the horrors in King Philip’s War, against the Wampanoag Indians, had been sent by God to chastise colonists for the sin of wig wearing). . . Puritans believed that expressions of thanks to God for their good fortune helped keep his future punishments at bay.
It is my impression that educated Christians no longer view a twister in south Texas, say, as signifying God’s anger at human misbehavior (and no, I don’t think that global warming theory represents some atavistic religious impulse). I may be wrong here: perhaps believers simply keep out of the public realm their view that natural and human affairs refer to them, until such a view erupts from a Falwell or Robertson.
But if it is the case that God, ghosts, and ancestral spirits have been pushed increasingly towards the margins of our experience, the result is not dreariness but a still enchanted, wonder-filled world. Musicians and dancers still pursue the agony of grace. Brilliant white light fills the sky above the southern California coast. Scientists conquer the squalor of pain and disease, taking medicine out of the domain of unwitting fraud. And if there is ever a final tribunal of world culture, whereupon each nation will be called upon to document its contributions to the store of human beauty, America will stand tall, shoulder to shoulder with Austria, Italy, and other fonts of loveliness. “Schubert? Mozart?” we will say. “Yes, fine, we acknowledge their genius and bow before them. But here is Cole Porter; here is Leonard Bernstein; here is Rogers and Hart. Here is swing and the necessity of snapping your fingers to music, released after centuries of hidden dormancy.” So I am grateful not just for the exuberance of America’s entrepreneurs and for the culmination of Western liberal thought in the American polity, but also for the joyfulness of America’s spirit, so magnificently on display in the American songbook.
Religious goods stores have been doing a record business in St. Joseph statues. Buried in the garden of a home for sale, the doll allegedly helps the house to find a buyer. (We are not told where you put the icon if you live on the 30th floor of an apartment building–perhaps hidden in the dirty laundry hamper.)
Satisfied buyers testify to the statue’s efficacy:
Joe Becwar, an observant Catholic, said he sold his house in Southampton, N.Y., soon after his mother suggested the statue and his real estate agent told him to plant it head down, facing the house, by the “for sale” sign. His brother in Chicago had the same experience, he added.
And Cheryl Katz, who is Jewish . . . , said the statue helped her sell two houses as a real estate agent. Now that her own house is on the market, she’s using it for herself.
The only miracle here is that humanity somehow managed to claw its way up towards the scientific method, given the ubiquity of such arrested thinking. The religious and superstitious are hardly the only ones oblivious to any elementary concept of a control group, of course. How many times have you heard such confident assertions of causality as: “I fed my dog organic carob Power Bars, as his acupuncturist recommended, and the tumor on his leg shrunk. The bars really work!” I sometimes wonder whether any of us deserve the benefits of science, given how little we appreciate or seek to emulate its basic thought processes. I recently heard of the following remedy for muscle pain recommended by a relative’s personal trainer: Put a bar of soap under your mattress at night. Are we living in 15th century Russia?
The suckers who fall for mountebank health scams, such as fill the shelves of every health food store, presumably have some inchoate sense that their favored cure should in theory be explainable biologically. But I’m not sure that this makes their knowledge or reasoning skills superior to someone who is satisfied with the black box of supernaturalism. Better almost to believe in a miracle that leapfrogs over all biological pathways than to accept that Kinoki Detox Foot Pads, say, can cure insomnia. Such gullibility stems as an initial matter from an unconscionable ignorance of human physiology. But our epistemological problems, it seems to me, stem as well from the fact that we are incessant conjurors of causality, seeing it everywhere, and from our child-like faith in the association between language and truth. A wrinkle crème needs merely to assert on its label that it can reduce sagging jowls, without offering any plausible theory for how it can do so, and thousands of women will shell out $50 for 2 ounces. (more…)