*Hagiophobia, I have just discovered is the fear of saints or Holy things…. ok so we are all familiar with Vampires cowering from crucifixes, or troubled by holy water, but I am thinking about a more subtle and perhaps more serious form of cultural hagiophobia.
Christopher Hitchens’ almost visceral hatred of Mother Teresa would be an example of this, his book the Missionary Position, is a classic case of a hatchet job. But at least Hitchens described himself as a polemicist and was quite open about this. However Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall and its sequels contain a more subtle but equally relentless character assassination of St Thomas More. Her distorted and cruel caricature of one of the great figures of the Tudor times, is a great calumny.
Mantel, raised a Roman Catholic and educated at convent school, has turned her back on the church of her youth with an unusual and unbalanced venom. In an interview in the Telegraph she said “ I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.” With the stroke of a pen she condemns 1.2 billion people. At the time I remember reading many comments expressing relief that we have been saved from the ‘respectability’ that Mantel obviously craves. And she has achieved that respectability in glorious fashion with back to back Booker Prizes and now wall-to-wall gushing praise for the BBC adaptation of her books.
This leaves me very uneasy, as one of the biggest problems that a post-Christian culture faces is a cultural amnesia. A lack of historical grasp can be dangerous, repeating mistiakes and underpinning prejudices. This portrayal of More as a zealous monster, and Cromwell the destroyer of the monasteries, as a hero, flies in the face of history. This is important as so many of viewing the series will see this as history, my atheist sister after reading the books declared with a certain provocative pleasure – what an unpleasant character More was. The vast majority of historians describe More as one of the intellectual greats of Europe, a renaissance man, the author of Utopia, great friend of Erasmus who worked for the reform of the church from the inside. As the newspapers are full of gushing praise about Wolf Hall – they focus on the lavish production values, the great acting, its what the BBC does best, historical dramas – and I can see the producers eyes filling up with dollar signs as they anticipate the DVD box sales, and BBC Worldwide licks it lips anticipating the sales to foreign broadcasters. The problem is the History Sucks – and we will be exporting it around the world and most people will be watching it as fact.
The series has just been reviewed on Thinking Faith
I have been enjoying accompanying the Missionaries of Charity on an 8 Day Retreat. It is always great to see how an Ignatian individual guided retreat (IGR) is so often an experience of renewal. The MC’s founded by Mother Teresa live a very austere and effective form of religious life. Famously only owning two sari’s, sharing bedrooms, never travelling alone, with all their communities giving hospitality to the poorest of the poor through breakfast clubs, soup kitchens and also summer camps for urban youth. Alongside all of this is a highly structured day including four and a half hours of prayer. Because of all of this, the Sisters have a very rich interior life – which means that it is a privilege to accompany them on a retreat. The normal periods of resistance and adapting to a rhythm of silence and prayer are not ‘issues’ as they may be with other retreatants. In fact conversely encouraging the sisters to temporarily leave behind a routine of oral prayer and devotion and have the courage to make imaginative contemplations on the Gospel passages and Ignatian themes, and more importantly to give God enough silence and stillness for Him to work in is the challenge. The fruits are wonderful to witness.
Part of my role in accompanying them is to try and go deeper into the life of Mother Teresa, to understand this remarkable woman who began life in a Loreto convent (an Ignatian order) and ended up being a Nobel Prize Winner and probably the most recognised women on the planet. Mother always had Jesuit spiritual directors, in fact one played a crucial role in helping her discern ‘the call within the call’ that brought her out of the convent and on to the streets of Calcutta. However what has struck me most is the anger and sheer hatred that she seemed to generate in some quarters. Most notoriously from Christopher Hitchens and his documentary / book Hells Angel. For a couple of weeks now I have been mulling this over, and being in a privileged position to listen to the sisters and witness their work at first hand over a few years his criticisms, few of which are well-founded, have been wildly exaggerated and lacking insight, generosity, compassion.
Hitchens epitomises a chattering class that live lives that are ultimately unhappy and frustrated, and so compensate by justifying themselves to each other through a spurious moral superiority. So much of the commentariat are affected by this impotence – the secularist and self-appointed gurus have a very flimsy record in building up civil society and actually changing the world. It is easy to stand on the side-line and harp, but Hitchens takes this to an unhinged level – so detached from any practical engagement with poverty. Comparing reading his writings and listening to the Sisters testimony is an interesting comparison of spiritual desolation and spiritual consolation. Hearing (outside of the confidential confines of Direction) Sisters talk about going in and cleaning the house of two dying alcoholics living in squalor in Liverpool is inspiring and moving. Time will be the judge of the legacy Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Christopher Hitchens….. although an interesting footnote for me was meeting his nephew Daniel Hitchens this year. Daniel was an outstanding member of the new intake for Catholic Voices, who train spokesman for the Church. A recent convert, I asked him why he had become a Catholic, and one of the reasons was because his uncle hated Catholics so much! Peter Hitchens has written a fascinating book in response to his brothers atheism, called ‘The Rage against God’. The anger that underpins much of the ‘New Atheism’ is ultimately not constructive, whereas the love that inspires the commitment of the MC’s is creative, and creates hope in the poorest and darkest corners of our world, including urban Britain.
This is my homily for tomorrow – the Second Sunday of Advent
Speaking Truth to Power is a phrase that is often used to describe people who bravely stand up against injustice. It takes courage, it takes integrity to put your head above the parapet. It probably explains something behind the overwhelming reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela this week. Whenever there is a media frenzy there is a lot of nonsense spoken about someone’s life – and this week is no exception to this – however it cannot be denied that Mandela become a powerful symbol for many people. He spoke truth to power, and they tried to silence him, but in the end truth won out. He was lucky – he wasn’t silenced – he didn’t become a political martyr. Speaking truth to power is part of the job description for an Old Testament Prophet. And today in the Gospel – on the second week of our Advent Journey we meet the greatest prophet of them all, according to Jesus, John the Baptist. Unlike Nelson Mandela – we know that John was eventually silenced – beheaded by Herod. John is one of the great advent figures – bridging the gap between the NT & OT. He speaks with great authority, and that authority is recognised by the people and so he attracts great crowds.
What is his message for this advent ? I think that he is warning not to be complacent in our faith. He calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees ‘A brood of vipers’. He is not confronting the power of Herod yet – but a much more subtle power – the power of respectability and the power of a good reputation and keeping a public face. So let us examine our own faith and our own lives.
St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises writes very clearly about the seduction of power and honour. In his meditation on the Two Standards – he talks about how the trappings of fame and honour are used by the enemy to seduce us …. to pull us away from God, so that we come to believe that we are all powerful. There is a fascinating index called ‘The Power Distance index’ which measures how much a country respects authority and values hierarchies. The higher the country is the more likely it is to be totalitarian and score high on corruption scales. In ancient times when a Roman General or a Roman Emperor used to have a victory triumph (or parade) and was receiving the adulation of the masses – a slave would stand behind him and according to Tertullian whisper in his ear “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die”…..the famous memento mori.
So this Advent – let us heed John’s challenge. Let us be honest about the little ways we are seduced into thinking that we are great, we are clever, lest we become complacent. Advent is a time for our hearts to become humbler – that we dust away the complacency – as we would preparing a guest room – for a special guest. But this time the room is our hearts – and for the grace of Christmas to go really deep – our hearts have to mirror that humble manger in Bethlehem.