Mother Teresa and the Theology of the Dying Body

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Mother Teresa of Calcutta will be, very rightly and properly, canonized a saint this weekend.  She is one of the most luminous figures of our time and even a generation of people in their 20s and younger who cannot really remember her clearly intuits that, when they see her face, they are looking at the face of a saint.

And yet, that said, even she has her enemies.  Chief among them, the late Christopher Hitchens, the anti-theist whose hatred for God extended to hatred for his saints.  The core of Hitchens’ hatred for Mother Teresa comes down to the fact that the saint did not see her mission as one of trying to cure death.  Rather, she saw it as her place in the world to love, care for, and respect dying persons.  She took them off the street and cared for them with what meager resources she had.  That’s it.  That’s all.  Her Home for the Dying was just what the name says: a home for the dying.  She did not found a hospital–and that galls and appalls those whose philosophy cannot accept the idea there could be an approach to the dying which simply faces the reality that, in some cases, there is nothing to do for people but love them as they die.

To be sure, the Catholic tradition is the mother and inventor of the hospital.  The entire modern medical profession owes a gigantic debt to the Catholic Church whose Lord growled with anger at the tomb of Lazarus.  The insistence of the Catholic tradition on healing the sick is so profound that one of its seven sacraments is dedicated to the healing of the sick.  More than that, the Faith itself is founded on one solid rock: the reality that God hates death so much that he personally killed it on Easter morning through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Faith has absolutely no truck with pagan nostrums about “mercy killing” or telling the weak that they are “better off dead”, etc.  “You shall not kill” and “heal the sick” is a bedrock of the Catholic tradition.

But coupled with that is the common sense understanding that everybody does, in fact, die and that there is a real place for simply walking alongside a person as they make that final journey to the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.  That is the choice Mother Teresa of Calcutta made: to be the love of God to those who were not going to live.  She went to those who could not be saved from death and did, not what she couldn’t, but what she could.

Flannery O’Connor once remarked that you can’t be poorer than dead.  Death is the final humbling we all face.  And hatred of God is the refusal to face the fact that we are, in the end, going to die and all our pride come to nought.  Mother Teresa’s work was a constant reminder to the world that when it all comes down to it, you and I will be just as bereft of our power and pride as every beggar in a Calcutta slum.  That’s why she’s a threat to those whose sole hope is in this world.

But she is also a reminder that our sole hope is not in this world.  Mother Teresa, ora pro nobis!

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