November 2011

Time and Eternity: Uncollected Writings 1933-1983 by Malcolm Muggeridge.  Edited by Nicholas Flynn. Orbis Books. 237 pages. $24.

Readers will find no moral relativism in Nicholas Flynn’s new volume of writings by Malcolm Mug­geridge, one of the greatest English scribes of the 20th century. Mug­geridge’s vigorous, spare eloquence delivers a palpable physical experience. Some of his most moving essays concern war and worship, and his observations defy the revisionism plaguing many contemporary chronicles of bygone days. Flynn offers some of his friend’s biography: Muggeridge attended Cambridge University, taught in India and Egypt, served as a British soldier and spy in World War II, worked with the League of Nations, wrote for several newspapers, and authored novels and plays. He produced documentaries for the BBC, and created one about Mother Teresa that brought worldwide attention to her work. He and his wife converted to Catholicism in 1982.

Muggeridge lived most of his life in a down-tempo time of slow communications and slow travel. Flynn’s selection of essays underscores the pace. In one essay, readers are introduced to a fearless Mugger­idge who, as the Manchester Guar­dian’s Moscow correspondent in 1933, traveled by rail “without a guide or any official sanction, through the North Caucasus and the Ukraine — he was the first western journalist to do so….” The sheer physical bravery of it all — no official permissions in a dangerous, disease-ridden area before antibiotics and safe medical practices — keeps the pages turning. Eighty percent of the land had been made into collective farms, and all food was confiscated for exports. Nothing was left to get the peasants through the winter, and nearly fifteen million of them starved to death. Crisp, masterful Muggeridge analogies abound: “There is not five percent of the population whose standard of life is equal to or nearly equal to, that of the unemployed in England who are on the lowest scales of relief.” When questioning communists about the wretchedness of the peasants, he found it “as impossible to argue against a General Idea as against an alge­braic formula.” Muggeridge’s reports on this terror-famine enraged Stalin, and his anti-Soviet articles cost Muggeridge his job at a time when many chest-thumping intellectuals were attempting to put a shine on Marxism.

In another piece, Muggeridge trumpeted the “hatred of civilization and of human happiness that lives in the soul of Bolshevism.” Bolshevik leadership was “more privileged and more powerful than any other in the world…to criticize it…means to be guilty of treason against the Soviet State and to qualify for the death sentence.” He expounded further: “This is the Terror. The people who execute it are naturally not normal.” Mug­geridge denounced the Bolsheviks’ treatment of peasants as “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened.” Flynn includes a Muggeridge essay on kindred Nazi horrors.

Dazzling character profiles light up the entire volume. Muggeridge asserted that in the case of Winston Churchill, “the nineteenth century had been skipped altogether in his makeup. He derived from an earlier form of society altogether.” Franklin Roosevelt, “preparing to win his third presidential election on a promise to keep America out of the war, was also, at the same time, preparing to take her in fine style into it.” Muggeridge claimed that “seldom, if ever, has such sustained political agility been seen.” Mussolini, on the other hand, “wanted to be absolutely sure that victory would come to him without the necessity of winning it on the field of battle.”

Literary jewels in the form of Muggeridge’s critiques of well-known authors and artists, including Alexan­der Solzhenitsyn, shimmer on page after page: “Running through everything Solzhenitsyn has written about his struggle…there is the assumption of his Christian faith. He neither expounds nor stresses it, but the reader is conscious of it all the time….” As for Leo Tolstoy, he focused on “the everlasting confrontation between love and violence, between the imagination and the will, between Christ and Caesar.” Tolstoy was vilified by members of Church and state, yet “the voice of this…strange sensualist-saint, this sublime genius whose words had, and have, a magical glow and force, was heard everywhere.”

Flynn enlarges on the spiritual side of his subject by including a Mug­geridge essay on prayer as “a reference of earthly unease to a comforter beyond the earth…necessary to save hearts, and sanity, from cracking. The circumstances of mortality…are otherwise unendurable.” Mug­geridge believed that life is directed toward some “benevolent end,” and that “the Christian religion, with all its dross, is the best expression of this everlasting truth…and that the civilization based upon Christianity is the highest mode of life which has so far existed on this earth.” He decried banal religious services and the cloying affectations of clergy punting their way behind prevailing social and political winds. Worship, “an interlude,” is portrayed as “that little clearing made in the dark jungle of the human will.” Muggeridge revered traditional liturgy and “the sacred music, architecture and other embellishments that go therewith.” Solemnities of language still wait to be rediscovered in most churches, along with sacred ceremonies that have been cheapened to accommodate the wasteland of popular culture. Muggeridge’s pragmatism proclaimed that faith grants “a universal spiritual order that alone makes it possible to establish some sort of temporal, moral, social or political order. Without the one, as we are now dramatically seeing, the other breaks down. As faith disappears, chaos becomes inevitable….”

Malcolm Muggeridge insisted that the “true purpose of words is to convey meaning, and when this is perfectly achieved — which happens only rarely even in the case of the greatest practitioners — there is a kind of ecstasy.” Readers will find that these resplendent writings — as fresh today as when they were written — achieve exactly that.

- Mary McWay Seaman



The Spirit of Father Damien: The Leper Priest — A Saint for Our Times.  By Jan De Volder. Ignatius Press. 216 pages. $15.95.

Do you remember as a child thrilling to the tales of certain saints? Sister would, as part of some lesson, tell of the heroics of a St. Sebastian, who, though blanketed in arrows so thickly that he resembled a pin cushion, reacted kindly toward his assailants. Or St. Catherine of Siena, who lived for supernaturally long periods without food. And, of course, the more recent beloved St. Padre Pio, whose stigmata fascinated even the squeamish. The whispers about his bilocations were even more intriguing.

St. Damien, as he is now recognized, was not that sort of saint; and probably for that reason alone he is truly a saint for our times. He was always a very ordinary man who did very ordinary things. It is not ordinary, you might say, to go off to live in a leper colony with no prospect of returning. That’s true, but other non-lepers did live on Molokai: administrators, Protestant clergy, and medical personnel.

What made Fr. Damien so special was his profound love for his people. He shared their life fully, making no distinctions between the sick and the well. And in the end, he died because of this love.

When Joseph De Veuster (Fr. Damien was his name in religious life) volunteered to go to Kalawao on the island of Molokai, he was looking for a challenge. He had already been in Hawaii for several years, often hearing of the miserable conditions in the leper colony where sufferers of the disease were isolated without family support, decent housing, and virtually no medical care — “a living cemetery,” as Fr. Damien described it. A person went to Molokai to die.

Everyone understood that leprosy, now delicately referred to as Hansen’s disease, was contagious, hence the quarantine. But no one knew how it was transmitted. Now we recognize that it is caused by bacteria and probably spread through respiratory droplets. But at the time, most thought of it as a sexually transmitted disease, an idea fostered by the pro­miscuous ways of the island residents. It was also a repulsive sickness that caused festering pustulant sores that stank. The death rate was high, and at night wild pigs would feed on the bodies they dug up from shallow graves.

Whether Fr. Damien fully comprehended all the implications of his transfer to Molokai, we don’t know, but he did write that he had a feeling he “would never again depart from here.” He threw himself into his work and set a pace for himself that he would maintain over many years. Housing and food were a priority, as was basic nursing care of the sick. These he provided without ceasing. The lepers cooked for him, and he shared his pipe with them. He formed a children’s choir and taught religion. Most of all, he offered the sacraments and tried to instill a sense of dignity in people who had been stripped of everything.

His priestly duties were paramount, and he maintained his rule of life as a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, albeit from a distance. What is striking is that although Fr. Damien in every sense maintained his attachment to his vows and to his order, in turn he received almost no support. He had no visitors, not even a confessor, for months at a time. At one point, because of quarantine laws, he was forced to row out to a visiting ship and shout his confession to a priest on board. Usually his superiors complained about his temper and his unreasonable demands, while they remained safely ensconced on other islands. Loneliness was a constant.

Jan De Volder captures the times and the spirit of Fr. Damien. You can almost feel the physical and spiritual poverty Damien initially encountered. And you share his frustration. De Volder’s portrait is of a man who was flawed but faithful to his vocation as a priest and his calling to serve the outcasts — a true Christian. De Volder’s access to letters between Damien and his superiors, as well as his family, enables him to provide a vivid picture of the saint’s life and suffering.

By the time he died, Fr. Damien was what John Allen in his introduction calls a “celebrity saint.” People all over the world had heard of him and marveled. As well they might, for the man was a hero. And in an era plagued by our own leprosies like AIDS, there are many lessons to be learned from his life. He did not hide from the afflicted. He did not cast aspersions on their characters, although he did call them to a more virtuous life in Christ. And despite the harrowing difficulties, including suffering ultimately from leprosy himself, he stuck to his work. He never wavered. Fr. Damien just kept on doing what he was doing.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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