Dear Loving Spoonful, to answer the
question posed in your 1965 smash hit: no, I don’t believe in magic. Thanks for
asking, though. Sorry it took so long to get back to you. I don’t know if you
realize this but you didn’t leave your contact information in the song. But I do think it’s an interesting question. Because I’d argue that most of us believe in magic. Be it the star-crossed lover checking her horoscope or the star-bound cosmonaut pissing on the right rear tire. Billions of us believe in ghosts, prayers,
and superstitions of all types. Magic. And some of us, like the 1975 band whose name Google tells me is Hot Chocolate,
believed in miracles. Mother Teresa is a saint. It’s not my opinion, I should note,
but a fact confirmed by the Vatican. But her sainthood is a bit complicated.
Because saint has two meanings. One of them is a religious designation given
by the politics of the Catholic church. And the other, it’s sort of a concept that
implies superhuman perfection. And of those two,
I’d argue that Teresa is only the former. But there are many people
who would disagree with me on that. After all, she is famous for her devotions. But oddly enough, for someone known for her faith,
I don’t think that she really believed in magic. She tried to, certainly, but from what I’ve read
I’m not sure she ever succeeded. For the vast majority of her life, she privately
questioned the very existence of God. But her faith, or actions while on this planet,
aren’t the point of this episode. She was human, and just like the rest of us, an imperfect being doing what she felt was right. While I’m certain many of you would love me to do a Christopher Hitchins style expose on the failed policies of a relatively hypocritical idolizer of poverty and suffering, I don’t really want to focus on her life story. Even if you believe the Vatican at their word,
her life wasn’t considered magical, and this is a story about magic. No, Mother Teresa’s life is not the point. Her beliefs aren’t the point. After all, you don’t get to be a saint because of belief. You get to be a saint because of miracles. And hers didn’t come until well after she died. But before we talk about the miracles that canonized Teresa of Calcutta, I want to talk about a different Albanian saint. Saint Donatus of Evorea. In the now ruined town of Butrint in the far
South of Albania, there was a bishop named Donatus. He lived almost 1,800 years ago, during a
time when the Roman Empire was just about to split into East and West. Christianity was only just beginning to take hold, and given that he would have been risking his life to spread the gospel, chances are he would have been incredibly devout. Unquestionably, a believer in magic. But his devotion wasn’t what canonized him. Just like Mother Teresa,
he was said to have performed miracles. And because this was a time before mass education,
the scientific method, and the ability to disagree without losing
your head for the privilege, nobody seemed too concerned about making the miracles realistic. If you dig into them, even, like, a tiny bit,
it’s not looking good for our boy Donatus. For example, the main miracle that he’s claimed to have performed is the slaying of a dragon. Which raises some issues. Because there are no dragons.
There were no dragons. And there will almost certainly never be dragons.
But at the time, they didn’t know that. The idea he was a dragon slayer made him popular,
and so the church felt they’d stand behind him. Why disagree with the story if
it turned people towards Christianity? If all you’re really looking for are ends,
it’s fairly easy to justify the means. If the lie works, why ruin the lie. But sainthood comes after two miracles, not one.
Can’t just be letting in any run of the mill dragon slayer. But lucky for Donatus, though,
he had a second trick up his sleeve. He could raise the dead.
Which, again… brings up a couple issues. Because even if you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, I suspect you’d find it hard to deal with the idea that a bishop in Roman Epirus was capable
of similar acts to the son of God. I mean, nobody’s raised the dead since we started checking things scientifically, so I suspect it’s unlikely that
it was commonplace before that point. I doubt God saw us invent the scientific method and thought, “phew – time to cap off those resurrections”. But while these miracles certainly solidified his name and the memories of people who worshipped him, as the foundation stone for his sainthood, it isn’t exactly holding up to the light of modern day. Yet in his time, Donatus was undeniably popular.
A celebrity before the concept even existed. And as is often the case with legendary figures,
death only seemed to further increase his legacy. Despite a few hundred year lull
in the public consciousness, as the situation changed for Christians
in Southern Europe, their ancient saint took on a new meaning. In the middle ages, as Greece and Albania were conquered by Muslim Ottoman rulers, and their religion was put under the conversion-minded thumb of extreme taxation, Saint Donatus was resurrected. Not really resurrected, he was still definitely dead. But the legend. And for a people desperate for a hero who could slay
the symbolic monster on their doorstep, it makes sense that they’d look
to the past to find a hero who’d done it before. His following slowly developed
into a cult, and his worship spread on the back of local sailors and soldiers
as they warred their way around the Mediterranean. Almost a thousand years
after he died, the dragon slaying, life restoring, miracle inducing
Donatus was more popular than ever. But let’s be real. He didn’t do those things. There’s no possible way he could have done those things. And yet, he is a saint based on the premise that those were real actions he undertook. So what are saints? Why was he canonized? Why didn’t they correct their mistake when they realized that there’s no way those miracles could have been true? I think it’s pretty clear it’s because he was popular. Scientology may recruit their celebrities,
but Christianity grows its own. The cult of Donatus changed people’s view of their religion and enhanced church control over their lives. Sainthood is a popularity contest, and the miracles required are just a way of making
what are otherwise relatively
ordinary humans seem supernatural. The Vatican even has a five year
waiting period for saints, specifically meant to check if their popularity
will stand the test of time. They’re looking for long term celebrities, and the miracles that those celebrities
have to perform for the privilege
are quite obviously little more than formalities. So back to Saint Teresa.
Let’s take a quick look at her miracles. Oddly enough, none of them
happened when she was alive. Or, perhaps that isn’t oddly enough. Because these days, we know there aren’t dragons. Nobody’s being raised from the dead. It’s become so much harder to find miracles
that aren’t easily dismissed as fake. There’s mass education, a scientific method,
modern medicine and a firm understanding of the very natural causes of many things we used to call magical. But after you die, it’s a lot easier to attribute things
to you that you had nothing to do with. And that’s the case with Teresa. The first of her supposed miracles came in 2002,
five years after her death. An Indian woman was completely healed of her tuberculosis-related tumors. Her husband says it was the doctors,
her doctors say it was the year-long treatment, and the Health Minister said there was nothing in her records to indicate anything except the normal
pattern of TB treatment; but she was wearing a locket with Mother Theresa in it. So the Vatican called it a miracle. Six years later, a man in Brazil
would experience a similar miracle. His brain tumors subsided,
and the only explanation could be Mother Teresa. It couldn’t have been that she was an incredibly popular figure in a time when the Catholic church
really needed a win. It had to be magic. Now obviously, this episode is dripping in sarcasm, but I think it’s pretty clear why the Vatican chose
to rush through her miraculous deeds. Surely, by now they know that miracles are not
what cause sainthood. It’s celebrity worship. But that admission does nothing towards their ultimate goal, and the ends justify the means. Miracles and saints even to this day
convince people to support their cause. Of course, they’re going to find a way to canonize her. The miracles they attributed to her,
just like with Donatus, were a formality
meant to make her seem larger than life. To solidify her celebrity. And it’s working. Just look at how successful it’s been. In Albania, a once Christian
country that underwent hundreds of years of conversion and is now 70% Muslim, she’s regarded as a hero. There’s a public holiday dedicated to her in October.
The main airport in Tirana is even named after her. Her fame is undeniable in this country. Like Donatus, the church is happy to use
her memory to bring lambs back to the flock. In Macedonia, in Skopje, where she was born,
they held a week-long holiday to celebrate her sainthood, opening a museum to tell her life story. In India, where one in seven of the world’s people live, her legacy is seen as a key to opening
the door to conversion. She’s a world-class celebrity. Plain and simple. And no matter where you go in history,
we worship celebrities. That’s why she’s a saint. Belief in magic is everywhere. Personality worship is as strong as ever.
But there are no miracles. Celebrity status and the noble lie are
what drives sainthood. If you believe what the Vatican says about Teresa,
you’re also kind of saying that you think dragons existed. That ancient bishops resurrected people. That TB medicine works better if you keep
a photo in your locket. And eventually, in whatever future world
comes out of this one, chances are there’s going to be a smarmy videographer who takes the piss out of you for it. Because to quote the incredible Tim Minchin,
throughout history, every mystery ever solved
has turned out to be not magic. This is Rare Earth. – Dave, make the cicada stop! Shut up!
– Shut up!