The Holy Collaboration of Mother Teresa and Malcom Muggeridge

How Muggeridge’s ‘Something Beautiful for God’ brought Mother Teresa to the attention of the world

(photo: Image credit: Robert Pérez Palou, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Many are unaware that the first major exposure of Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Calcutta) to the world was due to the prominent English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), who was not yet Catholic, and had just committed himself to a Protestant version of Christianity at roughly the same time (Spring 1969). This was by means of his book, Something Beautiful for God (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). In its first chapter, Muggeridge sagely observes:

[T]he wholly dedicated like Mother Teresa do not have biographies. Biographically speaking, nothing happens to them. To live for, and in, others, as she and the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity do, is to eliminate happenings, which are a factor of the ego and the will. (p. 16)

Biographer Ian Hunter stated that this book “made Mother Teresa and her work known around the world” (Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1980, 243). The Harper Collins reprint of the book in 1986 contains the following blurb:

[T]his classic work introduced Mother Teresa to the Western World. As timely now as it was then, Something Beautiful for God interprets her life through the eyes of a modern-day skeptic who became literally transformed within her presence, describing her as ‘a light which could never be extinguished.’

This exposure brought the Missionaries of Charity much support. But it was a blessing in both directions, as Muggeridge was hugely influenced by Mother Teresa, in terms of his own eventual conversion to Catholicism. He was received into the Church in 1982. Biographer Gregory Wolfe noted:

In Something Beautiful for God he had admitted that he was tempted to join the Church in order to please her; the prayers of Mother Teresa are hard to resist. As her letters demonstrate, Mother Teresa did not always take the confrontational approach with Malcolm; she was able to empathise with his loneliness and sense of exclusion. But she was also capable of cutting Malcolm's self-justifications short. He frequently alluded to a conversation he had with Mother Teresa while walking along the Serpentine in London. As they strolled through the park, he explained to her that he shared Simone Weil's belief that God needed Christians outside the Church as well as inside. “No, he doesn't,” she said to him tartly. There was something about her simple confidence that seemed to him to cut through all his evasions. (Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, 411)

In Something Beautiful for God, Muggeridge wrote about what were perhaps the first stirrings in his heart that led to his eventual reception into the Catholic Church; having been deeply and extraordinarily impressed with St. Teresa:

There are few things I should rather do than please her. So much so, that it almost amounts to a temptation to accept her guidance in the matter of entering the Church just because it is hers. Yet everything tells me that this would be wrong. (p. 54)

The Church, after all, is an institution with a history; a past and a future. It went on crusades, it set up an inquisition, it installed scandalous popes and countenanced monstrous iniquities. . . . In the mouthpiece of God on earth, belonging, not just to history, but to everlasting truth, they are not to be defended. At least, not by me. (p. 56)

If ever it became clear to me that I could enter the Church in honesty and truth, I should rush to do so, the more eagerly and joyously because I know that it would give happiness to Mother Teresa . . . something that, in the ordinary way, I would go to almost any lengths to achieve. (p. 58)

Muggeridge records one of St. Teresa's letters to him at the time:

Today what is happening in the surface of the Church will pass. For Christ, the Church is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow. The Apostles went through the same feeling of fear and distrust, failure and disloyalty, and yet Christ did not scold them. (p. 54)

In 1987, having been Catholic for five years, Muggeridge recalled:

She was always very keen that I should become a Catholic, although she tends to grumble about the Catholic hierarchy. But then she remembers -- 'Jesus himself hand-picked Twelve Apostles: one betrayed him and the others ran away. So if Jesus can't do better . . .' (My Life in Pictures, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 96)

Writing the next year in a sort of spiritual autobiography, Muggeridge affirmed:

Father Bidone, an Italian priest, now alas dead, and Mother Teresa have been the major influence in my final decision to join the Catholic Church, although it took me a long time to do so. (Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 134-135)

By 1982, Muggeridge had resolved in his mind the dilemma that he felt regarding earthly leadership of the Church, and her imperfect history:

[A]s Hilaire Belloc truly remarked, the Church must be in God's hands because, seeing the people who have run it, it couldn't possibly have gone on existing if there weren't some help from above. (Ibid., p. 139)

In closing, here is his eloquent and moving mini-portrait of St.  Teresa of Calcutta:

When I first set eyes on her, . . . I at once realized that I was in the presence of someone of unique quality. This was not due to . . . her shrewdness and quick understanding, though these are very marked; nor even to her manifest piety and true humility and ready laughter. There is a phrase in one of the psalms that always, for me, evokes her presence: “the beauty of holiness” -- that special beauty, amounting to a kind of pervasive luminosity generated by a life dedicated wholly to loving God and His creation. This, I imagine, is what the haloes in medieval paintings of saints were intended to convey. (Ibid., p. 135)

This article originally appeared June 20, 2018, at the Register.