Mother Teresa Debate
Briefly, their paths crossed in the CBC's fourth-floor Toronto waiting room for guests on Newsworld's Pamela Wallin Live. Tension bristled in the air. Breezing out of the studio in a rumpled blazer and his only tie was Christopher Hitchens, the cheeky Washington-based columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair, who had just fired off the latest salvos in an unlikely cause - his one-man crusade against a wizened 85-year-old Albanian nun named Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa. In a print sequel to his provocative 1994 British television documentary, Hell's Angel, Hitchens had published a 98-page tirade titled The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practice. Castigating the woman he had dubbed M.T. as a "demagogue" and a propagandist for the Vatican's anti-abortion campaign, he charged that she had not hesitated to consort with some of the world's most notorious dictators or take money from convicted con men.
Arriving to answer that attack was Lucinda Vardey, a leading Toronto literary agent turned religious writer who had inadvertently found herself cast as the defender of one of the most venerated figures in Christendom. For Vardey - like Hitchens, a 46-year-old Briton transplanted to North America - the role was both unexpected and unsought. Last year, shortly after his documentary sparked an international uproar, she received a request from a British subsidiary of Random House - the same publishing company that brought out the Pope's best-seller, Crossing the Threshold - to compile a book with the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize-winner she now refers to simply as "Mother." The result is A Simple Path, a pastiche of prayers, inspirational guidance and testimonials from both Mother Teresa and her associates in the Missionaries of Charity, who operate in more than 100 countries around the world.
To Vardey's discomfiture, she found it rushed to publication on exactly the same day in October that Hitchens' broadside was being released by Verso, the tiny book division of London's New Left Review. Refusing to debate him, she had also declined Wallin's invitation to appear together on camera. But suddenly, as he ambled off the set, they met. The encounter was cordial - and decidedly brief. But then, words alone could never have bridged a philosophical divide as old and unresolvable as religion itself: the chasm between reason and faith.
As Hitchens had admitted at a New York City reading days earlier, his target was larger than Mother Teresa: he had set out "to prove all religion equally false." A messianic atheist, he acknowledged his fascination with religion, which he called "one of the great subjects. But I don't think it's a force for the good. It's a very dangerous thing." To Vardey, a committed Roman Catholic, their differences came down to a fundamental Christian belief - the notion of a living savior. When Mother Teresa professed to see Christ in every human soul, she made no distinction between a maggot-riddled beggar dying in the streets of Calcutta and Michèle Duvalier, the shopaholic wife of the former Haitian dictator known as Baby Doc. "Mother doesn't judge," Vardey said. "She doesn't ask why the money comes or where it comes from. She says it's for Jesus."
For Vardey, finding herself ensnared in the thorny Mother Teresa debate is an unexpected twist on her own anything-but-simple path. Until a year ago, she had planned to consecrate this fall to launching another book, her sweeping 900-page anthology of postwar spiritual writing called God in All Worlds, published in November by Knopf just two weeks after A Simple Path. Compiled over the past five years, it ranges from selections by Catholic mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Hindu Vedas and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, New Age guru Shakti Gawain and raunchy novelist Erica Jong. Culling that eclectic mix required encyclopedic reading. And, as Vardey admits, it is no accident that she organized the passages according to the stages of a spiritual quest. In fact, the book is a milestone on the London-born author's own spiritual journey, which began in the southeast English village of Fetcham, where she grew up one of five children, and where the tussle between reason and faith was played out in her own family.
Her father, a self-taught artist who became art director for Reader's Digest - and died in November - was a non-Catholic who eschewed religion as ardently as her mother attended Sunday mass. Vardey recalls spending hours in her grandmother's bedroom, which resembled "a kind of sacred grotto" - complete with statues of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart dripping blood and a vial of sacred water from Lourdes. But after she attended convent school, the swinging London of the 1960s called. A onetime member of Britain's National Youth Jazz orchestra, she landed her first job at 17 when she saw an ad for a typist in the window of a publisher near her nightly gig playing jazz piano in Soho. In 1970, she won a posting to Toronto, where she began working as a publicist.
Driven and flamboyant, given to long flowing skirts and floppy hats, she stayed to make her mark on the burgeoning Toronto publishing scene. When John Fowles's novel Daniel Martin came out in England, she helped to separate out the Canadian from the American rights - a revolutionary notion at the time. In 1977, she founded her own literary agency, and eight years later she set a new record for the business. Bypassing Toronto, she took the manuscript for a spy thriller by an unknown Ottawa peace activist named Anthony Hyde straight to New York, where she won The Red Fox the first million-dollar advance ever awarded to a Canadian writer. "I knew that if it just came out of Ottawa, Canadian companies would offer me $5,000 for it," she says. "It was just a case of taking our own for granted."
A tough negotiator, she was also known for her grit. In 1980, when investigative journalist Ian Adams regained the rights to his controversial novel, S: Portrait of a Spy - the object of a $2.2-million libel action by retired RCMP official Leslie James Bennett - he found the book industry wary of him. Although the suit had finally been settled by his former publisher, he was considered too hot to handle until Vardey agreed to take him on. She conducted an auction and won him nearly $30,000 for the paperback rights. "No one else would touch me," Adams says.
On the side, Vardey co-authored her own first book, an anthology called Pigs: A Troughful of Treasures, edited by her friend and former client, novelist Barbara Gowdy. "She put as much passion and perfection into that," Gowdy says, "as she does into everything." Every Sunday, some of that passion emerged at a local church, where Vardey doubled as organist and choirmaster. But as a traditionalist, she left after a falling-out over including guitars in the service. Increasingly, she found herself examining her own relations with Catholic orthodoxy. For five years, she rose at 4.30 a.m. to thrash out that internal debate in the pages of Belonging: A Book for the Questioning Catholic, which was released to mixed reviews in 1988. "It met the confusion that was then sweeping North America," says her publisher Louise Dennys, a longtime friend. "It was a very grass-roots book."
But Vardey insists that she never thought of herself as a religious woman. Then, exhausted and depressed, she was diagnosed with a thyroid tumor. Although benign, its side-effects changed her life. A self-confessed workaholic who had just ended a long-distance relationship in Italy, she was confined to bed for months. "My life was sell, sell, sell; prove, prove prove," she says. "Suddenly I was being forced to lie flat on my back and listen to God."
She found unexpected comfort from prayer and a lay healer's touch, while a series of coincidences prodded her towards a more ecumenical route. At film director Norman Jewison's annual garden party, she met Ann Petrie, who had just won an Emmy for a documentary on Mother Teresa and who introduced her to a yoga ashram. There, the Hindu scriptures led her to Buddhist meditation and Gestalt therapy, and finally back to a reconfirmed Catholicism. Five years ago, on a business trip to New York, Vardey leaped at a chance to come to terms with that eclectic odyssey. Over their usual working lunch, Marty Asher, the publisher of Vintage Books, wondered aloud why, despite the rage for New Age themes, no one had put together a serious spiritual anthology. "Lucinda sat bolt upright and said, 'I want to do that book for you,' " Asher recalls. "Suddenly, she revealed this whole other corner of her life I had no idea about."
Vardey was still in the course of her research when she found herself invited to a Toronto dinner for spiritual singles. As she mentioned reading the complete works of Carl Jung and Thomas Merton, she made an unexpected impact on the already-intrigued host, a former seminarian named John Dalla Costa, who had just stepped down as president of his own advertising agency. "I thought, 'Wow, here's someone as obsessive as I am,' " he says. "It might sound strange, but I found it very sexy."
Just as their relationship began, she flew off to Italy, where, within a week, she bought a 600-year-old Tuscan farmhouse near a hermitage once established by St. Francis of Assisi. There, two years later in October, 1994, they were married by a Franciscan priest to the strains of an eighth-century Gregorian chant sung by two choristers imported from Westminster Cathedral. "It was - it is - a marriage made in heaven," says Dennys. "It's a magical story - this extraordinary sharing of interests in the spiritual as well as the business worlds." Agrees Vardey: "It's unimaginably wonderful to find someone you can pray with who isn't a wimp."
But no sooner had they landed home from their honeymoon when her agent phoned with the offer to compile a book on Mother Teresa, presumably a final statement. Many of Vardey's beliefs - including the importance of making abortion available in certain medical cases - stood at odds with those of her subject. The research trip to India would also prevent her from sharing her first Christmas with her new husband. But in the end, she accepted the job. Learning about Hitchens's planned attack on her subject was not what motivated her, she says, but it "was the factor that pushed me to meet the deadline."
On her first day in Calcutta, she was tickled by her subject's mix of piety and pragmatism. In the midst of predawn prayers, Mother Teresa noticed someone had left on a light. "She gathered herself up off the floor to turn it off," Vardey recounts. "I loved her right there." Her experience at the mission also had a profound personal effect: "I knew there would be a big lesson in this for me - how I put my faith into action."
Already, last year, she had sold her agency, retaining only a handful of writers - among them Anthony Hyde, Jungian analyst Marion Woodman and Bombay-born novelist Rohinton Mistry, who won this year's prestigious Giller Prize for Canadian fiction with his second novel, A Fine Balance. "It was death to continue for me," Vardey says. "But what rocked a lot of people was that I was changing." Last month, she and Dalla Costa celebrated those changes by throwing a joint book launching for her anthology and his just-finished appeal for a new set of corporate values, called Working Wisdom (Stoddart). And in a watermelon-red room on the second floor of the airy town house they share, where a statue of the Virgin Mary nestles in the front garden and a Buddha keeps vigil over the back deck, Vardey now offers Gestalt therapy and yoga to a select clientele while building a new stable of writers who concentrate on the spiritual.
As a former marketing whiz, she is not unaware that her own changes mirror a larger spiritual search currently sweeping society. And at a time when more people appear to be turning to faith for answers than reason, Vardey admits that Hitchens' rationalist attacks have proved an unexpected boon to her books. "The reaction is more explosive," she says, "because they're being reviewed together."
Maclean's December 25, 1995