Malcolm Muggeridge: Godly Gadfly

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) like so many great Catholic converts of the 20th century experienced a fascinating pilgrimage from agnostic Communist sympathizer in his youth to later champion of conservatism and critic of decadent liberalism. Muggeridge’s early career consisted of several years as a teacher in India and several more as a journalist in Russia and India. Volunteering for service in World War II, he advanced to the rank of Major and won the French military award of the Croix de Guerre. By this time he had entirely lost his agnostic and Communist sympathies. For the rest of his life he became, like Socrates, the perennial Gadfly of  Modernity. He was a roving journalist who, with the satirical tip of his pen, struck at all things dumb and despicable. William F. Buckley Jr. deftly summed up Muggeridge’s approach to most religious matters by saying: “When he turned against the devil, the devil was outnumbered.”

At the age of 79, after several decades of embracing Anglicanism, Muggeridge came under the profound influence of Mother Teresa, after which he and his wife Kitty were received into the Catholic Church. An insightful, eloquent, and humorous writer in the tradition of fellow British pundits Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, Muggeridge’s writing style is reminiscent of theirs, as the following passage shows. “One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we’ve developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity. It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse: they believe in anything.” In 1988, two years before his death, Muggeridge published Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim. In its Introduction Muggeridge recalls the day of his baptism and confirmation as filled with “a sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that had long been ringing, of taking a place at a table that had long been vacant.”

Muggeridge as student

Reminiscing about his youth, Muggeridge remembers how confused he was during the formative years of his education. He had been taught the usual Christian doctrines, but in time began to see a man-made heaven possible on earth rather than elsewhere: “to each according to his needs, from each according to his capacity.” Somehow God was not so relevant as he used to be. But when Malcolm’s aunt came to visit, she would set him straight when he doubted the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. “If Daniel isn’t true, nothing is,” she remonstrated. This set Malcolm to thinking. If Darwin wasn’t true, what would it matter? The world would go on as it always had. But if the Bible was not true, if it was subtracted from civilization, wouldn’t civilization be considerably the worse for it?

As an undergraduate student Muggeridge had come to a certain maturity of mind; confronting God, he quoted the poet George Herbert:

Yet take Thy way, for sure Thy way is best:

Stretch or contract me, Thy poor Debtor:

This is but tuning of my breast,

To make the music better.

Indeed, Muggeridge concluded, far from being evil in itself, human suffering, as Christ proved on the cross, is a remedy to the wrongheaded pagan religions which hold that, by annihilating all pain and suffering, life will be the better for it. For only by suffering do we get a clear glimpse of the world we are in, and the need to prepare ourselves for the immortal ecstasy of the world we are yet to enter. Without suffering, consider how unbearably shallow and meaningless life would be as we seek to grasp one pleasure after another, only to fall back on ourselves, spoiled  souls rotting with smug self-satisfaction.

Muggeridge as teacher

Having completed his undergraduate studies, Muggeridge was offered and agreed to a teaching position at a Christian college in South India. There he observed the need to choose between power and love. Caeasar had chosen power. Jesus had chosen love. Caesar is more or less forgotten, Jesus to this day moves the hearts and minds of billions. How will Muggeridge choose? He sees the little man Ghandi alight from a train in his loincloth, the soul of humanity eschewing power and violence for the sake of love. Gandhi, like Jesus, has become in his humility a power to be reckoned with. But as teacher, Muggeridge is disappointed with his task: teaching English literature to students who have no idea what he is talking about, but who earnestly try to learn by rote what he teaches in hope of acquiring the power they lack in their dire poverty and ignorance. And so Muggeridge says farewell to India in his deft way: “The Teacher with nothing to teach goes on his way, his mule loaded with the books he will never read, patiently following.”

Back in England, Muggeridge is offered and accepts another teaching position in Egypt. But first he marries and learns the happiness that comes from love. His first child is born, a son, and Muggeridge exclaims: “Looking at this tiny creature, newly come into the world, at the breast of his exhausted but triumphant mother, a sense of the glory of life sweeps throiugh the Teacher as never before…. Already he is aware of the counter movement – the separation of the procreative impulse from procreation, the downgrading of motherhood and the upgrading of spinsterhood, and the acceptance of sterile perversions as the equivalent of fruitful lust; finally, the grisly holocaust of millions of aborted babies, ironically in the name of the quality of life. The Teacher will undergo many changes of opinion, many switches of allegiance, much ethical unrest, but in one particular he will never deviate – in upholding the sanctity and the glory of life itself.”

Muggeridge as journalist

Before his second assignment as teacher can take effect, Muggeridge is offered and gladly accepts the position of Cairo correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, a relatively mild mannered liberal rag which promotes its propaganda in editorials much as a teacher promotes his brainwashing in the classroom. A very slight difference: if the teacher can be an everlasting drawn-out bore to his students, the journalist can be an instant one to his readers. There is a sense in which perhaps Muggeridge begins to realize he is a moving pawn in a game of chess, the strategy of which he cannot understand but must obey or be swept from the board. And so he dutifully turns in his regular column recommending the regular liberal pablum for all.

Now the spiritual rumblings of his undergraduate days begin to have their profound effect. As bought and paid for journalist with a family to feed, his focus is on the world, not God. The world is full of liberals with an insatiable appetite not for the Word, but for the word-filled lies they need to be told, even when, in the back of their minds, they do not believe the liars. Muggeridge begins to sense that liberalism is now old and tired, and that the truth of life liberals had been covering up, will finally shine forth. The grand theory of Darwinian evolution by chance (based on so much paltry evidence) he perceives to be an empty promise of progress over which we have no control in spite of our insistence to the contrary. Consider the burning optimism of old H.G. Wells in his last years turned dark and cold upon the explosion of the first atomic bomb. Man will not be able after all to save himself by way of science, if he refuses to be saved by way of God first and foremost. Whereupon Muggeridge remembers a passage from Thomas à Kempis.

There is no holiness, Lord, if you withdraw your hand. No wisdom is of any use if you no longer guide it. No strength can avail if you do not preserve it. No purity is safe if you do not protect it. No watchfulness on our part can affect anything unless your holy vigilance is present with us. If you abandon us, we sink and perish; but if you come to us we are raised up and we live.

 Muggeridge found himself in the best of times and in the worst of times turning to the Lord’s Payer, which never failed to comfort and heal his soul. The strifes and storms of the world he had to witness, report, and comment on as a journalist suddenly seemed to him entirely bearable, and especially if he could remind himself of the nearly last words of Jesus on earth: “In this world you shall have trouble, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Muggeridge as Moscow correspondent

The Manchester Guardian gives him a new assignment. In Moscow now, Muggeridge observes that the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Basil has been turned into an anti-God museum. As if to prove substantial progress under Communism, the fossilized remains of saints buried at the cathedral are on display in all their corruption, while not far away is to be found the embalmed body of Lenin in an airtight glass case, perfectly preserved, his head reclining upon (what other color than the color of blood could one expect?) a red cushion.

And then, the Muggeridge notes, he found the presence everywhere in Moscow of vodka (to celebrate the Revolution in a properly drunken stupor?) and the GPU, Russia’s secret police – Stalin’s way of eliminating rivals and critics, many of whom are soon to be unaccountably flushed down the history’s toilet. If the drama of Stalin’s regime is to be played out, and he should be applauded as the Man of Destiny (according to the liberal intelligentia in the West) that would only be possible, as history would later record, if it was played out in the Theatre of the Absurd. But Stalin, a failed seminarian and humorless tyrant, embodied the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and would do so until he was dead and booed into oblivion by all the Soviets who feared and hated his cruel regime.

In the meantime, Stalin, the man with the bushy moustache and the curious waddle, will exercise the prerogatives of power with fiendish success. A personal witness to the famine in the Ukraine (brought about by the forced collectivization of agriculture) Muggeridge writes three articles describing the horrors and suffering of the peasant class. These articles, damning as they are, he knows will prevent him from ever getting into Russia again. And so he visits a church one last time, finding within its walls the only solace for the suffering assembled there, and makes a brief visit to Dostoevsky’s shabbily kept grave (he being regarded now as persona non grata, a reactionary and counter-revolutionist). On the eve of his return to England, he senses himself psychologically ripened with a warrior spirit. Duly employed now at the Ministry of Information, he is prepared to fight, not for power, but for love.

Muggeridge as soldier

Leading up to the engagement of World War II, Muggeridge in a barrack hut waits with other soldiers for the call. When will it come? How will it come? He feels a strange reverence for the young men among whom he is decidedly, at thirty-six, their senior. Strange intimations of mortality overcome him. Some kind of basic conversion is in the wind. Does he really believe all he has been taught in the creed? Will he really be resurrected in the last days? Will all those billions of cells find a way to assemble as they did once before? “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!” he exclaims. Then London is bombed nightly. Is Buckingham Palace still standing? Are the Houses of Parliament still standing? Muggeridge begins to take a perverse delight in the death and destruction all around him, then mercilessly chastises himself for his submission to that ugly and carnal pleasure of being a witness to the tragedy of war.

Then there is the incident in Paris at the end of the War. The Germans are defeated. London has approached obliteration. Japan is crushed. Paris has been liberated, but not really. Accusations fly right and left against traitors and collaborators. A pregnant woman with a shaved head (punishment for French women who slept with German soldiers) is brought to Muggeridge because she fell in love with a German soldier. The soldier has been executed by a furious mob. Muggeridge befriends her. Who in God’s name has really won this war? Who was truly liberated? It was the woman, Muggeridge concludes. Through all the present darkness of her life she carries within her the hope and memory of lost love. Muggeridge is humbled and depressed by his own comparably carnal egotism. He must, n his post-war existential angst, pass trough a very dark tunnel through find his light at the end. In his typically lyrical prose, he remarks:

 In any case, God who is infinite cannot be seen by finite eyes or understood by a finite mind. However many millennia our race may go on existing, this will still be the case; the Cloud of Unknowing that lies between Time and Eternity, between Man and his Creator, can never be pierced. We strain our eyes trying to see God, our ears to hear Him, our minds to understand Him, but all in vain; the mystery is forever…. The Cloud of Unknowing remains opaque and impenetrable; clearly, God intends it so.

 Muggeridge as foreign correspondent

Now Muggeridge signs on as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Washington, D.C. He leaves his wife and children behind, himself stricken by the brave selfishness of that decision. In Washington he is absorbed in a ticker-tape of news articles he must sift through to see if there is anything of interest to the British. Very little, to be sure, and the tape piles up around him daily, so fast he cannot keep up with it. He seems now spiritually buried in trivia. Ever willing to find a biblical metaphor, he observes, “In the beginning was the News, and the news became words, and dwelt among us, graceless and full of lies.” He is reminded of Tolstoy’s trick of hiding a piece of rope from himself, fearing that, in spite of his wild and worthy success, in spite of his wealth and wife, his lovable children and beautiful home, he might use it to hang himself.

After all, his work is simultaneously dull and turgid. All the news that comes into view seems possessed, one way or another, by the foul and fetid odor of sin. Sitting at a press meeting with Truman in the Oval Office does not inspire Muggeridge with trust and conviction that Truman, doing his best to shine, does not carry within him contantly the dark stain of original sin at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is at this point that Muggeridge becomes familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing, a tome of spirituality by an anonymous medieval monk. What Muggeridge has come to learn is that knowing God is even more illusory than knowing Truman. But it is in knowing that we do not know Him that we allow God to enter us, the fences the devil having erected to protect us from Him having fallen one by one at His approach. A certain thought of this profound monk haunts him, as he sees the truth of having to choose between God and sin. “Now truly I believe, that who will not go the hard way to heaven, they shall go the soft way to hell.” On the other hand, Muggeridge remembers, His burden is light, His yoke is easy.

Muggeridge knows his own sins and freely confesses them, like Augustine, to be sins of the flesh that tear fiercely at his soul. He wonders that men deny the existence of the devil, a clever ruse the devil himself perpetuates, so that we may let down our defenses at his approach. The devil exists because Muggeridge has seen him, or detected his presence, in his own mirror; a study in carnality, perhaps the very aging and horrible image of Dorian Gray? And like Augustine, who witnessed the fall of Rome, Muggeridge senses another fall that compares in the modern Western World. Augustine met the fate of Rome by asserting the existence of a City of God that cannot fall. Muggeridge too sees no alternative to the decay and collapse of modern civilization than to heartily believe in the City of God. Muggeridge could say with Augustine: “I could not find myself; how much less, then, could I find God.” Only by entering the City of God and looking for Him there.

 Muggeridge’s spiritual pilgrimage

Muggeridge’s first great moment of conversion occurred when he was filming “The Holy Land” and while visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Initially, he was skeptical. How could anyone know for a fact this little crypt is where Jesus was born? Wasn’t it more like a religious Disneyland, all these shrines throughout Bethlehem and Jerusalem to which the believing sheep flocked as if drawn by their Shepherd? But then it occurred to him: why shouldn’t this be where Eternity stepped in Time, where the Word became flesh? The many Mansions of Manhattan dimmed into dust next to that little crypt, the putative home of the One to whom the world turned in awe for twenty centuries; and might well still be turning twenty centuries hence when the fabulous Mansions of Manhattan were barely a footnote to history. No better proof could there be that Eternity has entered Time and overcome it.

“Fiat lux!” God said at the dawn of creation. Then came the light of creation. Fitting, was it not, that Jesus Christ becomes that other light shining in the darkness? Now come Muggeridge’s words of conversion.

 Having seen this other light, I turn to it, striving and growing towards it as plants do towards the sun, the light of love, abolishing the darkness of strife and confusion; the light of life, abolishing the darkness of death; the light of creativity, abolishing the darkness of destruction. Though, in terms of history, the darkness falls, blacking out us and our world, You have overcome history. You came as a light into the world in order that whoever believed in You should not remain in darkness. Your light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Nor ever will.

 Muggeridge and Mother Teresa

 From this point on Muggeridge is deeply influenced by Father Bidone, an Italian priest, and Mother Teresa. Through their combined influence at long last Muggeridge is belatedly received into the Catholic Church. Prior to that final moment of conversion, Muggeridge had persisted with nagging doubts related to the all too human aspects of the Church, such as scandals, inquisitions, persecutions, etc. Having confided these doubts to Mother Teresa, she replied in a letter:

I am sure you will understand beautifully everything – if you would only become a little child in God’s hands. Your longing for God is so deep, and yet He keeps Himself away from you. He must be forcing himself to do so, because He loves you so much as to give Jesus to die for you and for me. Christ is longing to be your Food. Surrounded with fulness of living Food, you allow yourself to starve.

 The personal love Christ has for you is infinite – the small difficulty you have regarding the Church is finite. Overcome the finite with the Infinite. Christ has created you because He wanted you. I know what you feel – terrible longing with dark emptiness – and yet He is the one in love with you. I do not know if you have seen these few lines before, but they fill and empty me:

 My God, my God, what is a heart

That Thou should’st so eye and woo,

Pouring upon it all Thy heart

As if Thou had’st nothing else to do?

 Many things held up Muggeridge’s conversion, not least of which was human authority. The leaders of the Church had squandered over and over their right to rule, yet rule they did; Muggeridge mulled over what Belloc noted long ago, that the authority to rule must have come from above, and the divine protection of that authority too, or the bishops and priests would have caused the Church to perish centuries ago. The final nudge toward his conversion, Muggeridge realized, was the Church’s stand, in opposition to the stand of nearly all the world, against birth control and abortion. The Church had proven itself a bulwark for natural law, had insisted on eroticism as a means rather than an end in itself, and had defied the universities and the politicians, those hacks for pagan morality, promoting even perverse sexual practices among the young; much as the Romans had promoted the vomitorium, a place to empty oneself in order to restart the debauchery of their culinary delicacies. But in the end Muggeridge despaired of finding the perfect way to explain his conversion. As he concludes, it’s all a mystery. “I can no more explain conversion intellectually than I can explain why one falls in love with someone whom one marries.”

Muggeridge might as well have said love is the motive for conversion, because if you desire to love absolutely, there is no love more absolute than the love of the Absolute.

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Carl Sundell is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts. The author of several books including The Intellectual and the Gunman, Four Presidents, and Shaw versus Chesterton, he has published various articles in New Oxford Review and Catholic Insight. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas where he is developing a book of short essays for students of Catholic apologetics