I write on the eve of Princess Diana’s funeral, the culmination of a week-long therapeutic exercise in which genuine empathy struggled for air in a sea of manufactured bathos. In death, Diana has been swept along by the same forces of celebrity-worship she both courted and despised in life. She was not only a star-crossed fairy-tale princess but a certified 24-carat media star who held undisputed first position in the panoply of pop icons. An exaggerated expression of public sadness was therefore to be expected. Identification with Diana’s tragedy, however, has by now acquired an almost clinical dimension: it has been transmogrified into the fantasized life-story of every troubled female in the English-speaking world.
And why not? If there is a chapter of this unfortunate woman’s saga that has not been portrayed in agonizing detail for all the world to see, I don’t know what it might be. People who have been no closer to her than the cover of People magazine (on which she appeared nearly 50 times) know more about her medical history and love affairs than they do about the lives of their best friends. When celebrities routinely reveal on national television intimacies that, in a prior age, they might have blushed to mention to their confessor, all sense of dignity and decorum must flee. And when the affairs of the House of Windsor are put on routine public display like some second-rate tragi-comic soap opera, why shouldn’t more or less everyone feel free to take a leading part? The Age of Aquarius, it would seem, has at last given way to the Age of Narcissus, and what we’ve seen this week may tell us more than we wanted to know about the state of modern culture.
These past few days have set new standards for wretched excess, both in the voyeurism of television coverage and in the vacuous commentary of diverse anchorpersons too numerous to mention. It has been a media circus to end all media circuses, one that in its frenzied self-preoccupation seemed to threaten the very tenure of the royal family itself. But on this day, relief appeared in the form of an unexpected event that, sub specie aeternitatis, will prove of far greater importance. Word came a few hours ago that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had died. It was as if Heaven itself decided to punctuate the week’s madness with a reminder that we are made for better things.
If so, the message appears to have been lost among the chattering nabobs of radio and television, who came forward in a matter of minutes with their terminally mindless comparisons. They struggled mightily to find some unifying theme in the lives of these two women — and to attach themselves to now two famous “personalities,” who, as one commentator put it, “had done so much for the world.” One Johnny-on-the-spot led his report with this: “Mother Teresa, the famed Catholic nun who was a friend of Princess Diana’s, died today in Calcutta.” But the grand prize goes to a Washington-area radio listener, who outdid them all by bemoaning that the day’s events had thrown her life into emotional turmoil: “I mean, after all, we’ve lost two saint-like figures in one week.”
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it, and we’ll no doubt hear other variations on that theme in the days and weeks ahead. But despite the spirit of the age, which confuses celebrity for greatness and apportions fame regardless of merit, one suspects that such strained comparisons will not endure. For one thing, the value of celebrity in our day diminishes at an accelerating rate. In the weeks following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, all manner of silliness prevailed, topped by the suggestion on the part of an American union leader that the Vatican consider the late president as a fitting candidate for canonization. A generation later, thanks to an unerring sense of errancy in the family, the Kennedy Myth is at best a thing of shreds and patches. How soon the Legend of Princess Di will suffer a similar fate is hard to say, but we may be sure that Mother Teresa’s life will inspire long after the tabloids invent and dispose of the next 10,000 celebrity princesses.
One’s final reaction to Diana Spencer’s life is not admiration but pity. This fragile child of a broken home was almost destined to spend her adult life looking for the love that had been denied her in her youth. Her neediness was almost palpable and may have been her most distinguishing feature. Beauty, charm, fame, the comforts of elevated social status and great wealth, even a fairy-tale marriage into royalty, could bring her no more happiness than the serial lovers she entertained in a feckless effort to fill her yearning. One’s final reaction to Mother Teresa’s life, by contrast, is one of reverential awe — not at her fame, which was considerable (though not always for reasons she approved), but at her willingness to put on Christ. Her distinguishing feature lies less in the endless works of mercy she bestowed upon “the poorest of the poor,” than in the passionate love with which she embraced the Cross.
There is a telling episode in the splendid film portrait done of her some years ago by Sir Richard Attenborough. She is shown addressing a group of postulants who have passed their preliminary tests and are about to undergo a new round of hard work and spiritual formation before taking final vows. They are full of enthusiasm, eager to participate in a great spiritual endeavor, and excited beyond words to be in the presence of their spiritual mother.
We see and hear only part of Mother Teresa’s remarks to them, but what we are made privy to tells all about the greatness of this great saint’s soul. It is not enough, she tells them, to administer the corporal works of mercy, not enough to pray and fast for the sake of others, not enough, even, to give up all one owns and submit to a disciplined life of poverty. All those things are necessary, Mother Teresa notes, but adds that the sisters’ true purpose in life is to learn to love doing these things for the love of Christ. For two-thousand years that message has embarrassed and puzzled the world, and for most of us, it is grasped at clumsily or mouthed half-heartedly at best. Even so, at its core lies the most ineffable divine mystery ever revealed to mankind.
The extraordinary thing about Mother Teresa is that she seems to have internalized this teaching as perfectly as it is possible for a human being to do. The hunger and thirst of those she ministered to so selflessly were as nothing compared to the hunger and thirst she bore in every fiber of her being for the love of Christ. She filled herself with that love until it poured over into everything she did. That was the secret of her power over herself and over everyone she came in contact with. In her habituated self-forgetfulness she showed us how great a human soul can become. Truly, it magnified the Lord. We admire her because of her boundless self-sacrifice and good works, yes, but we stand in awe because her love transported her out of this world even while she lived in it.
The perfection of Mother Teresa’s understanding and her application of it to everyday life seem beyond the reach of mere mortals. But we know in some part of our souls that she had it exactly right, and that even as most of us are not fitted for her kind of sainthood, in one form or another the imitatio Christi remains the true path to human happiness. Which is why, long after the last strains of Elton John’s treacly tribute to Princess Diana fade from memory, we’ll grasp Mother Teresa to our hearts and pray to her for strength and inspiration.