By Steve Beard, 1997
Even weeks after the fact, people are still talking about it. After all, within five days the world lost its two most beloved women. Mother Teresa died at age 87 of a heart ailment. Princess Diana died in a car crash in Paris. She was 36.
The comparisons were inevitable. Of course, they could not have appeared more different in appearance or lifestyle. Princess Diana lived in a London palace and was a jet-setter among the richest of the rich. Mother Teresa’s vow of poverty took her to the poorest of the poor in a Calcutta slum. Nevertheless, the two shared a common care for the less fortunate, although they used drastically different approaches.
As perhaps the most photographed woman in the history of the world, Princess Diana successfully used her dynamic charm and beauty to campaign for righteous causes such as extending compassion to AIDS patients, banning land mines, and comforting the poor.
“The Princess was a good friend of the mission,” said the Rev. David Cruise, Methodist superintendent minister of the West London Mission, whose outreach includes work with the homeless, alcoholics, and other people in need. “She took a personal interest in its work…. We thank God for all that she gave of herself to others and especially to those generally shunned by society.” The princess visited the mission on four separate occasions.
Mother Teresa was equally diminutive as she was forceful when she provoked the world to think about the plight of the orphan, the leper, the blind, the disabled, and the sick on the street. Accepting the Nobel Prize in 1979 in the name of the “unwanted, unloved, and uncared for,” she wore the same $1 white sari that she had adopted to identify herself with the poor when she founded her order.
In her speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, Mother Teresa turned and looked at President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and said, “Please don’t kill the child. I want the child. Please give me the child. I am willing to accept any child who would be aborted and to give that child to a married couple who will love the child and be loved by the child.”
She was never reluctant to speak truthfully to the powerful.
“She served every human life by promoting it ever with dignity and respect,” said Pope John Paul of Mother Teresa, imploring for her, “the reward that awaits every faithful servant” of God and expressing the hope that her “luminous example of charity” would inspire humanity.
Interestingly enough, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa were very fond of one another. Diana is known to have turned to Mother Teresa for spiritual advice. She also described meeting the nun as her “dearest wish” and the princess was a patron on Teresa’s charity, the Leprosy Mission. Mother Teresa referred to Diana as “like a daughter to me.” Mother Teresa said she and Diana had talked about loving God and how God wants people to love the poor. “She helped me help the poor and that’s the most beautiful thing,” Mother Teresa said of the princess. Not a bad eulogy.
It is at times like these that the people around the globe are jarred into thinking about their individual mortality, and perhaps the prospects of heaven. While Mother Teresa died at a wonderfully fulfilling age of 87, Princess Diana’s sudden death simply caught the world off-guard. After all, she died in something as common and yet as violently unexpected as an automobile accident.
Death at her young age destroyed the myth that we can postpone our inquiry into the reality of eternal life until a later date. The hereafter, we were reminded, knocks every moment as we walk on the earth.
“Death is only inches away from each one of us,” said Anglican Archbishop George Carey. “Perhaps [Diana’s death] will help us all to focus on really important things in life: human life and relationships, and faith in God.”
In Princess Diana’s tragic life we also saw that beauty, wealth, and world-wide fame did not bring happiness. The young princess seemingly had it all, yet joy in life was elusive. She was riddled with insecurity, had a failed marriage, attempted suicide numerous times, and had several bouts with eating disorders. Atop of all that, every mistake, misstatement, and moral failure was broadcast across the globe.
Despite her very difficult life, Diana did what she could for those less fortunate. For that we should be grateful.
There are those who bemoan that Princess Diana did not do enough to warrant all of the tears and attention. These sentiments are usually expressed by those who rarely if ever lift a finger to help the weak, the poor, or the vulnerable. It is also a fool’s errand to compare the works of Mother Teresa to those of Princess Diana, as if there was a competition to be won when it comes to compassion.
The fact that Mother Teresa was a moral giant who was tireless in her good works does not lessen what Princess Diana attempted to do for those less fortunate. Who of us would be able to stack our deeds of mercy next to those of a Mother Teresa?
Billy Graham called Diana an example of concern for the poor, the oppressed, the hurting, and the sick. “She easily could have chosen to withdraw from public life, but she made this world a better place by her smile of encouragement and her support for dozens of worthy causes,” Graham said. “No person was too lowly or too handicapped for her attention.”
Mother Teresa’s life-long witness shamed even the most sensitive into doing more for the poorest of the poor. While the vast majority of us will not move to Calcutta to wash the sores of the dying, perhaps we will be more sensitized to the needs all around us, some certainly as pressing in their own way.
Mother Teresa made no bones about the fact that she did what she did because she saw Jesus in the eyes of the poor, and the leper, and the abandoned. Her motivation was not merely out of a humanistic altruism. It was strictly motivated from the fact that she could not overlook the words of Jesus to do to the “least of these” as you would do unto him.
“In a world of doubts and ambiguities and cynicism, she was blessed with certainties, and the certainties that guided her life and her self-sacrifice are ancient, they are noble,” said Rep. Henry Hyde of Mother Teresa. “She believed we are not lost in the stars…. On the edge of a new century and a new millennium, the world does not lack for icons of evil –Auschwitz, the gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, Bosnia, the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. What the world desperately needs are icons of goodness.”
Within five days, the world lost two women who loved goodness and kindness. That is no small loss.
Within their unique and different spheres of influence, both women provided God-given compassion and mercy for those with AIDS and leprosy and provided love and shelter for the homeless and the orphan. There are potent mercy ministries currently modeled by women such as Jackie Pullinger-To in Hong Kong and Maggie Goban in Cairo, Egypt – both of whom are committed to the poorest of the poor in their respective communities. Thank God for the nameless and faceless thousands of men and women involved in homeless shelters, rescue missions, and various other ministries of mercy around the globe. May their lives prompt us to extend that same care and concern for those in our neighborhoods and communities who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Steve Beard is the curator of Thunderstruck.