Princess Diana and Mother Teresa:
The Fallacy of Outward Appearances
by Jesse Ancona
It is just a little over five years now (I write this in 2002) since Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died in the same week.
The world’s attention was riveted on Diana’s death, so much so that Mother Teresa died almost unnoticed. Her death was reported, but it came the day before Diana’s funeral, so did not get the press it otherwise would have gotten. I don’t think it was a coincidence that these two women, from opposite stations in life, both grown to prominent attention in the world, women who had met each other, and spoken to each other not long before their deaths, left this world within a few days of each other. Frankly, I think it was a mercy to Mother Teresa to die at this time, because I am sure she would not have wanted her death and funeral to become the kind of circus Diana’s became.
The lives and deaths of these two women are a kind of parable of our times that is, as Christ’s parables often were, "hard to understand."
But, like many parables, it seems deceptively easy.
At the time, all the adulation and attention was on Diana. She was young, attractive, fashionable, married to a prince, the mother of two young boys, and died tragically before her time: most of her natural life should have been ahead of her. Not to mention the soap-opera interest in her personal life.
She was also the opposite of the Fairy Tales one is read as a child. When the poor girl marries the prince, she is supposed to live happily ever after. She is not supposed to find out, the day before her wedding, that her bridegroom loves another woman he has been seeing for many years, even before that woman’s current marriage. She is not supposed to be trapped into a marriage where, regardless of how she looks or acts, or the children she bears him, her husband has no heart or attention for her. And, she is certainly not supposed to be shunned when she finally leaves him, stripped of her title, and harried by the press to her untimely death, leaving her young boys orphaned.
So, there is a tragic twist to the death of Diana we don’t see with Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa died after a full and productive life, having founded an order of nuns called the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India dedicated to serving the poor. Almost 50 years later, the Missionaries of Charity have grown from 12 sisters in India to over 3,000 in 517 missions throughout 100 countries worldwide1. Her death was not tragic, but the natural end to a long and successful life.
Diana’s death was unnecessary, stupid, tragic, and too soon.
Of course, it is easy to be angry that thousands would line the streets to mourn Diana, and the news agencies spent so much more time on her life and death than they did on that of Mother Teresa. But since this time, more and more people have come out publicly, decrying the public's favour of Diana over Mother Teresa, saying how shameful this difference is, considering their very different lives.
It is easy to say one is worthier than the other. And, when comparing Princess Diana with Mother Teresa, it is the easiest thing in the world to dismiss the former with little thought. In fact, one writer does it in a few sweeping words:
"The timing of Mother Teresa's death (in the midst of
worldwide grief over the death of Britain's Princess Diana) calls us to consider the difference between service to humanity rendered out of the need for self-assertion and what is done for others out of self-sacrifice [emphasis mine].
Whaid G. Rose2"
Certainly, it is easier to say that Mother Teresa spent her life helping the poor, and consistently made decisions that garnered almost no criticism, unlike Diana, and her sufferings were chosen and self-imposed, and not caused by forces beyond her control.
But to dismiss Diana as a person, moreover, to characterize even her noblest acts as mere plays for attention and "self-assertion," is an unnecessarily cruel judgment.
I was in church that Sabbath after the deaths of Diana and Mother Teresa, and not a word was spoken about either event from the pulpit; nor was it something I heard anyone bring up in conversation or fellowship. I remember being disturbed by this act of omission, feeling it to be one of disrespect and cruel dismissal of two people whose deaths at least deserved a respectful mention. But as Keith Hunt points out, in many Sabbath-keeping churches, perhaps the majority wear blinders, unable to see any virtue in those who do not share in certain doctrinal understandings of the Bible 3. I would add that, if some Christians deny the actual Christianity of others, how can they ever see virtue, where it exists, in common humanity?
Perhaps Mr. Rose felt his people needed to be told that the work of Mother Teresa was a fine thing that Christians should admire, and in his discernment, understood that, without his editorial, many would simply condemn her because of her church affiliation. In that, I think he was right. And perhaps he felt it necessary to mention the death of Diana, as it was so much in the news. And to encourage his membership, especially in North America, to see virtue in the life and work of Mother Teresa. This thought is expanded upon in Keith Hunt's article, Simple Christianity.
Perhaps Mr. Rose also wisely discerned that to find any virtue in the mixed-up jumble of Diana's life, with all her confused emotions, her much reported acts, both good and bad, would be too difficult for many to hear and understand. Certainly, for a short, pithy message, Mother Teresa's public life clearly exemplified the virtues he wished to emphasize, and I have nothing against his choice. I would simply have wished he did not feel the need to do so by vilifying Diana. It should not have been necessary to speak ill of her work and her motives in order to spotlight the value of Mother Teresa's life and work.
But let us look further at their lives. Teresa was born into a religious family, but decided on her own that her vocation was to be a nun. Even so, she did not do what was expected of her, and in her early years, often earned criticism from within her order.
While Diana was born into nobility, she was raised in a broken home, and was little known, working in a day-care centre, when the Prince of Wales decided it was time to get married. The quest was on; the hunt had begun. As head of the Church of England, Charles could only marry an Anglican girl of royal or noble blood, and she must be a virgin. Watchers of royalty and nobility noted that most of the known virgins were Catholic, and not an appropriate match. Many otherwise suitable girls were not virgins. So we know that she was a young woman who believed in chastity, and preserved herself for her future husband. There was nothing immoral about her life before Charles: she lived quietly, visited with her girlfriends, and worked with children.
It became evident that Diana was the best candidate. So, they were introduced, got to know each other, and Diana was swept off her feet. She was shy; Charles was older, was well-read, well-spoken, and a prince. She was smitten. Charles looked at Diana, and what did he see? A pretty young thing, a suitable mate, a proper mother to his children. Anything more? Not enough to break off his relationship with his long-time girlfriend. Beyond that, one can only speculate. The whole situation was a disaster waiting to happen.
When Diana found out, the day before the wedding, she should have called it off. Easy enough to say, but how many ordinary brides have the courage to break off their upcoming marriage the day before the wedding, regardless of what they find out about their fiancé? For Diana, the stakes were much higher. She was facing the cancellation of, not only the normally-elaborate wedding preparations, but those of a state ceremony. How could she do this, and not be hated by her entire country, shunned by her peers – and humiliate her family? It may have been the best decision to make, but how could she make it alone? And, if she had, how would history have judged her, and how would we have judged her?
She went ahead with the wedding, no doubt hoping against hope that marriage would turn Charles’ heart towards her, and she could win him fully for herself. She may have even thought that having his children would cement their marriage. She went ahead into the destiny that seemed predetermined and inescapable.
Unlike Diana, Teresa was more headstrong and stubborn, and once she had made up her mind, no one could change it. She was sent to India by her religious order, and was teaching the wealthy daughters of the British. The school was in a walled compound, so the girls would not be exposed to the poverty and sad sights all around them. Like another fairy tale, they were in a place like Sans Souci, where no sorrow could enter in. Teresa, like the young prince, wanted to know what was beyond the walls.
She saw people suffering, dying, and with no one to care for them. Her first act of mercy was to pick up a dying man from the gutter and take him to the apartment of a friend, where she nursed him until he died, a scant few hours later. Physically, there was little she could do for him; spiritually, she let him die comforted and loved. She had found her ministry.
Her religious order saw it differently: she was a very bad nun! The prime vow a nun takes is not chastity or poverty, it is obedience! She was punished for her presumption, and told to do what she was ordered. She obeyed, but continued, through every available means, to lobby to do the work she had to do. It eventually led to her starting her own new order of nuns, who helped her to care for the neglected and unloved.
And that was the difference between Mother Teresa and many aid societies. She said herself that her ministry was not about the physical aid, but about loving those in need. Mother Teresa said that in each leper, each dying person, she saw the face of Christ. She did not preach to them, or try to convert them, and when they were dying, she would often call for a leader of their religion, and shame them into coming and ministering the final rites for the dying person they themselves had abandoned.
This may be why, when so many Christian organizations were expelled from India, Mother Teresa’s order was not. The people loved her, and no politician would dare to touch her. She worked many years, barely known outside of India, but eventually her work became common knowledge.
Diana, after her marriage, also decided which way she would go. The people also loved her. She seemed to care for them; she showed them attention, and wasn’t aloof. She felt her position required her to look her best, and, going against the royal tradition of frumpiness, she dressed in a way that brought honour to her position, and won the attention of the world. Fashion, trivial as it may seem, was the first way she won the world’s attention. But she didn’t go with the established houses, she used her own taste. And she had excellent taste: her efforts helped many young British designers become noticed and established. And it was her first foray into asserting her own identity. Like Teresa was a "bad nun," Diana was a "bad princess," not simply following dead tradition, but using her own best judgment about how she should comport herself in the position she found herself in.
While the palace, particularly the Queen, fumed, little could be done. The people loved her.
What did Diana do next? It was expected that she would support some tasteful charities, like supporting theatre societies, or animal welfare, or other respectable causes well-loved by nobles and royals.
Instead, what did she do? She adopted AIDS as her first cause. When she went into the hospital and met the various AIDS patients, then held the hand of one of the sufferers, the photos went around the world. Suddenly, what doctors had tried to teach people for many years was understood in one picture: if Princess Diana could hold the hand of an AIDS patient, it was all right to touch these people, and help them.
This is not a small thing. Until this time, many people with AIDS could not even get some medical assistance, due to ignorance. I know a man with non-AIDS-related Kaposi’s Sarcoma who was always treated by ignorant health-care workers as though he had AIDS. They would wear gloves and masks, and often refuse to care for him. His wife always had to come to his defense. Those who did have AIDS had few to defend them.
Like Mother Teresa, Diana believed in caring for people, and I think people knew it, and that’s why they loved her.
The palace, however, was incensed. She was told not to repeat the incident. AIDS! A disease transmitted in such a vile way – this cause was not fit for a royal to touch. Diana ignored palace pressure. I don’t know what went on in her mind, but I believe she thought something like this: "Here I am, in this position where people take my picture, many people love me, and will watch what I do. What is the best way to use my position to help people?" And she decided to use her influence to sway people to mercy for a despised and needy group of sufferers. She never spoke about homosexuality or illegal drug use, or the causes of the disease, she just tried to help the sufferers, and make it acceptable for others to help them, too.
Another cause close to her heart, the banning of land mines, was even harder for the palace to take. To stand up for a socially embarrassing disease was one thing, but royalty were not to take political stands, or do anything that might infringe on the British government’s views or action (despite acceptance of Charles' no doubt well-meaning interference with British architecture, leading to its current, disastrous "heritage laws"), or stir up political action, let alone try to get legislation passed throughout the world.
But Diana knew that many children died or were mutilated every year from stepping on, or playing with, old land mines from previous wars. She wanted the use of mines stopped, and agreements signed promising this, and she wanted money to go into cleaning up the lands that have these horrible death-dealing implements waiting in the soil for the innocent.
This was the cause she was fighting for at her death. Lloyd Axeworthy, a Canadian minister of parliament, was on his way to Britain for the talks on landmines, and ended up attending Diana’s funeral.
Yes, Diana had many personal problems, most stemming from her marital difficulties, though she was constantly attacked by the palace, and Charles did not rise to her defense. Even people in lesser positions, like those in dealing with protocol, would neglect to advise her on certain matters, or undermine her or set her up in various situations to look bad. It must have been a living hell for a shy, sheltered young woman to suddenly find herself in the limelight, with no support from "The Firm" or her unloving husband. She no doubt blamed her inability to make him love her on her own perceived inadequacies. This is the background against which she bore and raised her children, went out in public, and devoted herself to causes.
I believe life with Charles, a headstrong and stubborn man who was also emotionally withdrawn, led to the gradual disintegration of her sense of herself. That his problems understanding, let alone displaying "natural affection" are severely impaired was demonstrated when he did not even go to the hospital when his own son was rushed there with a severe head injury. He perceived his duty to be elsewhere, and had to be told "it would look bad" if he did not go to his son's side. This may have been the result of his upbringing. He also was a shy boy, and not "manly enough" for his military father, who felt there was too much "petticoat influence" in the palace, so sent him off to several difficult private schools, in order to make a man of him.4
Charles did succeed in learning how to communicate with other boys, and later, men, and earn their respect. To overcome his painful shyness, he may have learned to simply repress his feelings, and operate based on clever imitation of what was expected of him. There is no indication that he ever learned how to relate well to women. Like most Princes of Wales, he had endless streams of short-term girlfriends spirited in and out of the palace. His only really healthy relationship with a woman seemed to be with Camilla, with whom he'd been friends for many years. I believe he has always loved her, and would have wanted to marry her, but she was not "an acceptable candidate" for the heir to the British throne to marry.
At that point, he had a choice. He could abdicate his position as prince, and heir to the throne, like his great-uncle, to marry the woman he loved. Perhaps, having seen the alienation from family and royal society his great-uncle had suffered, he did not wish to take that route. He knew he would have to marry some day, in order to produce future heirs. Whether he thought about his future bride or not, we don't know, but it appears that he was determined to keep Camilla in his life.
Apparently, their affair continued into and throughout her marriage with Parker-Bowles, as it continues to this day, after Diana's death and the breakup of Camilla's marrige. It seems that Charles and Camilla, had they been an ordinary couple, would have married, and could possibly have had as long and happy a marriage as they have had a friendship and love affair.
I have seen, first hand, what family wealth does to cripple children's chances of growing up with a strong and separate sense of self: they can never become fully independent. Money ties them to their parents well into adulthood, and affects their careers, their mates, their lifestyles and their friends. The consequences of going against their families is more than being disinherited, and giving up security for uncertainty, in involves a child's greatest fear: being abandoned. I cannot imagine what it must be like to grow up in a royal family, and what pressures shaped Charles' sense of self, and his choices.
Diana was not only ill-prepared to deal with Charles' problems, she was so busy with her children and the work that comes with royalty, that it was easier to simply cope the best she could. She threw herself into the things she could succeed at. But she paid a high price. She developed eating disorders, which she finally overcame, and, instead of hiding her shame, she selflessly spoke out about these problems, in the hopes her suffering could help others. Her emotional agony and loneliness also led, it appears, to unwise affairs with men. One of these affairs led to the press attention that ultimately caused her death.
Obviously, how she handled her sorrow was not always wise, and Mother Teresa, after meeting and speaking with Diana, on being asked for her opinion on the Princess, said, "She is a good mother." While Teresa was careful not to pass judgment on Diana for her indiscretions, at the time, it struck me as somewhat "damning with faint praise," considering Diana's other causes, including one they had in common, the relief of the suffering of AIDS patients.
Anyone with common sense, being asked to compare what they knew of Princess Diana with Mother Teresa, would say that Mother Teresa’s life was lived more wisely, and with better judgment. But each woman was born into her own time, her own place, her own station in life, and with her own personality. From childhood, Teresa was strong-willed. Diana, however, was always shy and withdrawn. For her to assert herself was probably much more difficult than it was for Teresa. And Teresa was never courted by a charming prince in her youth, so those temptations and potential problems never presented themselves to her.
The temptations and pressures of the entire world looking on are those most of us have never had to face: from the beginning of her courtship, throughout her marriage, Diana’s life was scrutinized by the world. Teresa grew up, and started her initial vocation to the monastic life, as well as her second, personal vocation among the sick and dying in India, in obscurity, and by the time the world noticed her, her mission and work were well-established, and her conflicts with her order, and with the Catholic hierarchy, were over and solved. She did not have to have those battles under the scrutiny of the tabloids.
Both women defied legitimate authority, but peacefully, and lawfully, in order to follow what they felt was the calling of their position, and both suffered for it, though differently, and with different outcomes. The Catholic Church finally supported Teresa’s cause, but Prince Charles persisted in turning his face against his wife, and would not defend her from the pressure and the retributions of the palace.
The longer and harder we look at the lives of these two women, the harder the parable becomes to read. What at first seemed simple becomes more and more complex.
I think what we are meant to walk away with is this: whatever position we find ourselves in, we are to make the best of that situation to do what we feel called to do, to help others, and to use our influence to do good. Ideally, we should grow in the knowledge of what is right, and practice making the right decisions, however painful the consequences. In this way, we can develop the character to live our lives without bringing disaster on ourselves and those around us. While many innocent people suffer disasters not of their making, they are at least better equipped to cope with them than people whose situations directly stem from their own bad choices. Few of us have had the strong will to fight as many battles as Mother Teresa did to accomplish her goals.
Diana allowed herself to be persuaded to do things not in her best interest, and took solace where there was no ultimate satisfaction. That she was shy was not the whole story: her passion for children and for suffering people galvanized her to risk the displeasure of the palace, but she was unable to bring this same strength to bear on every situation in her life, though she finally had the courage to leave her disastrous marriage. Most of us have made wrong decisions and had to live with them, but thankfully, not ones that would affect a nation, and be reported daily in the papers.
But I do believe that ordinary people can tell if you have a good heart or not, and if they love you, this is a high commendation 5. Whatever your faults or errors in judgment, if you can honestly win the love of the people, that speaks volumes, not that it is any guarantee: people can also be fickle or swayed.
Diana had no one to depend on. She was trying to live this impossible life without the only reliable help and source of strength: God. Even without God's help, she drew on her generally-decent upbringing, her natural love and compassion, and tried to do the right thing, and help others. But she did not have the resources to help or heal herself. She struggled, she did what she could, and she made many mistakes. We do not know how unbelievers will be judged, but Paul tells us they will be judged by the law that is written in their hearts: their conscience. There will be a Final Judgment for good reason: we are totally incapable of reading people's hearts, knowing their lives inside out -- even knowing them better than they do themselves -- and even if we did, we would not have the wisdom to weigh these things and arrive at a proper judgment of their lives.
For example, it is important to note, that not everyone agrees with the popular press's assessment of Mother Teresa's actions. According to Christopher Hitchens6, Mother Teresa's views against luxury extended even to her care of the poor and sick in run-down buildings, where people were diagnosed (and often misdiagnosed) there, and kept from real hospitals, though when she herself became ill, she went to hospital, and received the best medical care available, including a pacemaker. Ailing nuns of her Order, however, were simply told to pray harder to get well7. While I would hope it is not true, this kind of occurrance is very typical in cults, and is sadly familiar to any former cult member.
Hitchens also shows Mother Teresa going against her much-repeated statement that she would never get mixed up with or meddle with politics, while showing photos of her with Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and others -- including Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, scam artist John-Roger, and Charles Keating, convicted Savings & Loan embezzler.
She even wrote to the judge in the Keating case, (Judge Lance Ito, before his O.J. Simpson trial fame) pleading for the defendant, on the basis of his financial generosity to her Order. The book includes several documents, not only including this letter, but also a letter to her by Keating prosecutor Paul Turley, asking her to return the money, and follow the character of Christ, who would never have kept the fruits of a crime. The nun apparently never replied or responded to this request, and the money was never returned.
And, as the reviewer of Hitchen's book continues:
Hitchens also adds flesh to that oft-repeated anecdote about Teresa being unable to open a New York City home because of bureaucratic red tape. It turns out this is half true. The state did demand Mother T put in an elevator before moving people into the run-down building. But they also offered to pay the cost of putting one in. Teresa refused, unwilling to coddle the crippled with such a luxury.
Ultimately, though, Hitchens says his argument is not with Mother Teresa but with us, not with a deceiver but with the deceived. She has never pretended to be anything but a religious zealot on a strict doctrinal mission, he observes. It is we who overlook this8.
But we do know this much: in their public work, both Mother Teresa and Princess Diana stood out as symbols of love and compassion, publicly speaking out for those who were needy, powerless, and downtrodden. What what we know of their charitable work has inspired many people to take a greater interest in causes helping their fellow man, which is the standard of Judgment Christ uses in the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Beyond that, the complexities of who someone is, what their nature is, what their personality is, what is hard for them to do, and what is easy, what struggles they have had, or mistakes or sins they have made, what position in life they hold, what they do with their opportunities – even with celebrities, where we have the illusion of knowing everything, though I’m sure we don’t – only God knows the full, true picture of a person’s life, and their heart, and only God can judge.
©2002, Jesse Ancona. All rights reserved. For permission to copy or use any material on this page, please email Jesse Ancona at firstname.lastname@example.org. No permission is required for fair use, which includes short quotations in other work with citation. For information on citation of Internet sources using the Harvard System, see Library - BRIDGES: Harvard System - Electronic Material.
Mother Theresa [1910-1997] catholic information center on the internet memorial
reference library, at: http://www.catholic.net/RCC/people/mother/teresa/teresa.html, accessed May 5, 2002.
Rose, Whaid G., 1997. commentary, in Bible Advocate, Denver: Church of God (Seventh Day).
For further refutation of Sabbatarians' rationalizations of Mother Teresa's not being a "true Christian," see Keith Hunt's article on "Simple Christianity."
Heald, Tim and Mohs, Mayo, 1979. H.R.H.: The Man Who Will Be King, Berkley Pub Group; ISBN: 0425052060; Reissue edition (April 1981).
Generally speaking, a good heart endears people to you. The common people knew enough to love Christ, who was only despised by the elite, but Christ was wise enough not to trust himself to them, knowing their fickleness. In our own day, people base their responses on the information provided through the media, which can create an image that people love or despise.
Hutchins, Christopher. 1995, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, 98 pp., Verso.
Bilton, Kathy, 12 Dec 1995. Letter to the Editor, Morning Herald of Hagerstown, Maryland (emailed but unpublished), regarding Headline on p. A1 on Sunday, December 10, 1995. Published on the web at http://www.fred.net/kathy/heresy; accessed May 5, 2002.
Asher, Matt. March 1996, "White Girl's Burden", in Liberty. Found online at http://www.libertysoft.com/liberty/booknotes/booknotes52.html; accessed May 5, 2002.