Sunday, August 31, 2014

Two Women for the Ages: Princess Diana & Mother Teresa, 17 Years in Heaven

 Princess Diana died 17 years ago today. Mother Teresa died six days later. I wrote this post seven years ago on the tenth anniversary of their deaths.

How oddly fitting that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, who had some connections in life, are connected to each other in death because they died six days apart in 1997. The coverage of Diana’s death made for a somewhat memorable Labor Day weekend that year, which then rolled right into the coverage of Mother Teresa.

And now, this week, we pause to remember that it has been ten years since Diana died in a car crash, just as we are absorbing the news of a book coming out that reveals the extraordinary idea that Mother Teresa basically lost her faith just at the moment she started the work with the poorest of the poor for which she is known.

Princess Diana, Escaping for Love
I happened to be awake 10 years ago when the first reports of Diana’s car accident broke into CNN. Shortly after, her death was announced, and it was shocking, in the way that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s death was—-young people with all the earthly gifts possible dying in sudden, violent ways makes one stop for a moment. You intellectually know that this very day can be your last, but incidents like this make that idea more tangible.

I haven’t read Tina Brown’s book nor any of the cottage industry of tell all rags on the princess, but I have kept up with her story over the years. We share a birth year, but while she was getting married in 1981, I was off crewing on a schooner and didn’t get to see the wedding. My feminist friends at college had given me a “Don’t Do It Di” button, which their English counterparts had made up following a headline in the feminist magazine Spare Rib. But I didn’t understand it back then. I didn’t know what they were talking about, why shouldn’t she marry her prince, an actual prince? I think theirs was a general invective against the patriarchal monarchy, but how eerily prophetic was their warning.

The draw of the Royals, for most people, is simply that it’s a family writ larger than in our own homes. The saddest part of their particular mess is the triangle of Charles and Camilla and Di. Having a husband/lover who is always thinking of another is a soul crushing, living hell. It’s a shattering experience, and whatever personal struggles and demons Diana had herself—-bipolar/borderline personality, bulimia-—the unrelenting presence of Camilla in her marriage doomed any spec of happiness she might have known.

And to make it worse, Diana was horribly subjected to the subtle and not so subtle power plays from everyone around her. For instance, Camilla supposedly is responsible for Di getting into that monstrosity of a wedding dress, under the guise of the old guard helping her. Parker-Bowles supposedly laughed and laughed with her friends at how successful she was in making the wedding of the century look buffoonish. (This sickening power play is at least a plausible explanation for that nightmare in taffeta.)

It also illuminates how utterly Diana’s mother was missing from the whole equation, and what a devastating absence it proved to be. Frances Althorp Shand Kydd was an enigmatic woman. She also married young, to an older man of stature, and found herself in an unhappy marriage. She had an affair with Peter Shand Rydd, and a year later divorced Diana’s father and married him. (He would leave her years later for a younger woman.) It seems that with this kind of split, where Lady Althorp's own mother testified against her in the custody hearing in favor of Lord Althorp getting custody of their children, she wasn’t very close to her daughter at all, and that’s very sad for both of them.

In the end, I admired Diana for playing the hand she was dealt. She developed her dazzling style and looks as a way to parry the blows to her self esteem from the Royal family. She refused to stay in a sham marriage, and believed that she could have actual love with the right man, if she could find him. She saw two little boys through their early childhood with much genuine love and caring. And in the larger historical dimension, she reinvigorated the monarchy for all time. It was a short life well lived.

Mother Teresa, Losing Her Faith
Mother Teresa died six days later on Sept. 5. She was 87 years old, and her death was neither sudden nor violent. At this ten-year mark we learn of the forthcoming book with letters in her own hand that speak to her loss of belief in God. Teresa had been an ordinary teaching nun of the Sisters of Loreto of Ireland for 15 years when she received a “call within the call” to leave her convent and work with the misery of the world’s poorest poor.

What follows is a life that has been lionized and pulled apart from every angle. Either her homes for the poor are badly run or they aren’t. There are questions of where all the donations to her Sisters of Charity go—so the accounting is questionable. There’s the question of her judgment, in aligning herself with the likes of Charles Keating. Nothing here is surprising. Human institutions and their leaders are always corrupt in some way.

But her internal loss of faith is startling. For fifty years she struggled to regain her faith in Christ: “for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started 'the work.'"

Even the Eucharist had no meaning for her, which pretty much caps it: “I just have the joy of having nothing — not even the reality of the Presence of God [in the Eucharist]."

For the cynics team, this means she lead a life of complete hypocrisy. That she “knew” there was no God, and she didn’t have the courage to admit it. Of course she has no more actual knowledge on the subject than any of us.

Just as Princess Diana was subjected to much armchair psychology, there are theories in the Time piece that Mother Teresa needed to sabotage her own success. Maybe. Maybe she wanted to leave her institution just as much as Diana wanted to leave hers, but didn’t have the strength or ability to make it happen.


I find much to learn from both of these larger-than-life women, and it all comes back to love. As a late teenager Diana thought she had found it in Charles, and she paid for her misperception for the rest of her life, and one could argue, with her life. Mother Teresa once felt a presence of Christ’s love so strong that it negated the need for the love of an earthly kind. She was surprised and saddened when she later felt that His love had abandoned her, and she faced fifty years in a depressed darkness where she simply continued on as best she could. Such is the reality of many lives.

The two women admired one another, and I read somewhere that Diana is buried with a rosary that was a gift from Mother Teresa. Considering what an RC custom that is, it seems a little unlikely, but it’s a lovely thought.

Here’s the stirring hymn from Diana’s funeral, I Vow to Thee My Country.

7 comments:

Tim Footman said...

Very interesting. I really ought to be bored with the whole Diana thing, but the sheer weirdness of the story remains compelling. Was she really examined by doctors to determine her virginity before the wedding? (The reason Camilla and Charles weren't allowed to marry was because of a drunken shag in the 1960s - her, not him, of course.)

Incidentally, the rosary story isn't that unlikely. There were lots of rumours that Diana was going to jump ship when she was alive, and quite a few British aristocrats are so High Anglican that they might as well live in Rome.

M.A.Peel said...

Tim, I didn't know Diana was considering conversion. Her mother converted later in life on the Scottish island of Seil. I wonder how Mr. Blair's instruction is coming. It's quiet a time-honored tradition for your scepter'd isle, this attraction to Rome.

Tim Footman said...

Well, we never really took the whole Protestant project on board, the way the Germans and Scandinavians did. Anglicanism was a purely pragmatic development to enable Henry VIII to divorce his first wife, and the differences are more organisational (loyalty to the monarch rather than the Pope) than doctrinal.

But what do I know, being a kosher heathen an' all?

Anonymous said...

First you say fifteen years and then the next paragraph you say ten years; we know it is fifteen, right?

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Anon. I wrote this piece 5 years ago, when it was the 10 anniversary. I'm just re-running it now. But all the original references were current 5 years ago on the 10th.

Anonymous said...

My bad, I didnt realize you were reprinting a blog you did 5 years ago.

Unknown said...

Omg this is all half truths. She never lost her faith. Don't believe lies about mother teresa. People just make stuff up.