My husband was watching the memorial service to Princess Diana last night on CNN.
But, of course, the memorial service was more about the myth of Diana than her reality.
Diana the myth was the Cinderella who married a prince; the girl who worked as a nanny who found love. But then the myth changed, and she became the victim, a woman used by a cynical prince to birth his children, left loveless in a court of cold heartless in-laws, and who found the love of her life only to be snatched away by a terrible accident (or a cynical plot to end her life). The other myth is that of “noblesse oblige”, that of the beautiful compassionate princess who cared about poor people, embracing the HIV patient or carrying the poor undernourished black child.
The reality of Diana, with her temper tantrums, bulemia and lovers, is not part of that myth.
So a thousand years from now, will people still remember Diana? Yes and no. I suspect like Guenevir her story will (to use Tolkien’s metaphor) go into the stew of myth and come out different. But yes, the myth of Diana will still be remembered, even if perhaps her story and name change.
But there was another person who died the same weekend as Princess Diana: Mother Teresa.
And unlike Diana, whose rememberance is tearful and fluffy, the stories of Mother Teresa this week were shattering to those who prefer plaster saints and mythological princesses.
Time Magazine’s story revealed the depth of Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith. In Catholic spirituality, this temptation to unbelief is called the Dark Night of the Soul.
When one is new to God, he gives you cookies: you are high on spirituality, and find pleasure in prayer or meditation or cermonies etc. It is the honeymoon period, full of joy.
But then, just like marriage goes through times of trouble as it matures, so too spiritual life must grow up. And part of this is that God removes your crutches of emotional satisfaction and asks: Do you love ME or do you love my gifts?
And during that time of darkness, it is the will, not the emotions, that make the deicision to serve God. This idea might be new to the western media, but is a well known concept in not only Catholicism but in the mystic heritage of Orthodoxy, Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
And the news media, who prefer the myths of Mother Teresa: that of a pious plaster saint helping poor people and mindlessly parroting the mysgynist line of the Vatican , wasn’t sure what to do with a very human woman who had doubts and fears like the rest of us, but nevertheless did her duty and obeyed her calling the best she could.
Better the myth of Diana, the beautiful princess who smiled as she embraced children, than the reality of Mother Teresa, a wrinkled old lady cheerfully cleaning out latrines while suffering from doubt. Plaster saints don’t doubt (or clean latrines for that matter). Horrors: another scandal. A saint having doubts of faith…athiest calls her a hypocrite, psychologist explains her delusions...news at eleven…
Perhaps priest sociologist Andrew Greeley has the best insight into the reality of God and the failure of the press to prefer the myth to the much darker, more complicated reality of sainthood:
Catholics know that doubt and fear are part of the human condition, and absolute certainty is rarely if ever granted, and merits skepticism if it’s offered. St. Teresa of Avila experienced the Dark Night; Juan de la Cruz did, too, and wrote one of the greatest of poems in human literature about it……(Christ’s) Agony in the Garden was quite literally a Dark Night. So was his cry, ‘’Why have you forsaken me?'’….
I suspect that some Catholic source tried to explain these matters to the ABC reporter, but the reporter’s paradigm for all things Catholic is scandal and had been given that paradigm by his news editor, who already had the lead for the story in mind. How could the clip have begun with ‘’Catholic experts on sanctity said today that the revelation of the secret letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta were simply one more proof that she indeed was a saint and a very great saint at that.'’
And a thousand years from now, those struggling to answer the deeper questions of life will still find comfort in the suffering Teresa as an example to follow during their own dark nights of doubt and fear and despair.