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Not let off the hook
CHURCH AND STATE have blended in an unprecedented way, linked by the deaths of two women: deaths which leave many challenges for the living. Mother Teresa, who owned but "two saris and a bucket to wash in" is accorded a state funeral tomorrow in India; Princess Diana, possessor of one of the world's most envied collection of designer clothes, received a "people's funeral".
The reputation for goodness of both of these extraordinary women rests on their ability to show simple human compassion to other human beings in need. Neither would consider their influence to be effective if the rest of us set them apart as somehow different from us, with powers and gifts inaccessible to us. That would distance them safely, and protect us from the need to emulate them. Neither poverty nor riches can excuse us from following their lead.
Neither woman was faultless, nor easy to live with (note the high turnover of staff at Kensington Palace) — which should help to prevent their idolisation, a dangerous process stoked up by a manipulative press for its own ends. The worship of idols provides gratification, but does not inspire followers to create a more compassionate society.
Mother Teresa, surely a saint by popular acclaim, even in the secular world, knew the limits of her influence, to humanise the world rather than to change it politically, which task she left to others. It takes a tough person to face up to the human misery inflicted on people at the bottom of the social chain, to give hope where there is none: Mother Teresa was no dewey-eyed idealist. If the name of the city in which she began her mission is too closely associated with her, the rest of the world may feel it has been "let off the hook". It was not only in Calcutta, in India, where she found human misery and established communities to meet it, but in 130 other countires — including our own. Indeed, and this indictment is truly shocking, she claimed that our poverty is worse, because it is spiritual poverty. Here in the West "there are millions of people who suffer loneliness and emptiness, who feel unloved and unwanted. They are not the hungry in the physical sense; what is missing is a relationship with God and each other."
This may have been dismissed as pious nonsense by large sections of British society until the evidence of recent days leads to humbler conclusions. It is as if the timing of the two deaths underscores the message: don't just talk of love, but live it.