COMMENTARY: Resurrecting the legacy of Mother Teresa

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c. 1998 MSNBC

(Joan Connell is editor of the Opinions section of MSNBC on the Internet.)

UNDATED _ The mounds of ready-made, cellophane-wrapped bouquets that have come to symbolize popular sentiment over the death of Princess Diana are piling up again to mark the first anniversary of her death. But in war-torn Kosovo, a rough mound of earth heaped upon the fresh graves of three aid workers from the Mother Teresa relief organization is a stark reminder that one year ago Saturday (Sept. 5) another important woman passed from the scene.

Just when it seemed that the memory of Mother Teresa would be buried in an avalanche of emotionalism over a beautiful and assuredly tragic princess, the reported deaths of workers from a humanitarian organization bearing her name have resurrected the legacy of Mother Teresa, whose faith had the power to transform the world.

She was tiny, but formidable; plain, but lit by an inner fire. She was frail, but she was no candle in the wind.

Accounts of the deaths of the Mother Teresa aid workers remain sketchy, beyond a grim news photograph of mourners encircling the makeshift grave of three nameless, altruistic people who died when Serb police fired on a convoy of tractors hauling supplies sent by Doctors of the World to stranded refugees from the fighting in Kosovo.

We don’t know their names or occupations. We don’t know if they were male or female. We don’t know their religion.

What is known is that they were not members of the Missionaries of Charity, the order of sari-clad nuns Mother Teresa established in India more than 50 years ago to serve the sick, the dying and the poorest of the poor. Most likely, they were ordinary men and women, ethnic Albanians, who were inspired by Mother Teresa’s extraordinary mystical vision: To see the face of God in its most distressing disguise.

The murdered workers were buried at night, according to news reports, for fear the Serbs, who have begun a full-scale harassment of aid workers attending to the estimated 300,000 refugees fleeing the Serbian military offensive in Kosovo, would target the mourners at their grave.

Lacking a gravestone, their resting place was marked by a white jug upended on a stick. In times of peace, such a vessel would be found in a kitchen, holding milk for a hungry child’s dinner. The use of this humble household object as a grave marker makes it seem a vessel full of tears, resonating with the sorrow and the pity of human brutality, and of the workers’ thwarted mission to comfort and protect the innocent caught in a war.

In fairness, during the last years of her brief life, Diana too devoted considerable energy to the poor, the sick and the victimized, lending her star power _ and heart-melting smile _ to a variety of charitable causes: AIDS, homelessness and the campaign to outlaw land mines.

Diana visited the outcast, hugged pariahs for the cameras and crafted a public image of compassion. The byproducts of that image are the charities established in her name that will surely continue to raise money and awareness to meet human needs.

But the contrast between Diana and Mother Teresa _ two women who, in their own ways, have become legends in our time _ contains lessons for our own confused lives and values. It is largely the difference between style and service.

Most of us live by good intentions and engage in whatever random acts of kindness we manage to perform. We feel sorrow for the innocent victims of war and poverty. But even as we write the checks to our chosen charities, we keep the receipt for the tax break and give silent thanks for our own good fortune.

It is only the most radical among us, though, who have the courage to really serve _ the Mother Teresas, not the Dianas; the tractor-drivers, not the check-writers; the ones willing to shed blood rather than only tears.

As the easy sentimentality over the death of a princess is again heaped as high in our consciousness as those ready-made, cellophane-wrapped bouquets, it would be useful to remember the legacy of Mother Teresa and those buried beneath that mound of earth in Kosovo _ and the empty vessel of true compassion that still stands waiting to be filled.


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