What does it mean to have abundant life?
In the summer of 1997, France mourned the death of Jeanne Calment. Why was her passing so remarkable?
Jeanne Calment was older than the Eiffel Tower. She was born in Arles in 1875, while work began on France’s most famous structure a dozen years later, in 1887.
Jeanne Calment was renowned as the oldest human being in the world—although some critics have suggested she wasn’t every one of the 122 years old she claimed to be. Even discounting her age by a full twenty per cent, however, she was still almost a century old. That’s a lot of life.
The same summer of 1997 saw the death of another famous European woman. Lady Diana Spencer, later Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her driver was fleeing the paparazzi who had stalked her for almost two decades, virtually since her engagement to her former husband, Prince Charles, as a teenager.
Diana was only 36 years old when she died. But after a fairly nondescript, if privileged, childhood and adolescence, she had blossomed into a global celebrity, renowned and beloved for her beauty, charm, and many charitable interests.
After her divorce from the heir apparent to the British throne, she largely withdrew from public life and charitable sponsorships, but maintained several key concerns while conducting at least two romances with wealthy men. She also lovingly raised her two sons, Princes William and Harry, now both darlings of the world press.
For many, many mourners, Lady Di was “the people’s princess” at the pinnacle of worldly achievement. Even for a thirty-six-year-old, that’s a lot of life.
Yet another European woman passed away that same summer. Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu had been born in Skopje, now the capital city of North Macedonia and at the time an important town in Yugoslavia.
You might not think you’ve ever heard of her, but you have. In 1950, by now a forty-year-old nun who had taken the name “Teresa,” she founded the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, a Roman Catholic service order that eventually enrolled close to 5000 sisters active among the poor in over 130 countries.
The congregation has managed homes for people who are dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy, and tuberculosis. It also has run soup kitchens, dispensaries, mobile clinics, children’s and family counselling programmes, orphanages, and schools.
As in most Catholic orders, members take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, but also profess a fourth vow, in one of Teresa’s most famous phrases: to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.”
Known as “Mother Teresa,” she received a number of honours, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. The Roman Catholic Church recognized her as a saint on 4 September 2016, and the anniversary of her death (5 September) is her feast day.
She never married, never had children or grandchildren, never a house or condo or cottage of her own. Critics, most notoriously Christopher Hitchens, excoriated her for speaking out against abortion. She also wrestled with God in private over many, many years, adopting a smile of welcome and compassion as her uniform while inwardly longing passionately for God, as her later published letters poignantly show.
Hers was not an easy, happy life—far from it. So although it was long—she lived 87 years—those were mostly hard, hard years.
That summer of 1997, the world lost three remarkable women: Jeanne, Diana, Teresa. Each lived a lot of life.
Who, would you say, had lived the most?