Of all my Holy Women Icons, Mother Teresa joins Blessed Mary in being one of the most familiar, and often the one least cited for the cause of feminism. Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, Martha Graham, Pauli Murray, La Negrita, Tiamat/tehom, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist is this holy Catholic nun.
When I first began the Holy Women Icons project, she was an obvious woman who came to mind, but I resisted painting her for several years. Perhaps it’s because her story is so familiar. Maybe it’s because this pillar of humility and service embodies so many virtues that have been used to oppress women for centuries. I cannot quite articulate my resistance, but it was real.
So, when I was commissioned to make this holy woman an icon, I knew that it was incumbent upon me to remember Mother Teresa’s story. Born in August of 1910 as Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu to Albanian parents, the soon-to-be-sister would become the most prominent woman Catholic in the world, embodying the virtues of humility, servitude, and compassion. Upon taking her religious vows to become a nun, she chose to be named after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. Her service was to the poor and marginalized in India, her heart so devoted to Indians that she became a citizen in 1948.
Around the time Sister Teresa became Mother Teresa, she received permission from the Vatican to start the diocesan congregation that would later become the Missionaries of Charity, her order. The year was 1950 and she wanted an order, a congregation whose mission was to care for “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” Taking very seriously Jesus’ admonition to “care for the least among us,” the Missionaries of Charity began as a small order with only thirteen members in Calcutta. By the time she died in 1997, the order had grown to more than four thousand sisters serving in orphanages, AIDS hospices, and refugee centers that care for the blind, aged, disabled, poor, homeless, victims of natural disasters and famines, and individuals struggling with substance abuse. When Mother Teresa spoke of creating an order whose mission was to care for all those people who feel unwanted, she meant it. It was not only her prayer. It was her actions, her livelihood, her vocation, her calling.
Today the Missionaries of Charity has over 4,500 sisters and is present in over 100 countries. Members of the order must take vows of poverty, obedience, chastity, and “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” Because of these selflessly admirable works, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The awards committee stated that she was worthy of the prize “for work undertaken in the struggle to overcome poverty and distress, which also constitutes a threat to peace.” Never one for ostentation or glamour, she accepted the award, but only without the ceremonial banquet; she also asked that the nearly $200,000 prize be given to the poor in India. It is no surprise, then, that she has not only been canonized by my brushstrokes and dubbed a Holy Woman Icon, but she is also on her way to sainthood within the Catholic Church. In 2003 she was beatified “Blessed Teresa of Calcutta,” which is the third step toward becoming a saint.
While Mother Teresa is certainly respected for her charitable work and compassionate heart by a vast array of people from myriad traditions, her life is not without controversy. Many feminists have widely criticized her for her public campaigns against contraception, which coincides with Catholic social teaching. Others have claimed that the conditions in her hospices are not up to current standards. Though I do not agree with her stance on issues of contraception and sexuality, I cannot help but respect, admire, and honor the tremendously gracious, kind, and compassionate life she lived. Like many of my other Holy Women Icons, one does not have to affirm every element of a woman’s life to recognize her holiness.
Mother Teresa’s commitment to the least among us reminds us of the vital importance of intersectionality. Transnational feminists in particular claim that the fight for equality and liberation for women intersects with the fight for equality and liberation for persons of color, the poor, and other disenfranchised groups. In these ways, addressing and overturning sexism is just as important as addressing and overturning racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms” that oppress and marginalize. So, while her public stance against contraception may conflict with the overall cause of feminism, her laudatory work to help all humanity thrive certainly makes her an icon of compassionate kindness for all women.
It is remembered that Mother Teresa once said, “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus (“Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” Vatican News Services).” And it is to her heart that I turned when painting her.
Because her white sari with blue stripes is how we identify her, I wanted her to be dressed in this traditional garb. Like all nuns, the intention is for her heart and actions to shine more than her clothing. She stands small, but centered on the canvas, her arms outstretched, reaching down to the lowest in an embrace as her heart cries out to us:
Her compassionate heart
Poured out love, her hands
Serving the least among us.
She became God’s light
In the name of God’s love.
No matter how one feels about the Catholic Church or her views on contraception, your heart cannot help but expand when imagining the life Mother Teresa lived. It was a life dedicated to feeding those who are hungry, welcoming those who are excluded, holding those who have never been held, and providing love and care for those who have been rejected and excluded. If this is not the aim of feminism, I’m no longer interested in being a feminist. She was a holy woman, indeed.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today, Holy Women Icons, and Tearing Open the Heavens: Selected Sermons from Year B. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com