Essays

Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day: Two Radical Women

Mother Teresa once invited Dorothy Day to speak to her novices on the occasion of Dorothy’s visit to Calcutta in 1970. Eileen Eagan, who was traveling with Dorothy, tells of the novices’ reaction to Dorothy:

“. . . I saw their eyes widen as she recounted the many times she had chosen to go to jail. They understood going to prison for truth and liberation, as Gandhi had done; now they were hearing it in a specifically Christian context, that of the Works of Mercy, of visiting the prisoner by entering prison. When Dorothy had finished, Mother Teresa took the black cross with the Corpus of Christ, as worn by the Missionaries of Charity on their saris, and pinned it on Dorothy’s left shoulder. I know of no other case in which Mother Teresa gave the crucifix of her congregation to a lay person.”

Eagan continues: “. . . It was clear to me that a like vision animated the two women. Mother Teresa served the dying of a scourged city, seeing each one ‘as Jesus in a distressing disguise.’ Dorothy Day stated that Jesus linked salvation to ‘how we act toward him in his disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.'”

When the world mourned the death of Mother Teresa, many of us in the Catholic Worker movement were reminded of how much of our charism we share with her and the Missionaries of Charity.

The two women shared many things in common-their work with the poor, their pacifism, their imitation of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (who was Mother Teresa’s namesake and the subject of a book by Dorothy). But most significantly, the ways in which they responded to the call of the Gospel inspired many of the rest of us to do the same. The worldwide movements that they left behind are testament to that.

“It is nothing extraordinary to be holy,” Mother Teresa said. “Holiness is not the luxury of the few. Holiness is a simple duty for you and for me. We have been created for that.”

It’s true, and yet we need to be convinced again and again that holiness is within reach of ordinary people like us. We think we aren’t strong enough to move mountains, until we see a small, ancient-looking nun doing just that. We think our sins are barriers to doing the Works of Mercy, until we hear of a Dorothy Day, who experienced a profound conversion as a young woman.

This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, to teach us that we do not need to be extraordinary people to be saint-like.

They taught us that we need to pray, because it is prayer that feeds the soul, strengthening it to do the work of building the kingdom of God. Dorothy knew that without prayer, her work was hollow. “[Dorothy] favored prayer and austerity, prayer and self-sacrifice, prayer and fasting, prayer and vigils, and prayer and marches,” Anne Klejment writes. Dorothy was often found at daily Mass, or kneeling alone in the chapel with a rosary, a Bible, a list of people to pray for.

The Missionaries of Charity, too, set aside hours every day for prayer, and weave prayer into the very fabric of their work. “We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus,” Mother Teresa said.

They taught us that prayer can work miracles. One of the most striking images associated with Mother Teresa was the silence and stillness that hung over Beirut during a 24-hour cease-fire brought about for the purpose of rescuing children trapped in a hospital on the front lines. She attributed the silence of the guns to the power of prayer.

They taught us we need to live simply. “We have very little, so we have nothing to be preoccupied with,” Mother Teresa told us. “The more you have, the more you are occupied, the less you give. But the less you have, the more free you are. Poverty for us is a freedom. It is not a mortification, a penance. It is joyful freedom. There is no television here, no this, no that. . . but we are perfectly happy.”

And Dorothy wrote: “The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”

They taught us to see Christ in each other. Mother Teresa was among the first to establish hospices for AIDS patients in the United States. During a meeting with doctors at the Centers for Disease Control, she was told that her sisters should wear latex gloves when caring for those with AIDS. She simply shook her head: “We cannot use gloves to care for the body of Christ.”

“I see God in every human being,” she said. “When I wash the leper’s wounds, I feel I am nursing the Lord himself. Is it not a beautiful experience?”

Their common belief that when they served the suffering, they served Christ, was based on Matthew 25:31-40: “When I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink…”

“Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts,” Dorothy wrote. “But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives.”

The greatest tribute we can pay Mother Teresa, as we honor her life, and Dorothy Day, as we recently celebrated her centenary, is to take all they taught us and put it into action. How do we begin this work of becoming saints? “Do what comes to hand,” Dorothy advises us. “Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might. After all, God is with us.”

We simply need to begin as Mother Teresa did. She began caring for the sick and dying when the need for that work presented itself in the form of one woman, “half eaten-up by rats and ants.” She did not establish a committee to study the problem of people dying in the streets, nor did she apply for government assistance; she simply gathered up the woman in her arms.”

I am like a little pencil in [God’s] hand,” Mother Teresa would say. “He does the thinking. He does the writing. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used.”

We simply need to begin, as Dorothy did, with a single prayer. The rest will follow: the hungry will come, and we will feed them; the homeless will show up at our door, and we will shelter them.

Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day may be gone, but the work of building the Kingdom of God still goes on, as Mother often reminded us: “The poor you may have right in your own family. Find them. Love them. Put your love for them in living action. For in loving them, you are loving God Himself.”


This essay was originally published in the October 1997 edition of the Winona Catholic Worker newsletter, and was subsequently republished in Godspy magazine.

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