Mother Teresa on Faith in Action is Love from Brian Kolodiejchuk
All the passages below are taken from Brian Kolodiejchuk’s book “Mother Teresa—Where there is Love, There is God” published in 2010. This book is in some ways a sequel to “Mother Teresa—Come Be My Light,” published in 2007.
Our work, to be fruitful and to be all for God, and beautiful, has to be built on faith—faith in Christ who has said, “I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, and I was homeless and you did that to Me.” On these words of His all our work is based…. Faith to be true has to be a giving love. Love and faith go together. They complete each other.
With these words, Mother Teresa makes clear that her work for the poor was but the practical expression of her faith. In almost every talk she gave, she referred to Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew whereby Jesus declares that whatever is done or not done to the least of His brothers and sisters is or is not done to Him.1 This passage was the basis for her conviction that Jesus is present in the poor; with absolute faith in His words, she regarded her apostolate as a service done to Jesus Himself. Her faith in His presence in the “least of His brethren”2 was so real that every encounter with the poor meant a mystical encounter with Jesus Himself: “We are contemplatives in action right in the heart of the world, seeing and loving and serving Jesus twenty-four hours in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.”
Mother Teresa’s faith in the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist was based on Jesus’ words in the gospel: “This is my Body … This is my Blood.”3To “see” Jesus in the Eucharist and in the poor requires a humble faith: “Externally you see just bread, but it is Jesus. Externally you see just the poor person, but it is Jesus. Difficult to explain, it’s a mystery of love. It is one of those things the human mind cannot reach but we have to bend [and accept].”
When asked where she found the energy to accomplish her extensive and demanding activities, Mother Teresa would regularly point to the tabernacle. It was from the Eucharist that she drew strength for her work among the poor. Her day revolved around the celebration of the Mass in the morning and the hour of Eucharistic adoration in the afternoon. Nourished by the Eucharist, she went out to seek and serve Him in the poor, giving expression to her love: “Jesus made Himself Bread of Life to satisfy our hunger for love for God and then He made Himself the hungry one so that we can satisfy His hunger for our love. So the Eucharist and the poor-we are fed by Him and then we feed Him in the poor.”
“The Eucharist commits us to the poor. To receive in truth the Body and the Blood of Christ given up for us, we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren.”4 This exhortation given by the Church was particularly evident in Mother Teresa’s life. She often referred to Jesus’ identification with the poor and connected it with His presence in the Eucharist. “Never separate Jesus in the Eucharist and Jesus in the poor.” Jesus is present, truly and substantially, in the Eucharist under the appearance of bread and wine and He is present in the “distressing disguise” of the poorest of the poor. These two forms of presence, both “disguises,” gave her the opportunity to put her faith and love into action and she often encouraged her sisters to “keep the joy of loving Jesus in the poor and in the Eucharist and share this joy with all you meet.”
Though the manner is not the same, her faith in the reality of Jesus’ presence in both the Eucharist and His presence in the poor was so vivid, that when exhorting her sisters to greater love and dedication in the service of the poor she used the same expressions as she did when exhorting priests to celebrate Mass:
The other day I was talking to a group of priests and I said to them, “How clean your mouth must be to be able to say, `This is my Body.’ How clean your hands must be to touch the bread that will become the Body of Christ.” How clean your hands must be to touch the Bread-and how clean my hand must be to touch the broken body of Christ.
And to her sisters she said:
At Nirmal Hriday—the living tabernacle of the suffering Christ—how clean your hands must be to touch the broken bodies—how clean your tongue must be to speak the words of comfort, faith and love, since for many of them, it is the first contact with love, and it may be their last. How much you must be alive to His presence, if you really believe what Jesus had said: “You did it to Me.”5
“Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor,” an expression Mother Teresa coined, not only reveals her firm belief in Jesus’ presence, but also her convictions about that presence. First, Jesus’ presence in the poor was not obvious. He was there, but in disguise: it required the eyes of faith to recognize Him. Second, it was distressing to her; it caused her pain to see Jesus’ continued passion in the poor and the suffering person before her. This pain impelled her to do all she could to lessen the suffering she beheld. Always practical, Mother Teresa translated her distress into “living action” by loving and serving the poor; it was a means of showing her genuine love for them and of expressing concretely her heart’s desire to relieve the suffering of Jesus.
Our Lady was the first “carrier” of God’s love to the world, for on receiving the Word of God, Jesus, she went in haste to bring Him to others. It was to her that Mother Teresa turned, entreating her help to fulfill her own call to bring the light of God’s love to the poorest of the poor. The prayer she composed well expresses her sentiments: “Mary, my dearest Mother, give me your heart so beautiful, so pure, so immaculate, your heart so full of love and humility, that I may be able to receive Jesus in the Bread of Life, love Him as you loved Him and serve Him in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.”
There is an inseparable connection between her work for the poor and her call to satiate Jesus’ thirst: By the faithful living of her consecrated life of service to the poor, she was satiating His thirst and thus fulfilling the aim of her congregation. The words, “I thirst,” sum up Mother Teresa’s call, while the words, “I satiate,” sum up her wholehearted response. “You did it to Me” became, as it were, the watchword for all her activity, a constant reminder of the reality of Jesus’ presence in the poor.
Directing her love to the most vulnerable members
of society, Mother Teresa saw in each one a child of God capable of receiving and giving love. By meeting the needs of the poor, and even more by giving them the opportunity to receive and to give love, she restored to them their innate human dignity. Furthermore, she freely chose to identify with the poor, living a lifestyle that would resemble theirs as closely as possible. By embracing voluntary poverty in union with the poor, she was able “to go down [to their level] and lift them up.”
“Our people are great people,” Mother Teresa often said, speaking of those she claimed as “our poor.” “They are such wonderful people … You will gain much to know them; they will give you much more than you give them. I can say that I have received much more from the poor than I have given to the poor.” They were her “heroes,” whose goodness she set as an example for others to imitate. She was particularly touched at how they were able to show joy in spite of their suffering, at how generous and concerned they were for others in the midst of their own want, or how they forgave and refused to be bitter or resentful even in the face of deep hurt. “This is the greatness of people who are spiritually rich even when they are materially poor.”
Although the term “poor” is usually taken to refer to those lacking material resources, Mother Teresa had a broader understanding of the word. The “people who have forgotten what is love, what is human love because they have no one to love them,” were also the poorest of the poor. However difficult and burdensome material poverty may be, the poverty of being “unloved, unwanted, uncared for” was more painful. Mother Teresa found this kind of poverty everywhere, in affluent countries as well as in developing countries, and realized that it was much more difficult to remedy than material want.
With the firm conviction that each person she met was unique and precious and that in each she was meeting and loving Jesus, Mother Teresa gave her undivided attention and love to the individual before her, “one-one,” as she liked to say. Even in the midst of a crowd, she would spot and reach out to the individual most in need. This “purity of vision” and single-mindedness were the fruit of both grace and her own effort.
Mother Teresa readily recognized and encouraged
the good in others. Her openness, warmth, respect, and lack of prejudice made each person feel accepted in their uniqueness. She allowed the time and opportunity needed for growth, thereby exemplifying that patience which St. Paul lists as one of the qualities of love.6 It was this love that helped her to tolerate others’ weaknesses and limitations, however challenging they could be for her strong character.
Aiming at bringing out the best in each person, Mother Teresa could be firm and demanding. Not a “people pleaser,” she was uncompromising in her ideals and convictions, opposing with undaunted courage all that was harmful or destructive to the individual or to society, even if this caused displeasure in some. Yet she was not inflexible, and remained consistently understanding and merciful when meeting the weaknesses of others.
“Love to be true must hurt,” Mother Teresa’s oft repeated maxim, indicated her realization that there was a price to be paid in placing the loved one and his or her concerns before oneself. That price is often a death to self-love and self-interest and this is what hurts. The more one is willing to suffer for the other’s sake, the greater is one’s love. Jesus, perfect model of self-giving love, “loved to the end,” willingly taking upon Himself all our sufferings; each one of us can say with St. Paul, “He loved me and He died for me.” As His followers, we are in turn called to “love until it hurts” in imitation of Him.
Mother Teresa’s own life was filled with opportunities to love until it hurts, perhaps the most obvious being her painful interior trial. The thick wall of darkness, obscuring the one she loved more than life itself, could be pierced only by a radical and pure faith. The more she wanted God, the further He seemed to be. Her longing for Him sharpened all the more the loneliness that His apparent absence left in her soul. She truly loved God until it hurt, seeking Him continually in spite of the pain she felt.
In her love for the poor, she wanted to be one with them, willing even to suffer in their place. In a mystical but very real way her desire was fulfilled: “The physical situation of my poor left in the streets unwanted, unloved, unclaimed—are the true picture of my own spiritual life, of my love for Jesus, and yet this terrible pain has never made me desire to have it different.” Embracing this agony was a heroic way of loving the poor until it truly hurt.
Though the acceptance of her inner darkness may have been the most painful and remarkable proof of her love for God and the poor, it was not the most recognized one during her lifetime. Instead, her loving service to the most abandoned and the most neglected of human society had placed her in the limelight for almost half a century.
“Love in action is service,” Mother Teresa claimed. Service presupposed a willingness to give of oneself, of one’s time, effort, and material means. It expressed the love of the giver and met a need of the receiver. It was the normal way of letting the other know that he or she is loved, wanted, and cared for.
Mother Teresa responded generously to God’s call to be “His light” and to carry His love to the “dark holes” of the poor. A Missionary of Charity in name and in fact, she carried out her mission to those most in need as one identified with them, both interiorly and exteriorly. She was “translating” into concrete language the mystical call to be a carrier of God’s love, an extension of God’s “hand” and “heart” in the world today. In her ministry she wanted to remain “right on the ground,” relying on the power of God while using the simplest means to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor. Yet, through her humble service, she was making love a reality in their lives.
Radiating love, joy, hope, peace, and enthusiasm, and with her habitual concern for the individual sufferer, she would make one feel loved and special even in one short meeting. The reason for this extraordinary effect on people was not because of any special qualities or talents she had. Rather, it was to be found in the radiance of her personal holiness, of the power and attraction of a soul totally given to God. She was so united with God, that through contact with her, people felt that God was listening to them, helping them, caring for them, loving them. The prayer, “Radiating Christ,” which she prayed daily with her sisters after Mass, had become a reality in her own life. She asked in this prayer: “Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus,” and, indeed, it was Jesus and the light of His love that she radiated to others.
Mother Teresa reached an eminent degree of holiness through her unwavering “yes” to God and His loving will, despite the hardships it involved. Thus she would often remind her listeners of a simple albeit demanding truth: “True holiness consists in doing God’s holy will with a smile.” God calls everyone, with no exceptions, to strive for the perfection of love-for holiness-in accordance with his or her state of life. Echoing the teaching of the Church, she insisted that by faithfully living one’s vocation as a lay or consecrated person or as a priest, one could become holy. This is not an option but a duty placed on us by God, for besides the benefit that results for oneself, a person’s holiness contributes to the good of the Christian community and society as a whole.
With her own sisters, Mother Teresa was particularly firm about the obligation to strive after holiness: “With you, my Sisters, I will not be satisfied by being just good religious. I want to be able to offer God a perfect sacrifice. Only holiness perfects the gift.” Mother Teresa considered holiness, reached through the faithful living of the religious vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor the very reason for their existence.
Why profess vows? Is love not sufficient? In Mother Teresa’s mind, binding oneself with a vow was an expression of love. A vow ensures that we remain faithful to our commitment, despite fluctuating feelings that may make our initial fervor wane. Further, religious vows are a way “to love until it hurts,” as Mother Teresa would say. Our fallen human nature tends to seek inordinate pleasures (lust), superfluous possessions (greed), and power and control (self-will and pride) tendencies opposed to the complete gift of self in love. We convince ourselves or let others convince us that these are real and legitimate needs, but in reality they impede our ability to love, to give, to share. The traditional remedies for these ills7 as found in the gospels are the three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience. For those called to it by Christ, the profession of vows in the consecrated life is intended to guide a person to follow Christ more closely and to give themselves to God, loving Him above all. It is “one way of experiencing a `more intimate’ consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God.”8
“Jesus offers us His lifelong, faithful, personal friendship. To make that friendship complete, He espouses us to Himself in tenderness and love. And then to complete even this, He gives us the Eucharist.” With these words Mother Teresa summarized the essence of the vow of chastity, upon which the other three vows are built. This vow sealed her exclusive and unique relationship with Jesus, her complete belonging to Him in spousal love. It was not just a renunciation of marriage; it was a way of living her intimate relationship with Jesus and expressing the fundamental need of the human heart to love and be loved. Chastity must be rooted in love and manifested in the love freely given to all God’s children. “Freedom of the heart, undivided love, no one—nothing, but only Jesus. We cleave to Jesus—I can love all people, but the ONE I love is Jesus.”
The fruit of Mother Teresa’s fidelity to her vow of chastity was spiritual motherhood. Being attuned to the needs and sufferings of the poor, she responded to her own call to spiritually nurture all those whom God in His providence had entrusted to her care. As a true mother, she was there to love, care, exhort, praise, encourage, support, and guide, but also to correct or reprimand, and at times to simply suffer in silence with or even because of her children. These qualities of motherhood, abundantly found in her, were highlighted by the late Holy Father, John Paul II:
It seems that we still see her travelling the world in search of the poorest of the poor, ever ready to open new areas of charity, welcoming to everyone like a true mother. … It is not unusual to call a religious “mother.” But this name had special intensity for Mother Teresa. A mother is recognized by her ability to give herself. Seeing Mother Teresa’s manner, attitudes, way of being, helps us understand what it meant to her, beyond the purely physical dimension, to be a mother; it helped her to go to the spiritual root of motherhood.
“Poverty is love before it is renunciation,” Mother Teresa often stated, revealing the reason behind the radically poor lifestyle she chose. This poor and simple lifestyle encouraged sobriety in the use of created things so as to remain focused on more important and lasting goods. She advocated detachment and freedom in the use of things, insisting that “the less we have the more we can give.”
The life of privation that Mother Teresa lived—the “poverty of the Cross”—and the constant contact with the hard reality of the destitution of the poor she served increased her love and compassion for them. She was adverse to superfluities, which she saw as a hindrance to the spiritual life and to charity for others. Burdened with riches and luxuries, the human heart tends to close itself to the reality of suffering and become blind to others’ needs. When she knew that the poor did not have, how could she justify waste or keep a surplus? She did not hoard things for fear of want, but shared what she had with complete trust that God would provide what was needed when it was needed.
As the vow of chastity was the expression of Mother Teresa’s “undivided love” for Christ, so the vow of obedience was the means to put that “love in action” through the submission of her will to God’s will manifested through her superiors. “Submission for someone who is in love is more than a duty—it is blessedness,” was Mother Teresa’s summary of religious obedience. She obeyed simply, constantly, cheerfully, promptly, using the gifts of nature and grace to execute commands intelligently and responsibly out of love for her Divine Spouse. Her manner of obeying shows great humility, wisdom, and maturity. Mother Teresa trusted that those in positions of authority, despite their shortcomings, were invested with God’s power to exercise the authority entrusted to them. She believed that through prayer, discernment, and dialogue with her superiors, God’s will would always become manifest.
Besides obeying God’s will as expressed through her superiors, Mother Teresa submitted to whatever she perceived to be a manifestation of His will through people, events, or circumstances. This desire for absolute oneness with God’s will called her to remain constantly lifted up with Christ on the Cross, accepting all that He asked of her “with total surrender, loving trust and a big smile,” as a chance for showing greater love. Here again, Christ was her model: “For Jesus also—who had come to do the will of His Father found obedience—surrender—acceptance of the will of His Father so difficult, that He perspired blood in Gethsemane.—That is why He prayed the longer to be able to obey the will of His Father. …” In imitation of Him, Mother Teresa was ready to embrace the “obedience of the Cross.”
In response to the call of Christ to dedicate her life to the poor, Mother Teresa professed a special vow of “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor” and made it a requirement for her religious family. By this vow Mother Teresa and the members of her religious community bound themselves to be constantly at the disposal of the poor, laboring wholeheartedly for their “salvation and sanctification” without counting the cost. The vow demanded giving to the poor not only hands to serve but also hearts to love, without seeking any reward or even gratitude, freely giving what has been freely received. Expressing her love and compassion in such manner, Mother Teresa likewise wanted to make reparation for the sins of hatred, coldness, and lack of concern and love for the poor in the world today.
Wholeheartedness was a distinctive feature of Mother Teresa’s personality, the hallmark of her words and deeds. Full attention, single-minded dedication, and joyful eagerness in accomplishing even the simplest task were the qualities of her service to the poor. Opposed to wholeheartedness is carelessness, or “slapdash work,” as she called it, accomplishing one’s task without interest, attention, and/or love. In her opinion, anything worth doing was to be done with love, and if it was not done with love it was not worth doing at all.
Mother Teresa had a very special love and respect for priestly vocations. She saw each priest as an alter Christus, “another Christ,” “a man who holds the place of God,” to use the words of St. John Mary Vianney. Called to be an instrument of God’s love and mercy, every priest plays an important role in the formation of the People of God, helping them develop a loving relationship with Him. Only by living in close intimacy with the Lord would a priest be able to live a life of complete self-abnegation and dedication to God and His Church. Mother Teresa insisted on the need of personal holiness in the life of each priest. She appreciated their efforts and the example of their devout, zealous, and self-sacrificing lives, often spent in silent service of God’s people. At the same time, aware of the high demands of the priestly vocation and the fragility of human nature, she helped and supported them in hardship and difficulty, always ready with a word of encouragement and appreciation.
Lay people, as noted previously, are not exempt from the obligation to strive for holiness either. “Love begins at home,” Mother Teresa was fond of repeating. A cradle of love, the home is also to be a cradle of holiness. The lay faithful are to fulfill the mission entrusted to them by God so “that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world.”9 Precisely for this reason, Mother Teresa held that holiness is a simple duty for everyone, regardless of their state of life or profession. [141-155]
1. Cf. Mt.25:40
2. Cf. Mt.25:40
3. Mt 26:26-28 and its parallel passages; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:24-25
4. CCC 1397
5. “You did it to Me” was for Mother Teresa the gospel on five fingers.
6. Cf. 1 Cor.13:4-7
7. These are called “concupiscences” in spiritual literature.
8. CCC 916.
9. Lumen Gentium, 31