In all the places served by the Missionaries of Charity, the mission of Mother Teresa and her community is expressed through the practice of both the material and spiritual works of mercy. But once her work spread beyond India, Mother Teresa realized that spiritual poverty is much more of a challenge. To be “unwanted, uncared, forgotten, lonely — this is much greater poverty.” Material needs can always be met with material things, but “if we find a man terribly lonely, rejected, throw away of society, material help will not help him.” Rather, to remove that spiritual poverty, to “remove that loneliness, to remove that terrible hurt, needs prayer, needs sacrifice, needs tenderness and love.” And that, as we know, is very often more difficult to give than to supply material things.
In practicing either the material or spiritual works of mercy, Mother Teresa’s method was the “humble works.” She was not out to do “big things,” but “small things with great love.” Mother Teresa emphasized the importance of small acts of love that made the other feel welcomed, loved, cared for and appreciated.
Yet, in doing these “little things,” it was still more important for Mother Teresa that they be done with “great love.” As she said, “Love is not measured by how much we do, love is measured by how much love we put in; how much it is hurting us in loving.”
Thus, we can understand better why she never tired of repeating, “Do small things with great love” and “ordinary things with extraordinary love.” And she usually would add, “The smaller the thing, the greater the love!”
To what was Mother Teresa referring when she spoke of little things? To give an example, she would say: “maybe just a smile, maybe just a little flower to bring, maybe just a little shake of the hand.”
Again, the value of these little things for Mother Teresa comes from the love with which we do them. Even the most trivial things become important if they are a means of expressing love, indeed of fulfilling our calling “to love and be loved.” Through these little things, Mother Teresa wished to show others how important and valuable they were to her, and, hopefully, through her action, they would realize as well how precious they are to God. Thus, most of the time, it would not be the objective worth of the action but rather the manner in which she performed it — that is, with love.
Mother Teresa, then, wished to emphasize that the practice of charity is within the reach of every Christian in whatever walk of life. Everyone has the mission to be a carrier of God’s love.
“Today, God loves the world so much that he gives you, he gives me, to love the world, to be his love, his compassion. It is such a beautiful thought for us — and a conviction — that you and I can be that love and compassion.”
Significantly, Mother Teresa pointed out that those with the greatest hunger and thirst for God and for love, and those to whom we are most obligated, are indeed those closest to us. “How can we love Jesus in the world today? By loving him in my husband, my wife, my children, my brothers and sisters, my parents, my neighbors, the poor.” There are people who need our tender and merciful love all around us, if only we “take the trouble to see” as Mother Teresa urged us to do.
In fact, it is often those with whom we live who are the most in need. “People are hungry for the Word of God, for love. Do we really know our poor? Right here! Maybe the poor are in our own family, for love begins at home. Do we know them?”
“The fruit of faith is love, and the fruit of love is service,” Mother Teresa was fond of saying, “love in living action.” In one of her talks, she challenged her listeners:
“Do you know your next door neighbor? Do you know there is a blind person there? That there is somebody sick, that there is a lonely old person there that has no one — do you know? And if you know, have you done anything? There is the chance to give love, to come tomorrow to do something. See, look and do something and you will see the joy, the love and peace that will come from the heart because you have done something for somebody. You have given your love for God in a living action. It is not enough to say, ‘I love you.’ Not enough; do something. And that something should be something that hurts you. Because true love hurts. When you look at the cross, you know how Jesus loved us. He died on the cross because he loved you and he loved me. And he wants us to love like that.”
According to Eileen Egan, a very close friend of Mother Teresa since the 1960s, “Mother Teresa took Jesus at his word and accepted him with unconditional love in those with whom he chose to be identified the hungry, the shelterless, the suffering. She enveloped them in mercy. Mercy, after all, is only love under the aspect of need, love going out to meet the needs of the person loved. Could not the life of our time be mightily changed for the better if millions of his followers took Jesus at his word?”
Followers of Jesus should take encouragement from the words of Mother Teresa on how precious each person is to God: “Just think for a moment, you and I have been called by our name, because he loved us. Because you and I are somebody special to him — to be his heart to love him in the poor, his hands to serve him in the poorest of the poor ... beginning with those around us, and even in our own families.”
This is how we can be, as Pope Francis calls us to be, witnesses to mercy. During this Jubilee of Mercy, the Church is presenting to us as a saint the person-model of Mother Teresa. Following her teaching and example, we can both receive mercy from the Lord and, in turn, practice mercy to all those we meet and serve.
Father Brian Kolodiejchuk is the postulator for the cause of canonization for Mother Teresa.