One day, Mother Teresa took in a woman off the streets of Calcutta. Her body was a mess of open sores infested with bugs. Mother Teresa patiently bathed her, cleaning and dressing her wounds. The woman never stopped shrieking insults and threats at her. Mother Teresa only smiled.
Finally, the woman snarled, “Sister, why are you doing this? Not everyone behaves like you. Who taught you?”
She replied simply, “My God taught me.” When the woman asked who this god was, Mother Teresa kissed her on the forehead and said: “You know my God. My God is called love.”
This was the simple truth that Mother Teresa lived by. It was a faith nourished and renewed every day in the Eucharist. “The Mass is the spiritual food that sustains me—without which I could not get through one single day or hour in my life,” she said.
The Eucharist was the spiritual hinge that united her mystical life of prayer to her daily devotion to the poor and outcast. Visitors to her home for the dying in Calcutta were often surprised that their first stop was the eucharistic chapel. Jesus, she would tell them, was “the Master of the house”—and his presence was the reason for her work.
This was one of her most important lessons—that we, like the first Christians, should see the mysterious connection between Christ’s presence under the guise of bread and wine and his presence in the poor. “In the Mass we have Jesus in the appearance of bread, while in the slums we see Christ and touch him in the broken bodies, in the abandoned children,” she said.
Her profound sense of this “twofold presence” of Christ was recognized by Pope John Paul II on October 19, 2003, when he declared her Blessed Teresa of Calcutta before a throng of 300,000 gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
The process that led to her beatification has helped us to see why the Eucharist was at the heart of her work from the beginning.
Inspiration at the Altar
After Mother Teresa died, officials preparing her sainthood cause discovered a small cache of letters written to her spiritual directors and superiors during her early years.
She had long ago destroyed her notes and diaries from this period and had asked others to dispose of letters she had sent to them. “I want the work to remain only his,” she told them. “When the beginning will be known, people will think more of me, less of Jesus.”
As if following some divine script, a few ignored her wishes. As a result, it is now possible for us to reconstruct partially the high spiritual drama of Mother Teresa’s conversion. At the center of that conversion was Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
Until the release of these letters, it was known only that on September 10, 1946, Mother Teresa was riding on a train when she heard a voice speaking to her heart. It was Jesus telling her to quit her life as a Catholic school principal for the Sisters of Loreto in order to live and work with the poor.
Her nuns still celebrate this date as “Inspiration Day”—the day God inspired her to start the Missionaries of Charity. During her lifetime, however, Mother Teresa ducked every inquiry about her special calling from Jesus. She would say only that she was sure it was Jesus and that his message was unmistakable. “It was an order. To fail it would have been to break the faith,” she added.
With the release of her private letters from this period, we now know that she continued to hear Christ’s voice in the weeks following that initial encounter on the train. Always the voice came to her during Mass or while she was on her knees after receiving Communion.
Writing to Calcutta’s Archbishop Ferdinand Perier, S.J., she described how the voice she heard in the Eucharist gave her the blueprint for what would become the Missionaries of Charity.
“I want Indian Missionaries—Sisters of Charity—who would be my fire of love amongst the very poor, the sick, the dying, the little street children,” Jesus told her.
She wrote these letters to secure Archbishop Perier’s permission to answer Jesus’ call. “These desires to satiate the longings of our Lord...go on increasing with every Mass and Holy Communion,” she wrote.
Love in Bits of Bread
When Mother Teresa finally received the archbishop’s blessing and began her ministry in the slums on August 17, 1948, the Eucharist continued to be the source of her strength.
“If we have our Lord in the midst of us—with daily Mass and Holy Communion, I fear nothing for the sisters or myself,” she wrote to Archbishop Perier. “He will look after us. But without him I cannot be—I am helpless.”
For Mother Teresa, the Eucharist was a living sign of God’s love and care for her.
“When Jesus came into the world, he loved it so much that he gave his life for it. He wanted to satisfy our hunger for God. And what did he do? He made himself the Bread of Life. He became small, fragile and defenseless for us. Bits of bread can be so small that even a baby can chew it, even a dying person can eat it.”
The love that God showed for the world in Jesus—in his self-sacrifice on the cross and his continued gift of himself in the Eucharist—became the measure for the love she believed we all should have. “Just as Jesus allows himself to be broken, to be given to us as food, we too must break, we must share with each other.”
In those early eucharistic “visitations,” Jesus told Mother Teresa that she was to bring him to the poorest of the poor. And in taking Christ to the poor, she wanted us to rediscover “Christ, in his most distressing disguise.”
In the poor, she taught us, we meet Jesus—not a reminder of Jesus, not a symbol of Jesus, but Jesus himself, face-to-face, hungering for our love, thirsting for our kindness, waiting to be clothed by our compassion: “The shut-in, the unwanted, the unloved, the alcoholics, the dying destitutes, the abandoned and the lonely, the outcasts and untouchables, the leprosy sufferers—all those who are a burden to human society, who have lost all hope and faith in life, who have forgotten how to smile, who have lost the sensibility of the warm hand-touch of love and friendship—they look to us for comfort. If we turn our back on them, we turn it on Christ, and at the hour of our death we shall be judged if we have recognized Christ in them, and on what we have done for and to them.”
In doing unto the poor as if they were Jesus himself, she was only reading the Bible to us, repeating ancient Catholic wisdom. Everything she said you could find at the end of the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.
Mother Teresa took Jesus’ words on faith—that he would remain with us truly until the end of time, that he would come to us in the bread and wine we offer on the altar, and that when we look into the eyes of the hungry, the homeless and the unwanted, we’ll find his eyes looking back.
Lives Woven in the Eucharist
Throughout the centuries, saints have been sent to remind us of the miracle of the Eucharist and of the mystery of Jesus’ presence in the poor. Rarely has the same saint been sent to remind us of both.
This was her mission—to restore the teaching of Jesus: Our salvation is bound up in the mystery of his presence at the altar and in the poor.
She reminded us that Catholicism has always been a religion of the God who hides his face in the faces of our neighbors, the God who discloses himself in humble things—a wafer of bread, a cup of wine, the poor. In the Eucharist he gives his life to us, shows us his love. In the poor, he waits for us to give our lives to him, to show our love for him.
As Mother Teresa explained it: “Christ understood that we have a terrible hunger for God...that we have been created to be loved, and so he made himself a Bread of Life and he said, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot live, you cannot love, you cannot serve’...He also wants to give us the chance to put our love for him in living action. He makes himself the hungry one, not only for bread, but for love. He makes himself the naked one, not only for a piece of cloth but for that understanding love, that dignity, human dignity. He makes himself the homeless one, not only for the peace of a small room, but for that deep sincere love for the other. And this is the Eucharist. This is Jesus, the Living Bread that He has come to break with you and me.”
Mother Teresa reaffirmed the ancient Catholic ideal of almsgiving. Care for people who are poor, widowed, orphaned, helpless or sick defined the identity and character of the early Church. Charity performed as personal service to God was what set Christians apart from the rest of the world.
The motives of the first Catholics were heavenly and divine as much as earthly and humanitarian. They wanted to anticipate on earth the kingdom that Jesus had told them would come. The hinge between these two worlds was the body of Christ—in the poor and in the Eucharist.
Early devotional manuals instructed that the poor should be “revered as the altar” because, like the altar, they presented us with the body and blood of Christ. From the ordinary believer to the well-to-do, all were expected to set aside a generous portion of what they earned and owned to share with the poor.
The early saints railed against heretics who denied the real presence of Christ both in the Eucharist and in the poor. Like Mother Teresa, they could see that to lose faith in the one is to lose faith in the other.
Saint Ignatius, who was fed to the emperor’s lions around 107 A.D., said, “Those who hold strange doctrine...have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan or the oppressed...because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior.”
Saint John Chrysostom, a few centuries later, put it this way: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said...‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’”
We find these same words on the lips of Mother Teresa in the late 20th century. She wanted to teach us to “live the Mass”—to see the Eucharist as a sacrament of love and a sharing of lives, to find Jesus there in the radiant bread and wine and again in the streets of sorrow and suffering.
“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist,” she said. “In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.’”
The Hope of Humanity
Mother Teresa showed us a way to live our days in unbroken contact with the Lord—in the living bread of the Mass and in the hunger of the poor.
It wasn’t that she expected us all to live as she lived. But she did insist, in a way that no saint before her had, that our salvation is bound up in some mysterious way with our love for Jesus in the poor and in the Eucharist.
She seemed to sense that in our materialistic, consumer culture these truths had been disconnected, demoted to the stuff of symbol and poetry.
Like those early saints, she said our lack of regard for the poor reflected our lack of faith in the Eucharist. “People don’t know they have lost their faith,” she said. We were all playing out the mystery recorded in the Gospel—of Jesus coming into the world and not being recognized as God. “Today, as before, when Jesus comes amongst his own, his own don’t know him,” she said. “He comes in the rotting bodies of the poor...Jesus comes to you and me. And often, very often, we pass him by.”
Again and again she pointed us back to the altar. “Every Holy Communion fills us with Jesus and we must, with Our Lady, go in haste to give him to others. He made himself the Bread of Life so that we, too, like Mary, become full of Jesus. We too, like her, must haste to give him to others. We too, like her, serve others.”
At times it sounded as if she was giving us one last shot at salvation. “The poor are the hope of mankind,” she said. “They are also the hope of the people of America, for in them we see the hungry Christ looking up at us. Will we refuse him?”
The life we would be saving in serving the poor would be our own. In alleviating their material poverty we would find the cure for our spiritual poverty. In feeding their hunger, we would satisfy our own. In clothing their nakedness, binding their wounds and listening to their stories, we touch Christ and find what we are all looking for—the God whom Mother Teresa called love.
David Scott is a writer and editor with a specialty in religion and culture.