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Mother Teresa: Love in Action

Members of the Missionaries of Charity attend a service marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Blessed Teresa of Kolkata in this Aug. 26, 2010, file photo. Pope Francis has approved a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Teresa, paving the way for her canonization in 2016. (CNS photo/Deshakalayan Chowdhur, Reuters pool) See MOTHER-TERESA-SAINTHOOD-CAUSES Dec. 18, 2015.
(CNS photo/Deshakalayan Chowdhur, Reuters pool) 

An Indian admirer of Mother Teresa once gifted her with her own personal “calling card.”

He was a businessman, so perhaps he intended a bit of whimsy in offering such a worldly item to a woman who had renounced wealth to serve the poor. But Teresa liked the card so much that she had copies made and regularly handed them out to people for the rest of her life.

Written on the small yellow cards were lessons Mother Teresa had learned from the Church, her prayer life, and her ministry to the poor. It was a lovely, uncomplicated prayer that she summed up in five steps:

The Simple Path
The fruit of silence is PRAYER.
The fruit of prayer is FAITH.
The fruit of faith is LOVE.
The fruit of love is SERVICE.
The fruit of service is PEACE.

From first to last, the spirituality that inspired Mother Teresa and her sisters was centered on Jesus Christ. It was he whom they heard in silent prayer, he who sustained their faith, he whom they lovingly served, and he who gifted them with the peace that passes all understanding. As Teresa once said, speaking on behalf of the entire order, “My vocation is to belong to Jesus, to cleave to Jesus. The work is the fruit of my love and my love is expressed in my work. . . . Prayer in action is love in action.” The Missionaries of Charity, in other words, aspired to be “contemplatives in the heart of the world,” disciplined through prayer to recognize Christ in every person they encountered.

A Powerful Example

Teresa’s understanding of herself and her sisters as contemplatives in the heart of the world wasn’t an identity she developed from scratch. She had absorbed it during her first two decades as a nun, because it’s the spirituality of the Loreto Sisters.

Although officially titled the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM), during Mother Teresa’s time, the order was widely known as the Loreto Sisters, named after the shrine in Italy where the founder, Venerable Mary Ward, used to pray.

Ward was an extraordinary woman. She was born in Yorkshire, in 1585, into a Roman Catholic family in a time in which it was dangerous to be an openly practicing Catholic. Her family was well-off. Despite their wealth, Ward’s grandmother was imprisoned for 14 years for refusing to renounce her faith. Persecution like this drove Catholic families underground or abroad. Mary chose the latter course, leaving England for the Netherlands when she was 15 to enter a Poor Clare convent.


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Ward soon discovered that she wasn’t temperamentally suited for a cloistered life. She yearned to serve God in the world while maintaining the interior calm fostered by the contemplative prayer she learned in the convent. In searching for a spirituality that suited her temperament, she was inspired by the Society of Jesus, founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola only a generation earlier.

The Jesuits aren’t a cloistered order. Instead, they labor in the world ad majorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God,” and seek to discern God in all things. Ward dreamt of an order for women who, like the Jesuits, would travel the world as missionaries to spread God’s word. The members of this new order would be tasked with the specific mission of teaching the poor to help them attain a better station in life. At the same time, sisters in the order would lead deeply spiritual interior lives, fueling their good works with regular prayer.

In 1609, back in England, Ward gathered together like-minded women into a community, and it flourished almost immediately. She also formed a similar community in France. The English sisters operated secretly; the French ones openly.

Ironically, it was her fellow religionists, not the English Protestant establishment, who eventually persecuted Ward. Church authorities grew deeply suspicious of a non-cloistered religious community of women, especially one that embraced the spirituality of the Society of Jesus, an order that would soon be persecuted by the Church as well. Ward came under additional scrutiny because she was learned, fluent in several languages, including Latin, in an age when educated women were suspect. In the final years of her life, she was interrogated by the Inquisition and, on several occasions, imprisoned, and the houses of sisters she founded were disbanded. When Ward died during the English Civil War, still remaining loyal to her ideal of contemplation and action in the world, she must have felt as if she’d utterly failed in what she hoped to accomplish. But she hadn’t. Loreto houses endured on the Continent, and before long returned to England.

One of the hallmarks of both Loretian and Jesuit spirituality is the regular practice of discernment, a careful scrutiny not only of the world, but of one’s responses to it. The goal is to learn to see and serve God at work in the world, even when things seem to be messy or even chaotic, and to distinguish God’s will from personal desires. The spiritual clarity sought is cultivated by regular self-examination and contemplative prayer in which one cleaves to Jesus in silence and humility. For Mary Ward, Jesus was the foundation upon which the spirituality of her order was built. As she lay dying, she repeated his name again and again.

Seeking God in Others

It’s within this rich tradition that Teresa served her spiritual apprenticeship, and it’s also the one that she transmitted to her sisters and brothers in the Missionaries of Charity. As she was forever reminding them, “Seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time, and seeing his hand in every happening—that is contemplation in the heart of the world.” It was so central to the aim of the Missionaries that its requirement was explicitly mandated in the order’s constitution.

Our life of contemplation shall retain the following characteristics:

■ missionary: by going out physically or in spirit in search of souls all over the world.
■ contemplative: by gathering the whole world at the very center of our hearts where the Lord abides.
■ universal: by praying and contemplating with all and for all, especially with and for the spiritually poorest of the poor.

Jesus’ words from the cross—“I thirst”— were [central] to Teresa’s spirituality. For her, they signified, first and foremost, Christ’s thirst for our love, our kindness, our trust, and our hope, and she wanted that longing of Christ to be the centerpiece of her order. As she once wrote, “The heart and soul of MC [Missionaries of Charity] is only this—the thirst of Jesus’ Heart, hidden in the poor.” Missionaries were called to so love the Lord that they’d be willing to do everything they could to ease his suffering by tending to the physical and emotional thirst of the people in whom he abides.

Teresa and her sisters were under no illusion that serving Christ in the poor and the marginalized would be easy. But they were also convinced that the more they sacrificed, the more they eased the pain of Christ in all his distressing disguises. The occasional heartache and more or less permanent physical weariness they took on in the service of others, they believed, was well worth it.

Mother Teresa once expressed this point in a parable so simple that it might have served as a Sunday school lesson, but so powerful that it was wise counsel to her sisters.

“There is a story of a little robin,” Teresa told them. “He saw Jesus on the cross, saw the crown of thorns. The bird flew around and around until he found a way to remove a thorn, and in removing the thorn stuck himself. Each of us should be that bird.”

But sacrifices made with sorrowful sighs and self-pity, Teresa believed, are worse than no sacrifice at all. The people who relied upon the Missionaries of Charity deserved to be treated with dignity and love, and that obliged sisters and brothers to feel and display genuine joy in coming to their assistance.

“The Missionaries of Charity do firmly believe that they are touching the body of Christ in his distressing disguise whenever they are helping and touching the poor.” How, therefore, could one possibly minister to them—to him—with “a long face”?

As Teresa told Malcolm Muggeridge, “We [Missionaries of Charity] must be able to radiate the joy of Christ, express it in our actions. If our actions are just useful actions that give no joy to the people, our poor people would never be able to rise up to the call which we want them to hear, the call to come closer to God. We want to make them feel that they are loved. If we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them much more depressed.”

A Difficult Lifelong Journey

The Jesus-centered contemplation in the heart of the world that is the spirituality of the Missionaries of Charity demands a lifelong process of conversion. Most of us live in me-centered universes. We find it difficult to value other people to the degree we value ourselves. Their needs are secondary in importance to ours, and if push comes to shove, we’re pros at rationalizing, grabbing more than we can use, and leaving them with less.

How does one begin to turn away from a lifetime of selfishness to embrace a vocation of contemplative service? What does it take to convert? The necessary starting point is a recalibration of one’s way of looking at the world. We must recognize—re-cognize, come to re-know—the nature of reality and the humans who inhabit it.

The reason silence was so important to Teresa is because it offers us the opportunity to begin shedding false understandings of ourselves and the world. It clears a space, so to speak, for the recognition that converts. Silence and prayer become the wombs in which we’re reborn. They “enlarge the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself.”

As we progress in our conversions, the rebirth midwifed for us by silence and prayer nurtures an abiding and grateful faith in the essential goodness of creation and the Creator. This in turn makes us long to protect and preserve the creation, not because we consider it a duty, but because our recognition of its divine origin instills in us a loving desire to steward it. God loved creation into being, and we should respond lovingly to it.

This recognition of God’s imprint upon the created world, and especially upon humans, made in the likeness of God, in turn prompts us to discern the presence of Christ in each and every person we encounter. That’s the contemplative insight that undergirds the activity of the Missionaries of Charity. But what’s just as important as seeing God in others is discerning God’s presence within oneself.

This is an aspect of Mother Teresa’s spirituality that often goes unnoticed, focused as we typically are upon the works of mercy performed by Missionaries of Charity. But for Teresa, it was an essential preparation for loving the Christ in those in want of food, medicine, shelter, or love. She urged her sisters to “promote and maintain” during their times of deep prayer and recollection “the constant awareness of the Divine Presence everywhere and in everyone, especially in our own hearts and in the hearts of our sisters with whom we live.”

Seeing God in Ourselves

Teresa’s counsel to her sisters isn’t intended as a therapeutic bit of self-help, although becoming aware of God’s presence in the heart can certainly be psychologically comforting and a source of deep calmness. Instead, she offers it as an unavoidable fact about the spiritual life: it’s unlikely that we can discern and rejoice in Christ in others unless we also discern and rejoice in Christ in us. The more in touch we are with the divine presence in us, the more easily we recognize it in others. The more cognizant we are that God loved us into existence and sustains us with love, the more readily we know that God has done and is doing the same for others.

Over the centuries, saints in many religious traditions, but especially in Christianity, have taught the importance of recognizing God’s presence in both oneself and others. Cistercian monk John Eudes Bamberger, a trained psychiatrist who is also a contemplative, nicely describes the dynamic interplay of this recognition.


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He observes that God is discernible everywhere for those who know how to see. But “the most fruitful place to search for God is at the center of the soul of the person you love most personally and so most purely, with the greatest respect for the uniqueness and well-being of that person.” Moreover, doing so encourages us to discover “reflexively in our own spirit, the same presence, the same uniqueness that strives to honor the goodness that is the other.” Everyone, Bamberger thinks, has an “elusive” sense of God’s presence in both themselves and others. But a loving relationship calls forth a lived recognition that makes the presence less elusive. Love “casts a brighter light” that enables us to perceive the “radiance that is at the heart of human life.”

Mother Teresa would have agreed wholeheartedly with this observation. After all, as her calling card proclaimed, the fruit of faith is love in action and the sense of wholeness or peace that it creates, in both the individual and the world.

When we arrive at the recognition that we and our fellow humans are made in the likeness of a loving God and hence are lovable ourselves, we may be so overwhelmed with gratitude that we long to do huge things for God. But Mother Teresa cautioned her sisters, and us as well, that it’s much better to do something beautiful for God. This was the advice she consistently gave people who wrote or asked her in person what they could do to contribute to the Missionaries’ work.

Doing something beautiful for God didn’t require massive reform or overnight changes in social and economic structures of oppression. Rather, it means that whatever one does is entirely and perfectly beautiful if done out of love for Jesus. Contemplative love in the heart of the world is judged by its qualitative accomplishments, not by quantity. As Teresa wisely noted, “It may happen that a mere smile, a short visit, the lighting of a lamp, writing a letter for a blind man, carrying a bucket of charcoal, offering a pair of sandals, reading the newspaper—may, in fact, be our love of God in action. Listening, when no one else volunteers to listen, is no doubt a very noble thing.”

In saying this, Teresa was perfectly in step with the Loreto spirituality of finding God in all things, no matter how seemingly insignificant they are. Also apparent is the influence of Mother Teresa’s namesake, Thérèse of Lisieux, and her “little way” of serving the Lord.

The spirituality of the Missionaries of Charity, contemplatives in the heart of the world, and its emphasis on the presence of Christ’s love in each of us, has sustained hundreds of the order’s brothers and sisters, and thousands of the people they serve. That’s why it came as a shock for so many to discover that Mother Teresa lived for nearly a half century without any sense of that presence. Yet even though she languished in spiritual aridity, she persevered in her service to God and to the world’s millions of Christs in distressing disguise.


This article is an excerpt from St. Teresa of Calcutta: Missionary, Mother, Mystic, published by Franciscan Media.

Kerry Walters is professor emeritus of philosophy and peace and justice studies at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He is a prolific author whose books include Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, Practicing Presence: The Spirituality of Caring in Everyday Life, and The Art of Dying and Living.