You did it to me.
Counting each word on a separate finger, St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta called this phrase her “five-fingered Gospel.” Whatever you did to anyone—especially the least and the poorest—you did to Jesus.
This month, guest writer Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa explains how Mother Teresa’s five-fingered gospel brought her closer to Jesus, sustained her in her years of darkness, and helped her quench Jesus’ thirst for souls. According to Fr. Raniero, these five simple words can change our lives as well.
Fr. Cantalamessa, an Italian Capuchin priest and theologian, has been the Preacher to the Papal Household since 1980. These articles are adapted from his latest book, The Spirituality of Mother Teresa, published by The Word Among Us Press and available at wau.org.
Mother Teresa’s confessor, the Jesuit Father Celeste Van Exem, once said about her, “The meaning of her whole life was a person: Jesus.” After having studied her life, her writings, and the testimonies of others about her for years, the postulator for the cause of her canonization, Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, concludes, “If I have to say . . . why she is raised to the honor of the altar, I reply: because of her personal love of Jesus. . . . Hers was a Jesus-centered life.”
The most significant testimony in this regard is the letter that Mother Teresa wrote to the whole family of Missionaries of Charity during Holy Week on March 25, 1993. At the beginning of it, she said, “This letter being very personal, I wanted to write in my own hand.” She goes on to say,
I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus—one to one—you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel—but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how he looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus—not from books but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words he speaks to you? . . . Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person—not just the idea.
Jesus was not an abstraction for Mother Teresa, a set of doctrines and dogmas or the remembrance of a person who lived at another time. He was the real, living Jesus, someone to gaze at in our hearts and whom we allow to gaze at us.
Service, the Fruit of Love. To the question, “Who is Jesus to me?” Mother Teresa responds with an inspired litany of titles:
Jesus is the Word—to be spoken. . . .
Jesus is the Life—to be lived.
Jesus is the Love—to be loved.
Jesus is the Joy—to be shared.
Jesus is the Sacrifice—to be offered.
Jesus is the Peace—to be given.
Jesus is the Bread of Life—to be eaten.
One of the best-known sayings of Mother Teresa is “The fruit of love is service, / The fruit of service is peace.” She said to her daughters,
“I Thirst” and “You did it to me”—remember always to connect the two, the means with the aim. What God has joined together let no one split apart. . . . Our charism is to satiate the thirst of Jesus for love and souls—by working at the salvation and sanctification of the poorest of the poor.
“You did it to me.” Mother Teresa marked out each of these words on the fingers of her hand and said they comprised “the Gospel in our five fingers.” For her, Jesus, who is present in the Eucharist, is present in a different but equally real way “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” The litany in honor of Jesus recorded above continues without any break:
Jesus is the Hungry—to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty—to be satiated.
Jesus is the Naked—to be clothed.
Jesus is the Homeless—to be taken in.
Jesus is the Sick—to be healed.
Jesus is the Lonely—to be loved.
“You Do It for Somebody.” We know how far the levels of Mother Teresa’s service to the poorest of the poor went. At one meeting, a nun remarked to her that she was pampering the poor and offending their dignity by giving them everything for free without asking anything of them. Mother Teresa responded, “There are so many congregations that pamper the rich that it’s not bad if there is one who pampers the poor.” The head of social services in Calcutta had understood better than anyone else, according to Mother Teresa, the spirit of her service to the poor. One day he said to her, “Mother Teresa, you and we are doing the same social work. But there is a great difference between you and us. We do it for something, and you do it for somebody.”
Love for Jesus prompted Mother Teresa, like other saints before her, to do things that no other motive in the world would have been able to induce her to do. One time someone, observing what Mother Teresa was doing for a poor person, exclaimed, “I would not do that for all the gold in the world!” Mother Teresa replied, “Neither would I!” She meant, of course, that she would not do it for all the money in the world but would do it for Jesus.
Mother Teresa knew how to give the poor not just bread, clothes, and medicine but to give them what they had even more need of: love, human warmth, dignity.
The Spirit of Love. But where do we find this love? Mother Teresa knew whom to ask: Mary! One of her prayers says, “Mary, my dearest mother, Give me your heart so beautiful, so pure, so immaculate, so full of love and humility, that I may receive Jesus as you did, and go in haste to give him to others.”
We need to be even bolder than Mother Teresa on this point. Let me explain. Mother Teresa had a marvelous spirituality, but her spirituality is marked by the times in which she was formed. A clear trinitarian perspective was missing at that time in theological reflection—but not from her life!
So what can we discover that is new about love for Jesus if we begin with a trinitarian perspective? Something extraordinary: there exists a love for Jesus that is perfect, infinite, the only love worthy of him. And we discover that it is possible for us to participate in it, to make it ours, to welcome Jesus with it. It is the love with which the heavenly Father loves his Son.
In Baptism we have received that love, because the love with which the Father loves his Son is called the Holy Spirit. What else do we think is God’s love that “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) if it is not literally the love of God, the eternal, uncreated love with which the Father loves the Son and from which every other love derives?
I have often said that the mystics are not in a category apart from other Christians; they do not exist to astound us but to point out to us what the full development of the life of grace looks like in magnified form. And the mystics have taught us precisely this: that by grace, we have been inserted into the vortex of trinitarian life.
Jesus himself assures us of this when he prays to the Father “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them” (John 17:26). Through grace, the same love with which the Father loves the Son is in us. What a discovery! What horizons for our prayer and contemplation! Christianity is grace, and this is what that grace is: participation in the divine nature, that is, in divine love (2 Peter 1:4).
Let Christ Be Born in You. The German mystic Angelus Silesius expressed this idea in two verses: “Though Jesus Christ were born in Bethlehem a thousand times / but not in you, then you are lost forever.” The famous Italian convert Giovanni Papini was meditating on these verses during Christmas in 1955, and he asked himself how this interior birth could take place. The answer he gave himself—and it can serve us as well—was the following:
This new miracle is not impossible provided it is desired and expected. On the day you do not feel a hint of bitterness and jealousy before the joy of an enemy or a friend, rejoice because it is a sign that this birth is close by. . . . On the day you feel the need to bring a bit of happiness to someone who is sad and feel the impulse to relieve the pain or misery of even one creature, be glad because God’s arrival is imminent.
All of these are “signs” of the birth that has taken place, but its cause, what produces it, is what Papini described at the beginning: desire and expectation. It is a faith full of expectation, certain of its coming—“expectant faith.”
We do not need to have any particular “feelings.” It is enough, at the moment we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, to say with simplicity, “Jesus, I receive you as your mother Mary received you; I love you with the love with which the heavenly Father loves you, that is, with the Holy Spirit.”