In the lives of many saints, we notice that they recognized the essence of their calling in a word from God. We only need to think of the role played in the vocation of St. Anthony the Abbot by the word from the Gospel, “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, . . . and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). We can think of the role that the verse “Let the children come to me” (19:14) played in the lives of saintly educators or of the role that the verse “Mary has chosen the good portion” (Luke 10:42) played for many contemplatives.
It is not difficult to recognize what this key word was for Mother Teresa of Calcutta: the cry of Christ on the cross, Sitio, “I thirst.” It is written next to the crucifix on the altar of every chapel of the Missionaries of Charity.
“I Thirst.” Sitio is a word Mother Teresa received at the very moment God called her to work with the poorest of the poor, but it was only toward the end of her life that she decided to explain it to her spiritual daughters. In that letter, written at Varanasi during Lent 1993, she said,
The time has come for me to . . . explain as fully as I can what means for me the thirst of Jesus. For me Jesus’ thirst is something so intimate—so I have felt shy until now to speak to you of [it]. I wanted to do as Our Lady who “kept all these things in her heart.” . . .
For me it is so clear—everything in MC [Missionaries of Charity] exists only to satiate Jesus. His words on the wall of every MC chapel, they are not from the past only, but alive here and now, spoken to you. . . . [I] will try to help you understand—but Jesus himself must be the one to say to you, “I Thirst.”
What Mother Teresa says here is just the tip of the iceberg. It is a very small part of the resonance this word had in her life. From the beginning it was a genuine mystical experience. Mother Teresa actually “heard” the dying Christ say this word in her soul. It was like an invisible stigmata engraved on her heart forever.
Mother Teresa left the word Sitio as a legacy to her daughters, just as Francis of Assisi left Lady Poverty as a legacy to his brothers. This does not mean that all her daughters should or can experience it in the same way Mother Teresa did. God does not press down on and flatten out his creatures; he prefers diversity. Within her religious family as well, there is room for different sensitivities, diverse spiritual gifts, and different experiences. What Mother Teresa primarily recommended to her religious family was not that word itself but its implication: a total response to the love of Christ expressed in service to the poor.
Jesus’ Physical Thirst. Typically, the saints do not arrive at the truth of Scripture by intellectual reflection. Instead, the truth comes to them with an immediacy and a power that no scholarship could ever produce. But after that, they want to know all they can about what scholars have discovered about that saying, and they never tire of hearing about it. Let us see, then, what scholarship says about this word from Christ on the cross—and let’s begin by recalling the following passage:
After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the Scripture), “I thirst.” A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28-30, emphasis added)
The first meaning of this word concerns Christ’s physical thirst. It does not take much effort to understand that when Christ’s body, having been scourged and bloodied, would have experienced a burning thirst. The Gospel writer sees at this moment the fulfillment of the Scripture passage that says, “My throat is parched . . . , and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:3, 21).
Jesus’ Spiritual Thirst. But for John, the cry of the dying Jesus also has a symbolic significance. One other time in his life, Jesus asked for something to drink. He said to the Samaritan woman, “Give me a drink,” and in response to her confused protestation, he said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (John 4:7, 10).
It is no coincidence that after reporting the word of Christ, “I thirst,” John immediately adds, “and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). On the symbolic and mystical level, this in fact means that he poured out his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, as indicated by the water and the blood pouring out of his side.
We understand from this that Jesus is asking in order to give; he is thirsty for us to thirst for him because only this allows him to give us living water, eternal life.
In response to Jesus’ cry, the soldiers gave him vinegar. This was the ultimate mockery, adding suffering to suffering. This too is full of symbolic significance. It mirrors what happens in reality: humanity responds to Christ’s thirst with ingratitude and insults or coldness and forgetfulness.
Like all the words of the dying Christ, Sitio runs through the centuries like a torch that is always burning. Everyone, as Mother Teresa said, should feel that it is addressed to him or her personally, here and now. It compels you to ask, “What will I give in response to Christ? The new wine of undivided love or the vinegar of compromise, a lukewarm faith, and withdrawal into myself?” It is not enough to do many things for Christ; he repeats to each of us what the apostle said to the Corinthians: “I seek not what is yours but you” (2 Corinthians 12:14).
Offering Something Beautiful for God. When Mother Teresa wrote to her sisters in 1993, it was in light of the Lenten message by the pope for that year that had Sitio as its theme. But what could have struck her in that message, whose theme was not so much Christ’s thirst on the cross as the thirst of millions of people afflicted by the lack of drinkable water? Mother Teresa found in that message the same indissoluble link between Jesus’ Sitio and service to the poor that people have called “the two pillars” of her work:
Do not underestimate our practical means—the work for the poor; no matter how small or humble—that make our life something beautiful for God. They are the most precious gifts of God to our Society—Jesus’ hidden presence so near, so able to touch. Without the work for the poor . . . , Jesus’ thirst is only words with no meaning, no answer.
The nexus Mother Teresa sees between the two things does not exist just in her heart. It is founded on the doctrine of the mystical body of the Church. Blaise Pascal once said, “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” Where and how is he in agony if not in the members of his body and especially in the poor and suffering? The cry “I thirst” rises up from the suffering members of the body of Christ, just as in a physical body, thirst is the result of billions of cells that are urgently demanding water to survive.
As a primary need of every living organism, thirst represents all the most elementary needs of a human being: the need for water and food, but also for attention, love, a smile. A person can go without eating for days and weeks but cannot go without drinking. Christ’s words, “I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matthew 25:35), was for her something much more real and straightforward than it is for the ordinary believer. “I” was thirsty.
We Can Wash Jesus’ Feet. In a mosaic in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel at the Vatican, the artist Fr. Marko Rupnik has depicted a long table. At one end of it is Mary of Bethany who, bent over in an arc, anoints Christ’s feet with perfume from a jar of precious ointment. At the other end of the table is Jesus, in the same position as Mary, washing Peter’s feet at the Last Supper. If I were an artist, I would depict Mother Teresa in the attitude of Mary of Bethany: on her knees, bent over to wash the feet of a poor person who, as she lifts her gaze, is revealed to be Christ sitting at the table again.
Jesus rose up to heaven, but his feet remained on earth, because the feet of Christ are the poor, whom Jesus said we would always have with us. The Eucharist, Mother Teresa reminds us, allows everyone to renew the connection between our response to Christ’s Sitio and our availability to the poor—between Communion with his real Body and communion with his mystical body:
We satiate the thirst of Jesus by adoring him in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in our personal encounter with him, face-to-face. Renew your zeal to quench his thirst under the species of bread and in the sorrowful semblance of the poorest of the poor.
The Spirituality of Mother Teresa, by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, is available at wau.org.