Mother Teresa used to say that “a smile is the beginning of love.” A spirit of joy, as seen in a smile, was so important to Mother Teresa. She used to say, “We will never know just how much good a simple smile can do.” 

And I believe this is true: I witnessed the truth of her words.

I was 20 years old when I learned that Mother Teresa and her sisters welcomed anyone with “hands to serve and a heart to love” to join them in ministering to those who were most in need of mercy and care. I remember looking down at my two hands and thinking: “I have two strong hands; maybe I could help take care of the babies in the orphanage. I have my health and my strength; maybe I could help to feed the sick and destitute people in the Home for the Dying.”

Mother Teresa made it sound so easy! If you have hands and a heart, you can do it! There was actually one more thing you needed in order to help this saint to serve the poorest of the poor: You had to come with a smile; you had to come with a spirit of cheerfulness. Mother Teresa explained that many of those whom she and the sisters were serving were physically ill or mentally ill; they were lepers, abandoned children, the dying and the lonely. She said that if we went to them with a sad face, we would only make them more depressed. So come with a smile! Come with joy!

She taught us that joy is half the gift we bring. “She gives most who gives with joy!”

To those who were suffering and dying, our smiles and good moods seemed so much more valuable and desirable than a dish of rice. While the rice fed their bodies, our spirit of cheerfulness and our smiles lifted their hearts and souls. I witnessed many times how our joy-filled presence could take their minds off their misery in a beautiful way.

During my first summer in India, I kept writing home to my mom and dad about my experiences with the poor and with Mother Teresa.

“She’s so beautiful!” I used to say. That was true not only at the beginning, but throughout the 11 years I knew her.

I made my first journey across the world to Kolkata between my junior and senior years at Dartmouth College, with the dream of working alongside this living saint and learning her ways of love. I had just turned 21 years old when I first showed up at Mother Teresa’s doorstep in Kolkata, at the motherhouse where Mother Teresa and her sisters lived and prayed, to offer my hands and heart to serve the destitute and dying.

“Love is the beauty of the soul,” St. Augustine said, and Mother Teresa was full of loving-kindness and care for us all. She was overflowing with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is contagious! Being with Mother Teresa was like receiving a spiritual injection: We were filled with joy, filled with peace, filled with love. After conversing with Mother even for a brief visit, we could then go out into the worst slums and face the worst human suffering — and yet we couldn’t stop smiling. We couldn’t hold back the joy! We were spilling our love onto everyone we met.

One of my volunteer friends from Sweden looked over at me one day, after we had been visiting with Mother Teresa, and said, “Susan, you’re shining again!” It was all because of being in the presence of this living saint.

I began working right away with the abandoned and malnourished children. One of the many special things about Mother Teresa was seeing how she treated each individual with whom she came in contact.

When she lifted up a tiny newborn from a crib in the orphanage, that little baby became her whole world. All of her love, care and attention went into that one little life in her arms.

When she interacted with a destitute man in the Home for the Dying, that poor and emaciated human being became her whole world; all of her love, respect and attention were poured into that one human life, as if no one else even existed.

And each time Mother Teresa spoke with me, a young volunteer from America, I became the beneficiary of all that love, attention, respect and care, as if I were the only person in the world to her!

She was so great and so well-known, and yet so unaware of herself and so humble.

“The nature of love is to humble oneself,” said St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The nature of love is to reach out and serve. Watching Mother Teresa selflessly shine her love on others, one at a time, I realized that humility is a sign of true greatness. Our Lord himself said to St. Faustina: “True greatness is in loving God and in humility.”

Mother Teresa used to say, “One, one, one. Just begin, one human being at a time.”

She encouraged us to “be kind and merciful. Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.” Let them see the kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your every deed, she encouraged. Mother Teresa showed us by her example how to do this. She treated each one of us like gold. We were all precious to her. And this reminds me of what she said about God’s love for us.

“We are precious to him. That man dying in the street — precious to him. That millionaire — precious to him. That sinner — precious to him. Because he loves us.”

Mother Teresa looked at us the same way that God looks at us: through the eyes of love.

In Kolkata with Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity and the other volunteers, I experienced a very uncomplicated and selfless lifestyle. Our one simple purpose each day was to love, love, love. In a city where I found hell on earth, I also found each day a deep inner sense of joy and peace — a taste of heaven — and I did not want it to end! I saw more clearly the basic ingredients of a happy, fulfilling life. What a blessed lesson from a loving saint.

Susan Conroy is the author of Mother Teresa’s Lessons of Love and Secrets of Sanctity.

She has hosted an EWTN series on saints and considered Mother Teresa her mentor.

Her website is SusanConroy.com.

Susan Conroy photo