Everything Starts from Prayer: Mother Teresa’s Meditations on Spiritual Life for People of All Faiths
Selected and arranged by Anthony Stern, M.D.
Publisher: Ashland, Oregon: White Cloud Press: 1998.
Mother Teresa is best known for her charitable work with the destitute, the sick, and the dying. But, as the title of this collection of her writings implies, everything she did and everything she was derived from her life of prayer. She often said, “Everything starts from prayer”.
Prayer, for Mother Teresa, did not mean repeating a set of words. Prayer meant walking in God’s presence, turning to him, lifting the heart to him. As she wrote, “You can pray while you work. Work doesn’t stop prayer and prayer doesn’t stop work. It requires only that small raising of the mind to him”. She further advised, “Offer to God every word you say, every movement you make. We must more and more fall in love with God”. This life of prayer, she said, requires an effort, but can infuse every moment of one’s life with God’s presence. She wrote, “We should make every effort to walk in the presence of God, to see God in all the persons we meet, to live our prayer throughout the day.”
Stern writes in the introduction that he hopes that the sayings and writings he chose for this collection will speak to persons of all backgrounds. In fact, he made his selections in order “to give the widest possible access to people with no clear path as well as to those with various inner paths”, and “to glean pearls of inspiration that provide an ecumenical entry into a life of prayer”. Although Mother Teresa herself was a devout Christian, she herself reached across the boundaries of religion. Stern relates an incident at one of her projects, The Home for the Dying, when Mother Teresa whispered to a terminally ill man, “You say a prayer in your religion, and I will say a prayer as I know it. Together we will say this prayer and it will be something beautiful for God.” She would say about the people she served, “castes and creeds mean nothing. It does not matter that they are not of my faith”, and “we should help the Hindu to become a better Hindu, a Muslim to become a better Muslim, a Catholic a better Catholic”.
The selections in this volume are all short and simple, often only one or two sentences. Stern invites the reader to take time to ponder each gem of spiritual wisdom. He writes, “My one suggestion for reading this book is an echo of hers: Make it a prayer. The more seriously and openly you approach it, the more the words will penetrate.”
Many of Mother Teresa’s sayings deal with the need for silence. Prayer “is born in the silence of our hearts”. She wrote, “We cannot place ourselves directly in God’s presence without imposing upon ourselves interior and exterior silence.” And, “We must learn not only the silence of the mouth but also the silence of the heart, of the eyes, of the ears and of the mind, which I call the five silences.”
It is in inner silence that we can be alone with God.
Listen in silence, because if your heart is full of other things you cannot hear the voice of God. But when you have listened to the voice of God in the stillness of your heart, then your heart is filled with God. This will need much sacrifice, but if we really mean to pray and want to pray we must be ready to do it now.
With inner silence “you can hear God everywhere: in the closing of the door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, the animals - that silence which is wonder and praise.” And inner silence transforms our outward lives as well: “Silence gives us a new outlook on life. In it we are filled with the grace of God himself, which makes us do all things with joy.”
Mother Teresa stresses the need for a firm and unwavering intention to develop a life of prayer. “Often, under the pretext of humility, of trust, of abandonment, we can forget to use the strength of our will. Everything depends on these words: ‘I will’ or ‘I will not.’ And into the expression ‘I will’ I must put all my energy.” She says we must “love to pray - feel the need to pray often during the day and take the trouble to pray. If you want to pray better, you must pray more.”
Prayer, she says, has a seemingly miraculous power to transform us. “Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself. Ask and seek and your heart will grow big enough to receive him and keep him as your own.” The secret lies in emptying ourselves. “The more we empty ourselves, the more room we give God to fill us.” Thus Mother Teresa, who gave so much to help suffering humanity, could write: “It is not how much we really have to give but how empty we are - so that we can receive fully in our life. Take away your eyes from yourself and rejoice that you have nothing - that you are nothing - that you can do nothing.”
She explained this point with a metaphor of a bunch of wires. Whether the wires are old or new, expensive or cheap, “alone they are useless, and until the current passes through them there will be no light. The wire is you and me. The current is God.” Letting that current pass through us entails total surrender. As she puts it, “Total surrender to God must come in small details, just as it comes in big details. It is nothing but that single word,”Yes. I accept whatever you give, and I give whatever you take.""
To be holy doesn’t mean to do extraordinary things, to understand big things, but it is a simple acceptance, because I have given myself to God, because I belong to him - my total surrender. He could put me here. He could put me there. He can use me. He cannot use me. It doesn’t matter because I belong so totally to him that he can do just what he wants to do with me.
She encourages us, “When we have nothing to give, let us give him that nothingness.”
Mother Teresa writes, “Our prayers should be burning words coming forth from the furnace of hearts filled with love. In your prayers, speak to God with great reverence and confidence.” This intense and burning love, she says, is not a talent of the rare few; it is available to everyone. “Love is a fruit in season at all times and within the reach of every hand. Anyone may gather it and no limit is set. Everyone can reach this love through meditation, the spirit of prayer and sacrifice, by an intense inner life.” She says that, while one must pray with fervent love, prayer itself is the source of that love. “Love, to be true, has to begin with God in prayer. If we pray, we will be able to love, and if we love, we will be able to serve.”
For Mother Teresa, the natural fruit of the love which God “pours into our hearts” is service. “Our works of charity are nothing but the overflow of our love for God from within…. You may be exhausted with work, you may even kill yourself, but unless your work is interwoven with love, it is useless. To work without love is slavery.” True selfless service is, she says, nothing but love. “It is not what we do or how much we do, but how much love we put into the action because that action is our love for God in action.”
As Mother Teresa sees it, the love that flows into us through prayer naturally overflows to those around us. She writes: “Loving must be as normal to us as living and breathing day after day until our death. To understand this and to practice it we need much prayer, the kind that unites us with God and overflows continually upon others.” So she advises us,
Open your hearts
to the love of God
which he will give you.
He loves you with tenderness.
And he will give you not to keep
but to share.
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