What do you think of when you hear the word “prayer”? Maybe the first images that come to mind have to do with what people do or say when they pray: a little old lady kneeling in a quiet church slipping rosary beads through her fingers, people standing, sitting, kneeling, and responding to the prayers of the Mass, a family praying grace at the dinner table. All these are beautiful examples of prayer, but what if I told you there is something deeper going on in prayer? What if I told you that prayer has more to do with being than doing? What if I told you that prayer has the power to radically transform who you are and bring fulfillment to your life?
How can it do this? First of all, prayer puts you in touch with the God who loves you, and what is more, thirsts for you. Mother Teresa really believed in this. In every chapel of her sisters throughout the world, there is a crucifix with Jesus’ words I thirst placed next to it. And this “thirst” is what prayer is all about. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours” (CCC 2561).
This thirst means that God takes the initiative in prayer. It is not as if you need to attract God’s attention: “Hey, God, remember me? I’m finally praying, I’m finally doing good, so You can look at me now.” No, He is already waiting for you, He is already thirsting for You, even when you do not know it, even when you forget Him. When we pray, we enter into a conversation that God has already started. Our prayer is simply a response to His love.
Have you ever been in a conversation and the other person isn’t listening to you? You talk for a while, and as soon as it’s the other person’s turn to speak, it’s as if he or she were never listening to you. But how many times do we do this in prayer? We speak to God without listening to Him saying, “I thirst for you.” If we want our prayer to be a true response to His love, and not just talking to ourselves, we first need to listen to His voice and to receive His love. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk who lived in the 1100s, once wrote, “The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.” The more we let ourselves be loved by God, the better we will love God, and the better we will pray.
Many times, perhaps, we act as if the opposite were true: the more we love God, the more He will love us. But this will not lead to holiness, but to a spiritual dead end. We can’t make ourselves holy. God makes us holy. And He can’t make us holy if we don’t let Him love us where we are right now. As Mother Teresa said, “Bring all you are suffering to His feet – only open your heart to be loved by Him as you are. He will do the rest.” We need to be real in prayer. We need to be ourselves so that God can pour His love and healing into the cold and broken areas of our heart, whatever causes us the most shame, the most pain, the most regret, the most embarrassment, the most fear of rejection. And yes, that includes our sins. We need forgiveness. We need the divine physician to heal the wounds caused by sin. But how can He heal our wounds if we keep hiding them in shame and fear? He will not force Himself on us, so He requires our openness, our yes, our acceptance. We need to pray from our brokenness so that God can heal us in our brokenness.
But this healing is not just for ourselves. We are called to go out of ourselves and share this healing with others. St. Paul speaks about the relationship between being comforted by God and comforting others: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (II Cor 1: 3-4). We are called to be reflections of God’s love for every person we encounter. Mother Teresa would encounter each person on the streets of Calcutta, no matter how distressing the misery of that person was. So we, too, should reflect the thirst of Christ to everyone we meet, especially those whose defects annoy and irritate us. We should ever keep in mind and practice the thirst of Jesus for the person in front of us.
But this kind of love is possible only if we return again and again to prayer, that encounter with the Lord’s thirst. Why do so many people admire Mother Teresa? Many would probably say because of her charitable work for the poor, but what they may not realize is that this charitable work was the fruit of a deep and intense life of prayer. As Mother Teresa herself says, “Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear him saying ‘I thirst’ in the hearts of the poor.” Only when we allow the Lord to fill us with His love, can we then go out and love others.
Before closing, I would like to make one thing clear: the thirst of Jesus is not a quick fix. It is not a secret formula for feeling happy all the time. Rather, it is a light in the darkness. And, as you may know, Mother Teresa went through tremendous interior darkness for most of her life, struggling with hopelessness and feeling like God had abandoned her. But through this darkness, she held onto the light of Jesus’ thirst. She never stopped listening to His words I thirst. These words do not take away our cross, but rather encourage us to bear it with peace and trust in the Lord, who comforts us in our darkness so that we may comfort others in their darkness.
If you are not doing so already, I challenge you to commit to praying every day, maybe fifteen minutes, so that you may be transformed by the thirst of Jesus and reflect this thirst to others. If someone were to ask you what the secret of your life is, may you be able to answer with the words of Mother Teresa: “My secret is simple--I pray.”
(Most of my inspiration for this blog, and all the quotes from Mother Teresa, come from a beautiful book called Mother Teresa’s Secret Fire, by Fr. Joseph Langford. It changed the way I pray.)
Written by: Joseph Bergan, seminarian of the Diocese of Baton Rouge