8 Ways Mother Teresa Changed My Life (Day 1)

One Heart Full of LoveIn celebration of the canonization of Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) on September 4, I would like to share with you eight lessons and prayers that I discovered from reading Mother Teresa’s writings. Feel free to share some of your favorites as well!

Thanks for reading!

Lesson #1  The Power of Loving the “Other”.  I first discovered the writings of St. Teresa of Calcutta riding at the back of a cross-country bus in Mexico. A recent Bible school graduate, I had been presented with two options: Spend a year in Singapore, helping to start up a new Bible school for local pastors-in-training, or going back to school and becoming a book editor. I decided to take a few weeks to visit missionary friends, traveling by bus from Acapulco to northeastern Mexico. The adventure gave me plenty of time to think.

My backpack contained only a few essentials: a few apples, a roll of TP, a change of clothes and toiletries, my Bible and journal, and two books that had been recommended to me — Elisabeth Elliot’s autobiographical These Strange Ashes, and Mother Teresa’s, One Heart Full of Love. Early in the book, Mother Teresa recounts a story of going to help a local Hindu family with eight children who had not eaten for days. She writes:

“I could see the specter of hunger drawn on the faces of the little children when we found the family. . . In spite of their need, the mother had the courage and compassion to divide the rice that I had brought into two portions. Then she went out… It seems a Moslem family with the same number of children lived across the street. She knew they were hungry, too.”[1]

Her act of no-strings-attached generosity surprised me. I had been taught that “real” missionaries always focus on spiritual needs. And yet, nowhere in the text did it appear that Mother Teresa had prayed with the family as she handed over the food. What was more, she had clearly seen in that Hindu mother something. . . virtuous. What did it mean? Could one truly share the love of God in such a simple way, without expectation that the gesture would lead to a Bible study? This was an uncomfortable thought planted in my evangelical brain.

Mother Teresa’s “ecumenical mindset” flew in the face of my missionary training, which had elevated “church planting” over any other kind of service. I had not yet discovered the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy as such, or set foot in a Catholic Mass. And yet the words and actions of this dear “saint of the slums” resonated in me, and reminded me of the words of the Lord in which he separates the sheep (which up to that point I thought meant “Bible-believing Christians”) and goats (“everyone else”). And yet the example of Mother Teresa (a Catholic!), made me look again:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 

And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 Gulp. Reading further in the book about Mother Teresa, I saw that even as she tended souls as they passed into the presence of God, she did not force them to say the “sinner’s prayer.” Rather, she urged them to face God without the weight of unforgiveness and regret upon their souls, to find peace before they died. Her heart of Mother Teresa was first and foremost . . . a mother’s.

Although I had been a Christian all my life, poring over that book on a bumpy Mexican bus I saw something that challenged my most treasured presuppositions about God’s love, seeing its simplest and purest form in the life of a Catholic nun – the last place I ever expected to find it. This was the first lesson I learned from Mother Teresa . . . but it would not be the last. As I worked, I took away seven more important lessons from the life and writings of this great lady, which we will examine more closely in the coming days. I’ve written eight daily posts, to take us from the canonization of Mother Teresa to the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

 Lesson #2: Take Mary with You.

Lesson #3: God Works Miracles When We Make Ourselves Small.

Lesson #4:  God Enjoys the Simplest Prayers

Lesson #5:  Faithful Love Sweetens Life 

Lesson #6: God Transforms Our Pain

Lesson#7: God measures “success” differently than we do.

Lesson #8:  Joy, Like Love, is a Choice.

 

If you are enjoying this series, you might also enjoy my two new books on her life and writings: Advent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta (preorders ship 9/16) and Lent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta, (preorders ship 1/17), both available through Servant Books/Franciscan Media.

[1] Mother Teresa, One Heart Full of Love. Edited by Jose Juis Gonzalez-Balado (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1988), 9.

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40-Day Challenge: What Now? (Day 40)

Okay, for the final time . . . begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Holy Saturday has special significance for me:  It is the day I was welcomed into the Church after nearly a year of studying and contemplating whether I should become Catholic. On that Easter Vigil afternoon in 1994, dressed in a beautiful white gown and red sash, I lit my candle and walked steadily into the sanctuary. 

In the weeks leading up to that moment, I’d had spiritual “cold feet.” It would have been much easier to simply walk away — and if I had done so, I was confident that my friends and family would have considered it an answer to their prayers.

But in the end, I knew what I had to do. And so I took a deep breath, and followed. Seventeen years later, I look back and honestly cannot remember why I’d had such misgivings. And I cannot imagine what my life would be like today, had I not made that leap of faith.

As our “40-Day Challenge” draws to a close, it’s time to take stock. Perhaps you look back over your life, and cannot remember a time when your husband did not occupy a corner of your heart. And perhaps that is a good and reassuring thing . . . or maybe at this particular moment it seems more like a life sentence. Either way, you can rest in two important certainties:

  • Feelings are not facts.  Your present feelings can — and likely will — change many times over the course of your marriage. Some days you will look across the breakfast table and feel butterflies. Other days, the sensation will be much less pleasant (particularly if you spent a sleepless night). Enjoy the first. Endure the second. Either way, it will pass.
  • Love is not a feeling.  Love is something you wake up every morning and choose. “Today, just for today, I am going to love.”  On good days, warm-and-fuzzy feelings are the icing on the cake. But seriously, who wants a plate of nothing but frosting? The cake is the whole point.  The frosting makes the day sweeter — but it cannot provide real sustenance.  Feelings can give you quite a rush . . . but a marriage is based on a daily choice to love.

I’d like to thank those of you who have already taken the time to write to me.  Some of you are asking God to work a miracle in your home, and especially in the heart of your husband.  Others found a particular challenge especially timely.  As we place ourselves firmly in the hand of God, abandoning ourselves to His will, amazing things can happen!

One last thing as we end this challenge:  What did you find especially helpful? Are there some themes you wished that I’d included here, but didn’t — or that you would like to see me revise for next year’s Challenge? I’d love to hear from you!  You can comment here, if you want to . . . or if you would like to contact me privately, you can drop me a line at heidi.hess.saxton@gmail.com.

Today’s Challenge:  Create a love letter for your husband, telling him about your Challenge experience.

Today’s Prayer:   “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you. All things pass away, but God never changes. Patience obtains all things. She who possesses God will never want for anything. God alone suffices.” (Teresa of Avila)

40-Day Challenge: Zzzzzz…. (Day 39)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

“Why do they call it ‘Good Friday’?” my nine-year-old wanted to know.  It was a fair question, why we should commemorate the day of the Lord’s death, calling it “good”? Many other adjectives spring to mind: “merciful” … “sad” … “dark” … “deadly.”

And yet, the Church calls it “good,” for without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the heartache of the Cross, we would never experience the victory of Resurrection.

On today, the next-to-last day of the Challenge, we come to the last letter of the alphabet, “Zzzzzzzz.”  It recalls the rest that is such an essential part of every life, from beginning to the end. “In peace will I lay down and rest, for Thou, O Lord, makest me to dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).

In marriage, too, we have times of rest — sometimes peaceful, other times fitful. When my husband’s burden becomes too heavy and he grows restless, as his wife I’m in a unique position: I can’t tell him what to do and expect instant obedience, as a parent would. Nor am I a casual acquaintence, who has the luxury of shrugging it all away. As his life’s partner, I have the serious responsibility to walk alongside him, to help him where I can and pray when I cannot.

As wives we must each walk our own “Via Dolorosa,” experiencing vicariously the pain of our beloved. Just as Mary followed her Son in his suffering, so we must endure with courage when those we love suffer. And so, for this final “Challenge,” I’d like to take up the Stations of the Cross that Pope John Paul II first celebrated on Good Friday, 1991.

Station One:  Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus, just as you prayed until you sweated drops of blood, so may I persevere  faithfully in my vocation, even when I feel alone and afraid, until the darkness of Gethsemane gives way to Eden’s dawn.

Station Two:  Jesus is Betrayed by Judas.  Jesus, as you looked into the eyes of that wayward apostle, you did not hate him for his weakness and unfaithfulness. Rather you embraced with renewed certainty the way of the Cross.  Create in me such a heart of love, that no betrayal or infidelity or weakness of any kind can possibly extinguish it.

Station Three: Jesus is Condemned by Sanhedrin.  Jesus, you did not turn on your accusers, men whose religious sensibilities blinded them to the reality before their very eyes.  When I am tempted to shield myself from truth behind a wall of false piety, draw me into the light of your Sacred Heart.

Station Four: Jesus is Denied by Peter. Jesus, you understood the hearts of your apostles, their weaknesses and strengths.  In Peter you saw both the man who would deny you . . . and the man who, filled by the Spirit, would one day lead your Church. Fill me with your Spirit, that in strength as well as weakness, my life will be a testiment of faithful service to my family . . . and to you.

Station Five: Jesus is Judged by Pilate.  Jesus, as you stood before Pilate, you did not defend yourself even though you saw that the man was more concerned about pleasing the people than administering justice. When I am unfairly judged, give me the courage to trust in the providence of God, who “makes all things work together for good.”

Station Six: Jesus is Scourged and Crowned with Thorns. Jesus, in your moment of vulnerability you could have called the hosts of heaven to your defense. Instead you bore it all for love for us. When the one I love is suffering, give me strength to offer up his pain as I do my own, that nothing will be wasted in self-pity or bitterness.

Station Seven: Jesus Bears the Cross. Jesus did not push away the instrument of his own death, but put one foot after another, willing to face whatever was ahead out of love for God. When I am surrounded by doubt and uncertainty, dear Jesus, send your angels to walk alongside me, taking each moment as it comes.

Station Eight: Jesus is Helped by Simon the Cyrene to Carry His Cross. Jesus, in your moment of fear and desperation you were not too proud to refuse the assistance of those who came to your aid. When I am tempted to keep my burdens to myself with unseemly self-reliance, give me the humility to accept the help that comes to me.

Station Nine: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem.  Jesus, even in your great pain and torment you had compassion on the crowds pressing all around you, speaking the truth to them in love. Help me, Lord, not to get so caught up in my own drama that I neglect to see the needs around me, and to minister to them as you give me strength to do so.

Station Ten: Jesus is Crucified.  Jesus, you did not shy away from the most painful moment of your divine call.  Give me the strength to persevere in mine, even when the rest of the world does not understand why I would choose this path.

Station Eleven: Jesus Promises His Kingdom to the Good Thief.  Jesus, you recognize the goodness in the heart of one that the world had judged as evil. Forgive me, Lord, when I am so persuaded by the “hopelessness” of a particular human soul, that I refuse to pray for him. Help me to love him, rather, as you love him.

Station Twelve:  Jesus Speaks to His Mother and Disciple.  Jesus, in your agony you did not forget to attend to the welfare of those closest to you, creating spiritual bonds of love that would transcend all time and space. Enlarge my heart, Lord Jesus, for my brothers and sisters all over the world, that their concerns and needs would become my own.

Station Thirteen: Jesus Dies.  “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” This was your cry, Lord Jesus, as you drew your final breath. Make this my most heartfelt cry, as well. “Lord Jesus, I trust in You!”

Station Fourteen: Jesus is Placed in the Tomb.  Lord Jesus, as the hands of those who loved you placed you in the tomb, they must have believed that they would never see you again. When the world seems hopeless, Lord Jesus, give me grace to keep my eyes on you, and to trust you to breathe your divine life that restores my soul. For nothing is impossible with God!

Today’s Challenge:  Is someone you know struggling in their marriage?  Offer these stations on their behalf, and pray for the miracle of new life into that “hopeless” situation.

Today’s Prayer:  “We adore you, Christ, and we bless you. For by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.”

40-Day Challenge: Yes! (Day 38)

  Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

   A few weeks ago, on March 25, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation, when the    Blessed Virgin Mary gave her assent to God’s plan, by which she was to become the Theotokos . . . the God Bearer.  Her “yes” set a series of events in motion that would change the whole human story, making us not just friends but children of God.

Today we celebrate a “yes” of a very different kind:  The moment when the Son of God gave his yes — freely and without equivocation — to God’s redemptive plan. It was the ultimate gesture of love, offered for the benefit of a group of people who had demonstrated time and again unprecedented disregard for such unmerited divine favor.

Now, the question comes back to us:  What are we willing to sacrifice?  When we are called to take up our cross and follow, exactly what form will that burden take?

As you consider these questions (as today’s challenge), consider the words of Amy Carmichael in her spiritual classic “Calvary Love” (an excerpt of this book may be found here):

If I hold on to choices of any kind, just because they are my choice, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

If I am soft to myself and slide comfortably into self-pity and self-sympathy; If I do not by the grace of God practice fortitude, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

If I myself dominate myself, if my thoughts revolve round myself, if I am so occupied with myself I rarely have “a heart at leisure from itself,” then I know nothing of Calvary love.

If, the moment I am conscious of the shadow of self crossing my threshold, I do not shut the door, and keep that door shut, then I know nothing of Calvary love. …

If the ultimate, the hardest, cannot be asked of me; if my fellows hesitate to ask it and turn to someone else, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

If I covet any place on earth but the dust at the foot of the Cross, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

That which I know not, teach Thou me, O Lord, my God.

40-Day Challenge: X-amination of Conscience (Day 37)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

The other day I came across this “Examination of Conscience for Married Couples” by Father Thomas Weinandy.  If you have not yet been to confession this Lent, why not take this opportunity to prepare yourself … and to make arrangements to go?

The sacrament of reconciliation does not need to be an onerous chore; it is a bath for the soul that helps us to enter wholeheartedly into the celebration that is Easter. Just as there is no Easter without a Good Friday, so there is no healing without an acknowledgement that we need to be healed.

Today’s Challenge:  Read the Examination. What one area do you feel most convicted about the need to change? What is the “opposite virtue” that you need to practice in order to get rid of this vice?

Today’s Prayer:  “Dear Heavenly Father, help me to cultivate a heart of greater love and generosity toward my spouse. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!”

40-Day Challenge: Wisdom (Day 36)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone.
The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.

Lin Yutang, author and inventor of the Chinese typewriter

Today’s Challenge:  Time to take personal inventory:  Are there any areas of your life in which the good has become the enemy of the best?  What “non-essentials” do you need to eliminate in order to make room for that which is of ultimate importance?

Today’s Prayer:  Create in me a heart of generous wisdom, O God.

40-Day Challenge: Wealth (Day 35)

Begin with the Prayer of Abandonment.

“A man’s wealth is measured by what he doesn’t need.” Henry David Thoreau

  This past summer, Craig’s parents sent the four of us to Mackinac Island for the Grand Hotel’s spectacular July 4th Extravaganza. It was an unbelievably generous gift, from the suite overlooking the lake and pool to the nonstop food and entertainment packed into every minute of the day.

Some of the entertainment we provided ourselves: We hadn’t been on the island an hour when Chris and his friend Jacob tested the efficiency of the hotel security staff (followed by the local constabulary), who searched for the boys for two solid hours until the boys wandered back onto the hotel property. Even when Chris’ mud-stained  bike shorts besmirched the pristine loveseat in the manager’s office, his smile never waivered. “Enjoy your stay!”

Money — both the possession of it, and the lack thereof — can change relationships, even within families. Sadly, having it can cause even more difficulties than not having it. Some of the most generous and genuinely kindhearted people I’ve ever met were desperately poor.  On the other hand, money can also create unnecessary barriers between people, leading to a poverty of spirit that Blessed Mother Teresa said is the worst kind of poverty.

Jesus once observed that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (Mt 19:24). Once the rich man arrives at the Pearly Gates, of course, the playing fields are leveled … the streets are paved with gold, and resplendant mansions have been prepared for each of us. Everyone who makes it, wins the proverbial lottery.

The whole point of what we do here, then, is to learn what it means to be content with our present circumstances, whatever they might be. Like almost every other facet of human experience, our financial well-being can change in the blink of an eye; what must never change is our trust in Divine Providence.

Today’s Challenge:  Are there any financial issues between you and your husband that you cannot resolve between the two of you?   Is this an area of your life in which you need to practice greater Abandonment, and allow your spouse to encourage you to greater frugality … or greater generosity?

Today’s Prayer:  “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the universe came into being at Your Word.  As your children, we are your beneficiaries . . . and stewards of all we possess.  Help me to be as generous with others as you are with me!”