As a roving reporter for my high school newspaper, I was once selected to cover the visit of a foreign nun to a local women’s college. Like any other teenager, I was most excited about being away from classes that day. So, I gathered my camera, tape recorder, notebook, and off I went, not knowing the slightest thing about my subject. This of course was before the time of household computers and google searches for gathering background information.
The event began with a worship service, followed by a luncheon at the end of which this nun began to speak. She shared about her work with the poor and the dying in India. One might expect this to be a depressing talk to listen to, but the effect was quite the opposite. This woman radiated joy and peace, which could be felt at the back of the room where I was. By the time the reporters could ask questions I was mesmerized. Something in my heart was awakened. In front of all these reporters from the local newspapers and television stations, I boldly raised my hand. Finally she called upon me. I blurted out, “How do you become holy?” You could hear a pin drop in the room. Not the kind of question to go on the 6:00 pm news.
As you have probably guessed, the nun I encountered was none other than Mother Theresa of Calcutta. I met her the year before she won the Nobel Peace Prize and truly became a worldwide household name. As providence would have it, I was so nervous that I only remembered the first few words of her answer to me. I blanked out on all the rest. So the only response I recall from one of the 20th century’s most exemplary lives was: “It all begins with prayer.”
“It all begins with prayer.”
Our gospel lesson from Mark today gives us a snapshot into the life of Jesus. Jesus and his small band of disciples left the synagogue and went to Simon Peter’s home. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and she is restored to health, and she in turn got up to serve everyone. Word of this healing traveled around and at sundown, the townsfolk brought the sick and the demon possessed to Jesus, and he cured many. Mark tells us that the whole town was gathered at the door. And the next day it’s more of the same: “Everyone is searching for you” the disciples say to Jesus. The demands on Jesus are endless, the need is great, and the work has just begun. What kept Jesus going?
The key to Jesus’ perseverance, to his successful ministry, is right in the middle of this passage. Mark tells us in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus went to a deserted place, and there he prayed. It all begins with prayer. Jesus, who was one with the Father, still needed to pray. He still needed to set aside time out of his day to be alone and get with God. That’s how Jesus made it all work and that’s what he modeled for us. It all begins with prayer.
Whether we want to call it becoming holy or want to think of it in ordinary terms of staying healthy or achieving balance in life, we need to pray. There are a lot of us who say, “I can’t pray” or “I’m not a good pray-er.” But this is not true. Anyone can pray. Each one of us can pray.
Part of the confusion about prayer is that there is a big difference between saying prayers and praying. We can all say a prayer and it really may not mean anything other than the words on the paper it’s printed on. To pray, as Jesus would have us, means to engage our hearts in casual conversation with God, even as if we’re talking to another human being. We pray with the bluntness of the Psalms. In this way prayer centers us and opens up the depths of our being to God’s mercy and love and it opens us up to each other.
Because praying is first and foremost about relating to God, prayer isn’t really about the quantity or quality of the words. Jesus advises against piling up the words in prayer, (Matt. 6:7) and Paul assures us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26). So, we pray with words, but we also pray with our silence. With both words and silence and the groans of our heart we pour out our confessions, our petitions, our thanks. We can allow God’s will to take over. We can learn to trust in the providence and mercy of God even if our prayers are not answered in the way we want them to be.
I’ve heard of some creative responses to developing a consistent prayer life. One friend uses prayer partners and her prayer group and takes her dog on long walks to focus her mind to pray everyday. Another colleague uses his time on the treadmill to pray. And of course, many of us have learned to use our time on the morning subway commute, or the wait on check out lines, as times to pray. If we think about it we can all find creative ways to make praying a priority in our lives. In this way we develop the habit of “praying without ceasing,” throughout the day, as Paul encourages us (1 Thess. 5:17).
The great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, wrote:
“Why is it so important that you are with God and God alone on the mountain top? It's important because it's the place in which you can listen to the voice of the One who calls you beloved. To pray is to listen to the One who calls you "my beloved.
That is what we need to discover and understand in our prayer life: To experience and know the love and presence of God. Isn’t this what Jesus experienced as he prayed in that deserted place? He connected to the Father, and that love he received filled him. That divine love sustained him and enabled him to carry out his public ministry of healing and expelling demons and teaching the multitudes that flocked to him on a daily basis. It was divine love which no doubt sustained Mother Theresa in ministering to thousands of the poor and dying in Calcutta for over 50 years. . Prayer and service is what after all is what makes us holy. It all begins with prayer.
So pray. In the car at the stoplight. Pray in your closet at home. Pray as you get up in the morning and go to bed in the evening, and throughout the day. Pray for those whom you facebook or see on TV. Just pray.
Let us make time for prayer, alone and together. Let us serve as Jesus did wherever God has placed us. If there is any confusion about what to do, there is only one thing we need to remember: it all begins with prayer. Amen