Just Spirituality – notes from Mae Elise Cannon’s book

Just Spirituality by Mae Elise Cannon

One of the strengths of the social justice tradition, according to Richard Foster, is “constantly calling us to a right ordering of society—right relationships and right living.”2 The tradition of social activism also has significant weaknesses, however. Foster identifies one of the greatest risks of the social justice stream as “caring for social needs without reference to the condition of the heart.”3 This book seeks to address the core of that concern. Why is the cultivation of one’s soul so important? What differentiates the engagement of the body of Christ from the justice-oriented action of other groups? How might we as Christian leaders and servants learn from those who have gone before us? What can we do to be molded, shaped and transformed more into the image of Christ in our work of compassion and justice?  81

Mother Teresa (India), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Germany), Watchman Nee (China), Martin Luther King, Jr. (United States), Fairuz (Lebanon), Desmond Tutu (South Africa) and Oscar Romero (El Salvador). How did the spiritual lives of these leaders influence their concern for the poor, their responses to the oppressed and their activism to overturn unjust systems?  89

Spirituality is the mechanism by which we come to understand God’s work in our souls and the world around us. The spiritual lives of Christians are further fostered by discipline and intentional engagement with God through Jesus Christ. Just Spirituality presents the case that the practice of disciplines—such as silence, prayer, study, community, worship, sabbath and submission—provide the fuel by which people are inspired to make a difference in the world. These disciplines are not mutually exclusive, and certainly many, if not all, were practiced simultaneously by the spiritual leaders highlighted in this book. It is helpful to look at the distinct nature of each of these spiritual practices, however, in order to consider how we might apply them to our own lives. This book provides lessons from history as Christians in the twenty-first century seek to integrate spiritual lives with God’s call to make disciples of all nations, respond to the needs of the least of these and anticipate the kingdom of heaven. People often ask me whether there is a difference between Christian service and secular responses to needs in the world. I believe strongly that the Christian faith is of huge import and deeply affects the way individuals and groups respond to needs and injustices. Christians must pay close attention to the development of our souls if we desire to live out God’s justice in the world. There is a direct correlation between one’s relationship with God and actions of kindness, mercy, compassion and justice. The practice of spiritual disciplines empowers and equips Christians to better engage with society and exercise justice.  95


Mother Teresa understood how the spiritual discipline of silence changes us, inside and out. As a person becomes more connected to themselves and to God, clarity of purpose emerges out of the silence. The spiritual discipline of silence directly motivates and compels people toward other-oriented service.  115

Prayer and Study of Scripture

Bonhoeffer understood the relationship between silence and prayer. He said, “To pray is to be silent and at the same time to cry out, before God and in the presence of His Word.”5

Deeply motivated by the Scriptures, Bonhoeffer led a life of strict discipline and personal piety that included rituals of prayer throughout the day for himself and the seminary students he mentored. Bonhoeffer’s commitment to prayer sustained his conviction to live out Christian discipleship regardless of the cost.  118

Nee’s devoted commitment to the spiritual discipline of study of Scripture is a marked example of the power of the gospel to build up the body of Christ.  124


Richard Foster claims Christian community is one of the major weapons of fighting the global battle against injustice. In pursuit of what King called “beloved community,” King understood the transformational power of God at work through the lives of people around him. As a result of God’s power through the community of Montgomery, King became one of the leading voices of proclamation on behalf of God’s love and justice in the world.  128

Lebanese Christian singer Fairuz, whose worship and music has penetrated the divides of nationality and religion and become a unifying force for Arabs around the world. Music has often played a significant part in justice-oriented movements, from the hymns of the civil rights movement in the United States to Fairuz’s Easter album about the holy city of Jerusalem. Fairuz’s personal piety is a source of strength and centeredness for her strong justice-oriented conviction. Her worship music and Christ-centeredness are beautiful expressions of the spiritual discipline of worship as a call to freedom.  132


Desmond Tutu, one of the leading reconcilers involved in ending apartheid in South Africa, is a justice-oriented leader who took to heart the commands of Scripture for rest and the observance of the sabbath. Looking at Bishop Tutu’s example, one becomes deeply convicted about the necessity of observing the sabbath to enhance movements of justice.  139

Submission to the cross and the crosses we face

Bishop Romero, who was deeply committed to the faith and regularly engaged in contemplative practices, reminded the church of the need for submission to the cross of Christ. His leadership directly challenged people in power in El Salvador by criticizing injustice, oppression, assassinations and torture. His example and willingness to devote his life to ending injustice is a profound example of the spiritual discipline of submission.  142

Each of the practices focuses on an aspect of the spiritual life that helps to put us in a place where God can speak, intervene and transform our hearts and minds

Each of the practices focuses on an aspect of the spiritual life that helps to put us in a place where God can speak, intervene and transform our hearts and minds. Mother Teresa reminds us that the “silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God.”6

Prayer and the study of Scripture are powerful tools by which we can remain connected with our Creator and understand the world.

Lest our pride become a stumbling block, community provides an earthly voice to hold us accountable while offering encouragement and admonishment along the way.

The Lord is certainly worthy to be praised in our worship. As we gain a better understanding of God’s heart for justice, our worship becomes both more holy and righteous. I pray this book might provide some encouragement for rest and observance of the sabbath as we submit ourselves to the powerful and saving person of Christ Jesus.  155

“For Mother Teresa, everything was one person at a time—‘one, one, one, one’ she would say.”6  188

Her practice of silence created room for prayer and space for her relationship with God to grow.  190

For Mother Teresa, silence was a prerequisite to prayer and the ability to meet with God. Prayer, through the means of silence, took upon itself the form of deep intimacy with God and with Jesus. “And when the time comes and we can’t pray it is very simple: if Jesus is in my heart let Him pray, let me allow Him to pray in me, to talk to his Father in the silence of my heart,” she would say. “If I cannot speak, He will speak; if I cannot pray, He will pray.”7  190

The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.”8  194 …view these words as the secret to her success in ministry and care for the poor.9 Mother Teresa believed the presence of God transforms souls in silence. “Silence gives us a new outlook on everything,” she said; “We need silence to be able to touch souls.”10 She recognized and exemplified the powerful connection between silence and service, regularly teaching of their interconnectedness in her conviction to care for the poor: “I shall keep the silence of the heart with greater care so that in the silence of my heart I hear His words of comfort and from the fullness of my heart I comfort Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”11  196

“To envelop in silence God’s work within her soul, as Mary had at the Annunciation, was for Mother Teresa an expression of reverence and trust,” he writes.13 In her silence, she maintained a serene disposition while at the same time carrying the pain of Calvary. While she went about her daily responsibilities with joy and vigor, “her radiant smile hid an abyss of pain; it veiled the Calvary within.”14 For Mother Teresa, silence provided a place within which her internal suffering and darkness could be expressed. Her religious training taught and encouraged “silent suffering in union with Jesus Crucified.”15 Kolodiejchuk describes her quiet suffering as a “sacred silence,” which concealed her inner struggles as God continued to outwardly bless her ministry: “She believed that His showering so many graces on her work was His way of disguising her secret!”16  209

She promised her disciples: “If you are hungry to hear the voice of God, you will hear. To hear, you have to cut out all other things.”19  223

Silence before God means ridding one’s surroundings of “all other things” to make room for God to speak. Silence allows one to open one’s heart to hear and discern the whispering voice of God. Mother Teresa saw silence as a means to prayer and prayer as a means to the final destination of “the presence of God.”20  224

Jesus created the whole world and Jesus, whose Precious Blood washed away my sins, is in the tabernacle . . . This silence in the tabernacle, this perfect silence.”21 Silence provides a means by which one can talk with Jesus and be intimately connected, made one with Christ. “The more silent we are the closer to Jesus we become and the more we are like Jesus, the more holy we become,” Mother Teresa said. “So deepen your union with Him by your prayer life.” Mother Teresa believed that without silence there could be “no good prayers.”22 Rather, one experiences intimacy with Christ when the presence of God intermingles with the silence, which creates space for conversation between the soul and its Creator. This intimacy culminates in the form of the Eucharist. The tabernacle was a source of energy for Mother Teresa’s extensive and demanding activities, giving her strength to work daily among the poor and the dying. Each day she celebrated mass in the morning and observed the Eucharist in the afternoon. Her love and intimacy with Christ were expressed through her care for the poor.23  230

Mother Teresa taught that humility, through the acknowledgment of weakness and mistakes and by keeping silence, is a manifestation of Christlikeness. She believed that humility is not possible without silence: “Both humility and prayer grow from an ear, mind, and tongue that have lived in silence with God.”In the silence of body, mind and spirit, God speaks and reveals himself.  244

“If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you,” she said. “Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself.”25 Finding Calcutta: The Determination of One’s God-Ordained Purpose Silence is a means of hearing God within us and of sensing God’s heart for us and God’s heart for the world. Mother Teresa believed that every person carries God’s love and is called to his or her own unique mission of charity. For Mother Teresa, as God speaks in the silence of the heart, the fruit of love is manifested in service.  247

What greater things has God prepared for each of us? Over the past several decades, followers of Christ have longed individually and collectively for a clear sense of purpose. If the sales numbers of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life are any indication, people are desperate to know and better understand God’s purpose for their lives. Mother Teresa acknowledged that every person has a unique call on her or his life. We are each called to be ministers of the gospel, but the specific expression of what that looks like will be unique. Nonetheless, she regularly called the church to action and to taking responsibility for the world’s poor through acts of service and love.27  251

She (Dr. Mary Poplin) remembered the words of Mother Teresa, who told her one day, “God doesn’t call everybody to work with the poor like he does us. He calls some people to work with the rich. And he doesn’t call everybody to be poor like we are. He calls some people to be rich. . . . But God does call everybody to a Calcutta. You have to find yours.”28 In Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service, Poplin tells how her encounters with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity provoked a crisis in her own life, a crisis that revealed more clearly her purpose and calling. Poplin writes about some of her conclusions: “In JudeoChristianity, we will suffer for our purpose, and suffering can be redemptive and instructive. . . . We need to attain the desire of our heart—our purpose.”29 Silence serves as a means of helping us find our God-given purpose.  259

From the silence, she experienced God’s love, which compelled her to bring God’s love to the poorest of the poor.  Mother Teresa would often tell people: “Jesus is not waiting for you in the tabernacle but in the slums, touching, loving the poor.”30

Mother Teresa experienced Jesus in the slums: I never forget once I picked up a child six or seven years old from the street and to see the face of the child—hunger, real hunger. So I gave her bread and she started eating the bread crumb by crumb like this. And I said, “Eat the bread, you are hungry. Eat the bread.” And she said, “I’m afraid that when the bread is finished, I will be hungry again.” So small, she was afraid of being hungry again. She has already experienced the pain of hunger. . . . And that is the greatest injustice.31 267

Mother Teresa’s life’s motivation was for men, women and children who had been rejected by society to know the love of Jesus. She believed that large organizations and Christian institutions should address issues of injustice and fix the source of the problem.32 Her role, and the role of the sisters in her order, was to daily be in contact with those who suffered. She felt called to restore their sense of dignity as human beings who also were children of God.  272

Mother Teresa wrote: “The poor are hungry not only for food, they are hungry to be recognized as human beings. They are hungry for dignity and to be treated as we are treated. They are hungry for our love.”33  272


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