Thursday, May 22, 2014

LET NOTHING DISTURB YOU

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things,
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

This little poem of Saint Teresa of Ávila [pictured below] was found in her breviary after her death. Some refer to it as 'Saint Teresa's bookmark.’ Saint Teresa is one of the best-loved saints in Catholic Christianity as well as being a spiritual figure of universal appeal. She was, and remains, a giant in the Christian mystical tradition for which I have great respect.

Now, when the word ‘mystic’ is used, some people think of gurus, swamis, transcendental (or at least ‘altered’) states of expanded consciousness, and all sorts of supernaturalism. Not so. As I’ve said elsewhere, mysticism is not essentially about ‘mystical experiences’---experiences come and go---but is focused on the lasting experience of a greater reality, leading to a transforming union with that reality. For me, that reality is not something ‘out-of-this-world,’ but the extraordinary in the ordinary.

A mystic is a person who is aware of their innate oneness with all life and, in particular, with the stream of life and the sacred ‘essence’ of life. That essence can be sensed in a beautiful sunset or flower, the birth of a baby, and even in the loss of someone dear to us. Yes, even the ‘dark night of the soul’ experience can be a mystical experience. The mystic not only knows that all life is one, they feel and sense its oneness in the deepest part of their being.

Church window at the Convent of St Teresa

Saint Teresa’s verse really speaks for itself. Such good advice isn’t it? We trouble ourselves over so many things, yet all things are transient, temporary and ephemeral, all things pass away (including us). Yes, all things … except One, namely, God. Who or what is God? Well, the word is not the thing, as Krishnamurti would say. The word ‘God’ is just that—a word. The reality behind that word is the important thing. That reality exists even if you do not believe in a traditional God or in any god at all for that matter. What is that reality? Well, for one thing, it is the stream of life itself which marches on inexorably---the stream of which in which all things, including us, live and move and have their being. Things come and go, and wax and wane, but life itself is eternal and unceasing. It alone remains when all other things disappear from view. It is more than enough. That life is all about us, and in us. It existed before we came into this world, and it will exist long after we have left this world. All we have to do in this life is to experience the reality of our being-ness as it truly is. Curiously, and almost paradoxically, the only way we can experience the very essence of life is from one moment to the next. Yes, life---also known as truth or reality---can only be experienced and known from moment to moment. It is something dynamic. It is never static.

This is where mindfulness---in effect, a secular and everyday (indeed, moment to moment) form of the mystic's 'prayer of quiet'---comes into the picture. The regular practice of mindfulness helps you to appreciate the transience and ephemeral nature of all things on the one hand and the permanence of the stream of life itself on the other. As we pay mindful attention ('choiceless awareness') to life unfolding from one moment to the next we become increasingly knowingly aware of, and acute to, the ongoing rhythm of life, its ebb and flow, its highs and lows. (We are knowingly aware when we are aware that we are aware.) We learn to cling to nothing, for all that we cling to will eventually pass away. True, we enjoy, even cherish, those brief, ephemeral moments of love and happiness we have with our loved ones and friends. Those moments are all the more precious when we come to understand that they will not last. But we must be prepared to let them go when it is time so to do.

I said above that Saint Teresa’s verse speaks for itself. Well, almost. There’s one line which seems---at least to me---to be a bit cryptic and seemingly misplaced. The line is, ‘Patience obtains all things.’ What has patience got to do with the main ideas of the poem, namely, that all things pass, God never changes, God alone suffices, so let nothing disturb or frighten you? There is another English word that also begins with the letter ‘p’ that comes close to what Saint Teresa meant by the word ‘patience.’ That word is perseverance, and here is something the mystic said about that matter in some sound advice she gave to her sisters:

... I say that it is very important – it is everything to have a strong and firm resolution, not to stop till we arrive at the water [union with God], come what may, or whatever may be the consequence, or whatever it may cost us. No matter who complains, whether I reach there or die on the way, or have not courage to endure the troubles which I may meet with, or though the world should sink under us ... (The Way of Perfection, Chapter XXI)

Patience. Perseverance. Resolution. No, we are not talking about so-called will power, which is nothing more than the imposition of one desire over all others, thus subjugating the latter. We are talking about something closer to courage and fortitude---guts, some call it. Life is tough, damn hard, and bloody unfair at times. We all know that to be the case. Bad things do indeed happen to good people, assuming for the moment that any of us are truly good. Patience---‘stick-at-it-ness’---obtains all things. What does Teresa mean by ‘all things’? Material things? Riches of a financial kind? No, nothing like that. Those things tend only to result in further disturbance and fear. The words ‘all things’ refer to ‘all things that truly matter’---that is, spiritual riches, enlightenment, God. (Note, in that respect, that the very next line says, ‘Whoever has God lacks nothing.’ Get the point?) Saint Teresa, as I see it, is saying that if we persevere, and are diligent, single-minded and strong, we will come to know that God---our True Self, the very ground of our being---is One. All is One. The One is all. The One becomes the many. We are one of the many. May we come to know that the many are One.

We are truly patient when we know and understand in the very depth of our being that all things pass except life itself. We are truly patient when we so detach ourselves from the everyday ups and downs of life that we are capable of seeing what some have called ‘the larger view,’ namely, the endless stream of life itself of which we are ever a part. We are truly patient when we are prepared to let go of all that holds us back, including all those little ‘false selves’ with which we so closely identify. We then experience a deep sense of life fulfilling itself. Yes, our joys will all come to an end, as will our sufferings. Those we love will eventually vanish from view. Even this world as we now know it will come to an end. God---or, if you wish, life, truth, and love---alone remains … and suffices.

Here’s another word for the type of patience to which Teresa refers---lightness. Yes, if we would travel far, we must travel light. That advice was given to me many decades ago by a bishop when I was confirmed in the Anglican faith. I wish I had heeded that good advice when I first received it. I might not have suffered as much, nor caused as much suffering to others, as I did.

I will finish with another little verse that I like:

GOD AND I
I walked with God, God walked with me,
But which was God, and which was me?
And thus I found, the Truth profound,
I live in God, God lives with me.  Anon.



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2 comments:

  1. I am not one to wait until a person dies to send them flowers, but to send them while they yet live so that they too may enjoy them. This dispositional practice of mine will only seem "corny" to those who have not yet learned the virtue of embracing the value that is resident in another living soul, because they see them as separate being, which they are not! So then, here is a fresh cut bouquet just for you, inspired to be given by the occasion of your latest writing...

    Something of your writing style that works well for me is your ability to creatively and clearly give meaning to certain terms, i.e. within this presentation "patience", "perseverance", "will power", and "lightness"respectively. Whether used as definition of terms, mere defining statements or simply something otherwise expounded upon for any reason, they always add dimension to the thought you are presenting, at least for me. Whether your explanations regarding the terms are original with you or another scholarly soul, the way you bring them to the surface of your written thoughts and place them fittingly in the setting of your context is an admirable skill.

    In particular, I love how your have defined in this blog the expression "will power" as being "the imposition of one desire over all others". My friend, you have provided something for me to contemplate all my waking hours of this given day for which I am tremendously grateful.

    I greatly esteem the wisdom and clarification contained in all your writings. In my humble opinion, if it is true that a "laborer is worthy of his hire", then you are worthy of being compensated for your bold efforts to write from your Truth, through sincere acknowledgement of your gifts being a source of blessing by those inclined to freely say so. Yes, I am so inclined and often accused of flattery. If affirmation of souls is "flattery" then finish the trial, indict me and throw me, not simply "in", but "under" the jailhouse. I know clearly the thoughts and intents of my heart are not conformed to the wayfaring mindset of Caesar's world, but to the ways and means of a "kingdom not of this world" (Cf. Jesus at his trial). I never sense you are out to convert me, but to offer rays of enlightenment to brighten and give meaning to my Journey..

    May blessing and peace pursue you all the days of your life.

    Larry

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  2. Bless you, Larry. You're a wonderful man. You know the real meaning of Jesus' words, 'You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.' Take care.

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