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 suffice.
St. Theresa of Avila (1515-1582)
This prayer was found in Theresa’s breviary after her death. This little prayer, containing deep spiritual wisdom, lays a blueprint for a life of unfathomable joy, peace, happiness, and capable of bringing us into the threshold of intimacy with God.
Before we delve into the beauty of this prayer, let us attempt to respond to a possible objection concerning the practicality of this prayer. It is said that Theresa composed this prayer as a religious who didn’t have to deal with various challenges, problems, worries, fears, and difficulties that present day men and women encounter on a daily basis. This prayer seems to fly in the face of one who struggles to make both ends meet. Is it spiritually helpful to tell someone “let nothing disturb you or frighten you” when one is laid off from work, lacks sufficient financial resources, faces chronic illness and death, or deals with the death of a loved one in the family?
Let us be honest. Isn’t it a fact that no walk of life be it single, married, lay, or religious is never a promise of a Rose Garden? This is true even in the life of St. Theresa. Though, her life as a religious was devoid of mundane struggles, still she encountered challenges that are associated with religious life in the convent. This prayer would have given her strength not only to surmount the daily challenges of a religious community life but also the problems and difficulties she encountered in her attempt to reform the Carmelite Order. I strongly believe that her prayer is a reflection of her tremendous trust and faith in God that enabled her to rise above the obstacles, doubts, misunderstandings, and ridicule she encountered both from her own Order and the Ecclesiastical authorities. In spite of the various odds stacked against her she never gave up in her rallying cry to return to the Spirit of Carmel; in this God alone was her console and foundation. It was not an easy endeavor.
In the convent at the Incarnation, lot of emphasis was placed on minute rubrics, forms, and ceremonies when praying the Divine Office. Pietistic spirituality was the order of the day. Silence and fasting were encouraged to have a climate for continual prayer. It was more of going through the different periods of vocal prayer. It was in this climate of spiritual practices that Theresa called for the cultivation of mental and an interior life of prayer, recollection, contemplation on the humanity of Christ, especially the wounded Christ, and a deep longing for mystical life. For her, prayer was to be with God who is always present to us.
In wanting to fulfill her vision she also had to deal with the tension between the intellectuals (the learned men) and spiritual men (experienced in prayer); men of learning looked down upon mystical life and recollection. Her call for reformation was right in the midst of a climate of distrust, skepticism, and hostility towards mental prayer and mystical manifestations.
There was also the possibility of being brought before the Inquisition to be branded as an Illuminist. The hardliners of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in their reaction to Protestant Reformation looked upon any reform with suspicion and mistrust. It was indeed a climate of social, political, and religious upheaval. But her forte was God alone.
We also got to keep in mind that Theresa tried to bring about the needed reform as a woman. It is sufficient to recall the degree of importance given to women and the significance of the roles they were called to play in her society. Definitely, a woman calling for reform in prayer life would not have gone down well with men who sat in judgment of her intentions and actions.
No amount of difficulties and challenges would frighten or disturb her in fulfilling her vision, because everything she did sprang from her deep and intimate relationship with God. God was sufficient and nothing else mattered. In 1562 she founded the first reformed Carmel in Avila and she went on to establish 17 in all. With St. John of the Cross in 1568 she set up the first convent of Discalced Carmelites in Duruelo. In 1580 she obtained permission from Rome for her reformed Discalced Carmelites as a separate autonomous Province which became the starting point for the Discalced Carmelite Order.
Like a child passing through different stages of growth, so too, prayer develops through different stages: vocal prayer, mental prayer, contemplation and recollection, and finally culminating in a life of union with the indwelling presence of the Trinity. Moving from one stage to another does not imply abandoning the previous stages of prayer. The point is, as she describes in her Interior Castle, prayer life is a journey from the outermost mansion to the center where the God is waiting for us. She tirelessly labored to reform the Carmelites and desired for all a deeper understanding of prayer i.e., just to be with the one who loves us; a love that will bring us to an intimacy with God. In this endeavor she was ridiculed, misunderstood, faced challenges and difficulties, and was even prepared to face the Inquisition. God alone was her solace, strength, and unchanging constant. Out of this relationship with God she could pray, “Let nothing frighten you, let nothing worry you…”
This prayer worked not only for Theresa but can also become our sacred mantra. We shall explore the meaning of this wonderful prayer in the coming blogs.
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