A reflection on Teresa’s bookmark

Sarah Hay reflects on this special blessing, taken from our Midday Prayer liturgy.

One of the things I love about our Northumbria Community daily prayers is that they were born out of ordinary, everyday experiences even before our Community founders realised that God was calling them to form a Community.  Over many years of discernment, God pulled forward scriptures and prayers that would help them to make sense of the journey and these were pieced together to form our daily offices.

One of the prayers that I have found most precious over these past few months of lock-down has been St Teresa’s bookmark – a beautiful blessing from the end of Midday Prayer.

In fact, it has been a prayer that has popped up for me often in my walk with Northumbria Community over the past 30 years or so, often completely separately to the daily prayer rhythms.  The words were a comfort as my parents’ health deteriorated, for example, and miles separated me from their worrying journey into dementia – during the days when my dad went ‘AWOL’ from the family home or my mum barricaded herself in the house. 

Latterly, they have rested with me at a time when I, like many, have sat helplessly alongside friends and family who have become ill with the corona virus.  And also when one of my close family has struggled significantly with mental health issues and when gritting my teeth and putting one foot in front of another has been the only way to step into each day.

Let nothing disturb thee,
nothing affright thee;
all things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
who God possesseth
in nothing is wanting;
alone God sufficeth

Teresa’s bookmark is taken from the writings of St Teresa of Avila who was a Carmelite nun, mystic, founder of the Reformed Carmelites and is now honoured as a Doctor of the Church. It’s a lovely detail that this prayer is called Teresa’s bookmark because it was one that she apparently carried around in her prayer book, where it was found after her death in 1582.  I seem to be following her example, in this respect at least.

I know that some people find this translation a little off-putting because it is framed in a less familiar, older form of English which would, however, have been a contemporary translation of the original Spanish version.  However, over the years I have found that this has helped make it more memorable and, a bit like any poetry that it is more of an effort to memorise, once it has been learnt, it tends to remain with you more readily. 

In fact, in this case, I am aware that on the toughest days, the words become less significant and it is their very familiarity that helps them to bypass my thoughts and go straight to my heart, even when I don’t feel like saying them.

I actually find the translation really intimate.  As an English Language ‘geek’ I can tell you that it feels highly significant that ‘thee’ rather than ‘you’ is used here.  During the time of this translation there were actually two ways of saying ‘you’ (a second person pronoun).  The first one was used as a mark of respect or as a way of creating distance between yourself and someone else – for example, in Shakespeare, a King might be addressed as  ‘you’ by a courtier, servant or by someone of equal social status.  ‘Thee’ (a second person object pronoun’) and ‘thou’ (a second person subject pronoun’) were mainly used to signal an intimate, close relationship, such as between lovers, close friends or family members.

For me, in this prayer, the choice of ‘thee’ feels beautifully close-up, caring and personal.  It indicates that I am worth something and that God ‘has’ me and my situation because of this.

I love the repetition of ‘nothing’ in this prayer because, in the opening couple of lines, it reminds me that I shouldn’t let anything concern or frighten me because everything is seasonal and what’s currently going on in my life will eventually pass.  That is a huge reassurance as well as huge wisdom. 

And I suppose that the longer I’ve lived my life and endured some pretty scary life changes, the easier it is to identify with that sentiment.  You begin to realise that the very fact that you have survived stuff, walked through it and lived to brush yourself off, is proof that being scared is – yes, normal – but also a necessary part of your spiritual growth – a means through which your trust in God can deepen and build your resilience for other life moments, if you let it. 

So for me, when I originally encountered this prayer and uttered those first two lines they were initially just uttered with a ‘fearful hope’, whereas now they have become nearer to a ‘known truth’.  It doesn’t make a cancer scare, the loss of my parents or watching someone close to me endure mental illness any less difficult, but it does allow me to ‘wait for the Lord’ in that situation with a greater sense of being loved and cared for and a greater expectation that I WILL get to the other side of it – not unscathed, but certainly a little wiser for it and more ready to face the next setback with greater inner peace. 

The slightly awkward word order and -eth inflection (a third person present tense marker that is now obsolete) help me notice the key messages.  That when ‘difficult stuff’ is happening all around me and my life is shifting in disconcerting ways, God won’t change; that if I can just hold out, with as much patience as possible, I will get through.  And it’s because God has ‘got me’ that I won’t need anything else – He is totally enough.  And so am I.  How reassuring is that?

Finally, this older form of words is, for me, a beautiful reminder of how I can connect with one of the wise and good ones of old, whose faithfulness before God actually equipped and enabled her to work for good and bring about change in the world.  If saying these words can help me to identify with her real-life sentiments and struggles, and to follow her example, what a wonderfully precious gift that is for my own life journey.

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