I received the St. Theresa poem the other week. I’d never heard of it – didn’t even know that’s what it was, until it came back to me a second time – the first had been via the email chain it was meant to be, the second was a gift.
It came first from a friend from last summer’s yoga camp at Kripalu in the form of a chain email, and I had sent it on out of respect, duty, and connection to her. “I don’t usually do these things,” I thought (we’ve all said this numerous times in regards to acts we view as cheesy or trite as a sort of safeguard of our character – why don’t we just embrace them and do them fully?). Helen was a very blonde Brit, who refreshingly didn’t fit the yogi stereotype. She was remarkable for her unexpectedly wry humor that belied her otherwise sweet demeanor. She is an academic in public health, I believe, for one day over lunch we had a long talk about a cholera outbreak in London that I only knew about via a great book, but which was related to her research. Other than being fascinated by the fact that her husband is a Scotland Yard, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to know Helen much more than that. There were 63 of us, after all, and I’d found my small safety net of people.
For our final auditham group – the small groups we were assigned for each of our practice teaches, as well as for some small, occasionally very intimate activities. Helen was in mine. On one of the first days together, eight of us (we were coupled with another group) had to sit on the floor while one member stood and silently met the gaze of each person in the circle. At length. Some people could hardly do this. Their faces crinkled up with giggles or fear – or both. But it was like survival floating for me – something I was so good at as a teenager that the other Red Cross instructors would call me over to their classes for a demonstration. I’d just sink into this quiet place and relax, floating in the water for as long as was required.
I had the distinct feeling of recognition, of looking into eyes that I’d looked at many times before, of having re-found something or someone.
By far, the person I could gaze at the longest was Helen because there was something else there. It wasn’t just the calm point of connection of two people in the now. Rather, I had the distinct feeling of recognition, of looking into eyes that I’d looked at many times before, of having re-found something or someone.
This sense continued between us and we noted it on one of the final nights we spent in that oddly large brick building perched over the lawn of green and the lake of blue. We weren’t sure what to make of it, but there it was. Something. So when Helen sent the poem, I knew right away that I would send it on to the eight people, just as she’d asked.
Last week, my friend Cheryl gave me one of her calligraphed masterpieces for my birthday. As her friend, I’ve been the lucky recipient of more than a few of these. I looked at it and didn’t recognize the words. “I’m giving it back to you, though not the way you’d probably intended,” she said. At first I thought she meant a poem I’d written for her birthday. But then I got that it was the chain email.
“You know, I’m not even sure what this is,” I admitted. “I’d just read it and thought, ‘Yeah, I’m down with all that’ and passed it on.” She told me it was attributed to Saint Theresa of Avila.
Yesterday, during the writing class I am taking all week, a woman had offered a series of poetically rendered essays, very quiet but intensely felt, in nature. Our teacher was offering suggestions for writers she might read to expand the scope of her work, and one of them was Saint Theresa of Avila.
A Spanish mystic born in 1515, Theresa first tried to run away from home for a life of martyrdom at age seven. She heard voices during early years of illness, during which she rose from what she called the lowest stage, “recollection,” to “devotions of ecstasy.” She came to connote devotion with suffering, inflicting pain on herself; Lord, either let me suffer or let me die, she wrote.
As someone who promoted self-flagellation and went shoeless, who was said to levitate during her trancelike prayers, I wonder about the words of the prayer, which are seemingly tailored for our present-day neurosis, our Oprah culture of trying to heal the self-loathing we’ve all been washed in. In finding versions online, I was intrigued that a line in the middle about God had been changed in the version I’d received to perhaps the most affecting line: Just the way you are.
Because isn’t that what we all want? To be seen for who we are, just as we are. To be calmly and lovingly gazed upon by another – a seeming stranger – and accepted for exactly who and what we are, regardless of age, regardless of our body, our clothing, our skin color, our gender. Here I am. Me. Now. Accept.
May today there be peace within.
May you trust that you are exactly where you
are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite
possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others.
May you use those gifts that you have received,
and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content with yourself
Just the way you are.
Let this presence settle into your bones,
and allow your soul the freedom to sing,
dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us.