Prayers for helping professionals: St. Theresa of Avila’s “Let Nothing Disturb Thee”

Many years ago I came across this prayer by St. Theresa of Avila, a mystic and nun of the 16th century.

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

I have recited this prayer in times of stress and anxiety during my life. Let nothing disturb thee herald’s back to countless biblical passages where God’s people are exhorted to fear God, not men ( eg Psalm 56:4: God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?). 

As a social worker working with people experiencing profound mental confusion, crises, and chaos in their lives it is essential to have a firm anchor in God.  Especially when it seems like even the best therapies fail, medications only provide minimal relief, and support is refused.  Ultimately, God is present and I will trust and pray for him to be with this client and myself in this mess we call life.  

It seems so simple, just trust in God, He never changes He’s always there. But we are afraid, we are disturbed by what we see. That is why we get into the work we do- because the state of the world disturbs us and we want to do something about it. 

And it seems at first glance that this prayer provides no recourse, no action to take about that which disturbs us.  Are we left retreat to our personal prayer with God away from these disturbances or claim that these disturbances are perceptions of reality that create suffering (a more Buddhist viewpoint)?

I think this prayer could be interpreted this way but one line challenges me toward engagement: “Patient endurance attaineth all things”.  Patient endurance is an active choice, not a passive observer stance.  It’s like seeing a rushing river that you need to cross and instead of sitting on one side and fretting about it to instead decide to get in up to your waist in rushing water, hold on to whatever you can to get you across and endure the cold water as long as you have to until you reach the other side. 

This is what our life is like, but to patiently endure we must be “possessed” by God.  When we think of the word possessed we often have images of demon possession and exorcism by Catholic priests.  Very rarely do we hear of being possessed by God. Being possessed implies being owned or filled in its entirety. In being possessed by God Saint Theresa rightly says that nothing is wanting.  There is no need if God lives fully in us and through us.

As a social worker this is not easily done.  My place of work, like many of you, does not have its sole purpose in serving and loving God but is there to control and fix situations.  Very rarely can we offer people God’s solace and grace as a salve to their problems.  Mostly we can offer the accepted wisdom of our profession. 

This makes it difficult to be wholly possessed by God.  Maybe St. Theresa had it right in setting up convents and encouraging people to pray and seek God after all. 

How do you manage to keep centred and “possessed” by God as you engage in a secular helping system?