Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Church Times on A Prayer by St Theresa of Avila

Lord, I live, yet no true life I know,
And, living thus expectantly,
I die because I do not die.
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Taken from a poem by St Teresa of Avila
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In the preparations for Palm Sunday, alone or in a group, I have found this to be a great support for welcoming Christ and His vision of our future.
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The first line taken on its own can be read as a sentiment I hear in most places I work whether it is the parish or the business world. A description of going through days without meaning. Trying to achieve the goals set, the weekly food within the budget, hospital appointments, Job hunting, a job with decreasing prospects even the success of making money. All to some extent seem empty. Yet this line of the prayer brings hope because it infers that there is a ‘true life’ to know, and once this is noticed, remembering the time when we did believe in ‘true life, living thus expectantly’ can be very moving.
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For many, however, those open hearted expectant days are vulnerable and often left behind in our youth, before life didn’t seem to work the way we believed it should. However, if this prayer is used with a group, it is moving to see that others feel the same. It may even bring a longing for a new sense of community.
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Using this prayer around Palm Sunday can further support our hope in community by applying our vulnerable memories of ‘living thus expectantly’ to evoke what it would be like if we heard the news that the Messiah was about to come through the gate prophesied for his entrance. And if we dared to go and stand along the path in wait, we can ask how we might commit to the new life we would be welcoming.
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Within the exploration of living ‘expectantly,’ there is a responsibility for keeping the vision of Palm Sunday as an inspiration that continues to draw us into the future. It is all too easy to find a spiritual high and then weeks or months later wonder what happened to it. St Theresa writes about making a cocoon around our selves spun from teachings, good practise and our spiritual experiences. Like anything of real impact, building a spiritual cocoon carries risk. It can become impervious to the world, focusing on trying to maintain the high spirits of excitement. Impervious to the outer world it can find a false power of being alongside Christ or put our individual salvation before others, making us separate, even elite. On the other hand the cocoon can be so neglected or badly woven that it can be permeable allowing us to be easily swayed by other people’s ideas and paths or unsure of the existence of any path at all.
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Palm Sunday brings with it the helpful warning that many of the people lining the streets on that day could have been the same people who later called for Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ. The questions of what brings us out of our cocoon and into crowd mentality or what makes us spin the cocoon so thick we separate our individual world are central to working out how to consistently live ‘expectantly’. Supporting and challenging each other in community plays a vital role.
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The words ‘I die’ then come into the prayer as a shock and evoke the inevitability of death. But the word ‘because’ is so unexpected, it draws me forward and sits between death and afterlife like a Newton’s Cradle, making me look at the momentum between death and eternal life, connecting the two. Both parts act like an ultimatum to consider what is most important. Death or eternal life? It asks me if I believe. Yet the movement into ‘because I do not die’ has even more hope or inspiration than ‘living expectantly’. With this next step I am given the faith to die to all manner of beliefs where my humanity is not expectant of life beyond the finite experiences. And with the help of Christ’s resurrection I contemplate that I will die even to death itself. A truth that leaves me only interested in seeking out, remembering or sharing a life where the timeless depths of love and companionship are central. This is what is most important to my soul. This is what is written on the palm I lay down for Christ to walk on as he enters Jerusalem.
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Later in the poem St Teresa writes:
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The Lord has claimed me as His own.
My heart I gave Him for His throne,
Whereon He wrote indelibly:
“I die because I do not die.”