What sorts of things constitute a parent’s worst nightmare? Discovering that a child is on drugs or failing in school? Learning that a son or daughter has a chronic, life-threatening health problem?
Seeing him or her still living at home long beyond the time when they should be independent? Getting that middle-of-the-night phone call with news of some injury, or worse?
I got the phone call. It came as our family was heading into a summer that was going to be special for us. We had two graduation parties planned—one from college and one from medical school—and I was retiring from the Air Force. We were finally out of the college tuition business forever!
Our spirit of celebration came crashing down on June 8, when the phone rang at 1:20 a.m. I answered, expecting bad news about my ninety-year-old mother-in-law. Instead, I heard the voice of the girlfriend of our youngest son, Jeremy. She was calling from a hospital emergency room a thousand miles away to tell us that Jeremy had been shot. A man with a gun had surprised and robbed the two of them as they were returning home after work.
I can’t remember how I told my wife the bad news. I couldn’t function or think clearly. Shock, paralysis: I am not sure how to describe my experience except to say that I felt turned inside out.
Of course, my wife and I couldn’t sleep. Then about 3:00 a.m., Jeremy called us from his home. His arm was in a sling, but he was alive and even able to joke about needing assistance to go to the bathroom. His sense of humor was intact. As for me, I remained very disturbed, even terrified.
Gripped by Fear. For a long time, I had been in the habit of reciting the prayer on my favorite holy card. Known as St. Teresa of Ávila’s “bookmark,” it was found after her death, written on a piece of paper in her breviary:
Let nothing disturb you;
Nothing frighten you.
All things are passing.
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
Nothing is wanting to him
Who possesses God.
God alone suffices.
Reflecting daily on St. Teresa’s words had always helped me greatly in times of stress. It was a way to ponder Jesus’ own words, which may have inspired her prayer in the first place: “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).
For weeks after my son’s shooting, however, I found it hard to connect with the ideas on my favorite holy card. I had terrible insomnia and kept waking up between one and two in the morning. Fear and worry sidetracked my daily habit of reading and reflecting on the prayer.
All things are passing. How would my state of anxiety ever pass, when I couldn’t manage to relax and recover? As one priest commented, with traumatic events “it can take ten minutes to upset someone and ten years to calm them down.”
God Is My Rock. In the end, I discovered that St. Teresa was right: all things do pass. Gradually, I did get back to meditating on her bookmark, especially the middle part: “God never changes.” The message sank in over the years, as I began to focus on God and his promises rather than on the traumatic event. Now, deep down, I know that no matter what rain, wind, or lightning may occur in my life, God never changes. He is there for me, and I can always count on his love, mercy, and gift of peace. It is quieting and comforting to know that we may waver, but God never does.
Reflecting on the holy card also redirected my attention to the one thing that really matters in life. “Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God,” St. Teresa wrote. “God alone suffices.” As I discovered, however good other things may be, they cannot carry you through times of crisis. For me, any illusion that trying to be a nice, normal family would somehow protect us from tragedy was burst on the night my son was shot.
Now, as I seek to put my trust in God, I especially value everything that points me to him. A Cursillo lesson taught me that an “isolated Christian is a paralyzed Christian.” Knowing that I will fail if I try to go it alone, I am thankful for my antidotes for paralysis—the Church, the sacraments, my daily Rosary, Scripture, and spiritual reading.
And I am thankful, too, for opportunities to rejoice. One of those took place within two years of the shooting, when Jeremy and his fiancée were married in our parish church. You can guess what one of my wedding gifts was: the bride and groom each got a copy of my favorite holy card!
Patience Obtains All Things. Still, things happen in life that are unplanned and sad. Storybook romances sometimes end. My son’s marriage ended in divorce after three years, and St. Teresa’s bookmark was useful once more. Again I found myself meditating on its message that ”all things are passing,” but “God never changes.”
Several years later our son remarried, and we welcomed a new grandchild, his wife’s daughter from her first marriage. Three years ago, we rejoiced in the birth of their son, our youngest grandchild. Today, I always smile inwardly when I visit Jeremy’s home and see my favorite holy card still in place at the front of his bookcase.
Although I have healed, my son’s brush with death has left its mark. My wife and I are no longer entertained by movies and television shows that center on violence. Going past any cemetery is disquieting—a reminder of what almost happened—and I have to continually work at not being disturbed or frightened. As I do, I keep finding that the truths in St. Teresa’s bookmark settle and center me. I now carry it on my iPad and reflect often on its meaning.
I have given the prayer card to many friends and colleagues facing all types of adversity. All have received it thankfully, regardless of their faith tradition. And so, as the years pass, I grow ever more grateful that St. Teresa was inspired to compose her simple, spiritually timeless bookmark prayer.
John Butler, PhD, a retired US Air Force colonel, is a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist with Rose Street Mental Health Care in Wichita Falls, Texas. He attends Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wichita Falls and Our Lady of the Skies Catholic Chapel on Sheppard AFB.