Saint Teresa’s Motto: Aut Pati Aut Mori — Does it Mean Suffer of Die?

The four word motto of Saint Theresa of Jesus is “Aut Pati Aut Mori”.  She is often pictured holding a book with these words.

They are often translated as “Either suffer or die”.  This sounds harsh and punitive, not to mention depressing.  Is she telling us we had better get used to pain or die?  Is she making a pushy bottom’s brag: all I am so into is suffering and if I don’t get it I want to die?  On either interpretation, the sadistic drill sergeant’s or aggressive masochist’s, what kind of motto is that for a saint?

It is mistranslated.

The Latin word “PATI” is related to “PASSION” “PATIENT” and “PATENT”.  The root meaning of all of them is to be part of a process of unfolding.  A passion in it’s original sense is contrasted with an action — when we are in a passion we are subject to an emotion that connects us with something outside ourselves.  A patient undergoes a treatment from a doctor.  When you are “patient” you await the results of a process that is in motion.  When something is “patent” –as in a patent lie, a patent contradiction, a patent fool —  it is no longer folded up and concealed that it is what it is.  What it is now it lies before us to be experienced.

The conjunction “aut…x…aut..y” does not mean “you must do x or y” in the sense of a forced choice, but rather that everything is one or the other, or, better, everything only is to the extent that it is one or the other.  As in the poker expression “if you look around the room and don’t see who the fish is, it’s you” — by the nature of a rigged gambling game you are either the tricker or the trickee.

By the nature of life we are either engaged in “pati” or “mori”.  Either we are part of the unfolding of a process or we are dying.

Every moment we can look within and see what aspect of us is “pati” and what aspect of us is “mori”.

Aut Pati Aut Mori.


2 thoughts on “Saint Teresa’s Motto: Aut Pati Aut Mori — Does it Mean Suffer of Die?

  1. Mikey says:

    Does ‘passion’ mean ‘stuff that happens to you’ then? So the Passion of Christ is stuff that happened to him? And he had the choice of that or death, according to Teresa. If so, I don’t really get it. There seems something kind of lame about just being part of a process which is happening. Like: you can not choose anything, or you can choose to die. The way you’ve put it seems more hopeful: you can choose to be part of the unfolding of a process – but it’s only hopeful if we’re allowed to claim some action out of it. Like “I helped unfold that process – I was a part of it”. But if Teresa’s right then all we can say is “I helped unfold that process – I didn’t kill myself trying to stop it”. Which is maybe what she meant. Perhaps she’s saying that passive submission is the highest calling we have – passive submission to the will of God. And anything else is killing yourself by trying to stop the will of God.

    • I think she feels like if you are passionately committed to an unfolding process you get a larger sense of self. So if, for example, you’re part of a jazz band you lose yourself in the ecstasy of the music but paradoxically you’re still helping it and part of it. You’ve just acquired a larger sense of self. Since you’re part of something bigger though you can’t just will things to happen — you are in a sense transcending the action/passion dichotomy. Although I think in a larger sense we do that even as an individual as we integrate all the social influences and biological drives streaming into our in box and come up with a way to move forward.

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