The Prayer of St. Francis

Lately I have had some trouble praying. I’ve been so distracted that I can’t seem to hold a single, consistent thought in my head for more than 10 seconds. And if Aristotle is to be believed, then my habits are partly to be blamed. So I’m trying to reconnect with the Divine; the thought of “praying” often comes with a lot of expectation, seems to attract a lot of “watchful dragons” who paralyze real feeling. So I’m working on the much more neutral “meditation.” And wouldn’t you know it, a famous old prayer keeps popping up: the Prayer of St. Francis.

Now, it should be said that I have had a lot of romance stripped away from me. I’m not trying to set myself up as some world-weary sage. I’m simply describing a process. I grew up with a great deal of romance, the paintings of a blonde Christ, the cherubic guardian Angels, the effete-yet-muscular Archangel. Eden as an English garden. The ever-present lick of hellfire at one’s feet. And a theology that was the result of watered-down, sloganized translations of counterreformation scholasticism.

Then came college; the great stripping-away. Suddenly, the divinely-inspired Scriptures had a History and a Context; miracles were softened to the point of the prosaic, and that demotion was itself softened by the identifier “polyvalent.” (The only form of Relativism approved for Religious Types.) Suddenly Isaiah wasn’t a human trumpet for the fiery Word of God, but a school of authors struggling to understand their context, in the midst of their received religious tradition.

It is at this point that I was tempted to drift away from the church of my childhood. The faith of my childhood had been contextualized by a worldly historicity; and contextualization often feels like a disarmament, a gelding. The columns of smoke and of flame had turned out to be simply geothermal vents; Jesus may have been walking on a sandbar. So disillusioned, I courted other faiths for a time. But in the midst of that courtship, I made a shocking discovery.

It might just be the case, I began to suspect, that these “explanations” might not be a demotion at all. It might just be the case, I thought, that rather than bringing the Word of God down to the level of humanity, these revelations were ennobling humanity. After all, no less than the Psalmist says that God made humans “a little less than the angels” (8:5). Of course, the dangerous implication of all of this was that there might be some genuine wisdom contained within sacred scriptures. (The really scary thought is that all of the world’s cherished texts might have a kernel of truth in them. *gasp*)

Well, I’ve been riding this slippery slope all the way back to the texts I read as a kid, though I’m reading them with a new and deeper appreciation. As an example, the famous prayer of St. Francis. (The disillusioned version? St. Francis had some very deep psychological problems; at best, he suffered from scrupulosity. Also, he didn’t even write it.) Attribution isn’t really important; the crux of the issue is whether the words themselves can offer a genuine benefit. Well, let’s take a look at the evidence.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, the truth;
Where there is doubt, the faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

As I’ve been studying my own life, looking for sense in the midst of (what often feels like) chaos, I have begun to see this prayer in an entirely new light. See if this makes sense.

The first part, beginning with line 2, begins a pattern of “let me sow.” This is a very apt analogy; I don’t know a great deal about horticulture, but I know that even the most skilled gardener can’t force a plant to grow. Francis (setting the question of attribution aside, I will, for the sake of simplicity, refer to the author of the poem as “Francis”) knows this, and so he doesn’t ask God to grant a particular fruit. He only asks “let me sow.” I have discovered a great deal of genuine wisdom in this.

I remember a wise man telling me, when I was a child, that “respect is a two-way street.” The implication is that I can only control, at best, one half of a respectful relationship. I have no more ability to make love grow than I do to call an avocado tree out of the soil. I can plant all the seeds and saplings I want; but if the conditions aren’t right, then I won’t have a tree. And no avocados. (Cue the sad music.)

But, as crazy as it seems, I’ve spent a great deal of my life trying to moderate other peoples’ emotions. That’s like praying “O Divine Master, where there is sadness, let me reap joy.” Francis knew better than to pray that way; he knew that free will would have shot that prayer right out of the sky. I can’t control what I reap, only what I sow. And trying to make someone else happy is like praying to reap joy. It’s a fool’s errand, and undercuts the other party. Often, my desire to please other people was really about wanting to make peace so I could be calm. If I ask to reap joy, I’m trying to rob other people of the right to feel sad. And God knows, there are plenty of reasons to be sad, even if only for a while. But it’s not up to me to determine when and where someone else can feel unhappy. All I can be held accountable for is my own attitude; I can only control the seeds I sow. I can’t control the harvest.

Lord, let me sow peace. And help me to let go of the desire to control the harvest.

What Do You Think?