Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Prayer of St. Francis

Back in 1998, a charming movie called Shakespeare in Love told the story, not of how Romeo and Juliet was actually written, but rather how it should have been written. In other words, this period romantic comedy is true to the spirit of the tale of star-crossed lovers, just not the facts of how it came about. You could say the same thing of the prayer attributed to St. Francis, whose feast day was Friday. Though its first publication was in a small Catholic magazine in 1912 and no author is named, the prayer, which you can find on page 833 in the Book of Common Prayer, and page 87 of the book of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, just feels right coming from the mouth of Francis of Assisi. A rich man's son, who had dreams of being a knight, instead he ended up embracing poverty and taking care of lepers. This is the man who, in 1219 went to Egypt to convert the Sultan in an attempt to end the Crusades. He did get to see the Sultan, who was the nephew of Saladin, during a ceasefire in a bloody siege. We do not know exactly what happened but the Franciscans were allowed to stay in the Holy Land and take care of certain holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem ever since. Francis did act in his day as an instrument of God's peace.

And so, though we can't trace the prayer all the way back to Francis, I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to examine this prayer and its scriptural basis, phrase by phrase.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Jesus called for us to be peacemakers and thus be named children of God. Which makes sense because Paul in several places refers to the Lord as the God of peace. And peace in the Biblical sense is not merely the cessation of conflict but the total well-being of body, mind and spirit. This is what Jesus was doing when healing people: restoring them to complete well-being. In many cases, his healing even led to their integration back into the community, which had quarantined them in accordance with the law of Moses. So to be an instrument of God's peace is to work for the healing of people and communities.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” Today we automatically reduce hatred to fear, but that is not the only reason that we hate things. Disgust is another root of hatred, as is anger at injustice. Hollywood understands that, making its worst villains aesthetically repellent, especially in horror films, prone to threatening innocents, and unfair even to their henchmen. It helps us cheer when the good guy kills the bad guy. Scientists have found that we do indeed feel pleasure when hating those we feel deserve it. Which explains the present political climate. But we are commanded by Jesus not only to love our neighbors but also our enemies. That leaves us no one we can hate. No wonder it is the least popular commandment. But as Jesus said, we are to bless and do good to and pray for those who hate us. We are always to love in every situation. The only question is how to show it.

And notice the prayer says that we are to “sow” these elements. God is not asking us for instantaneous results. Sometimes all we can do is plant the seed. Sometimes all we can do is water what someone else has planted. As in the parable of the sower, a lot depends on how receptive the soil is. Our responsibility is to spread God's love as broadly and even prodigally as we can. God gives the growth.

Where there is injury, pardon.” It has been my experience that those who lash out, who try to injure others, usually have been or perceive themselves to have been injured by others. Long after the physical pain has receded, and the physical wound has healed, it is the memory of the malice behind it, or the indifference displayed to one's suffering, that continues to sting. That's where the psychological and spiritual healing must begin. We can't always get someone to apologize for hurting or harming us, but Jesus commanded us to forgive others if we expect God to forgive us, something we sign on to every time we say the Lord's Prayer. Forgiving others is what God does, what Jesus most notably did while he was being crucified. As imitators of Christ, we also must forgive those who do us injury. On second thought, perhaps this is the least popular commandment.

Where there is discord, union.” Many versions of the St. Francis prayer omit this petition but it is in the original French version. Because of our emphasis on individualism, we ignore how often the Bible calls for unity. Jesus prayed for our unity the night he was betrayed. We are to be one as he and the Father are one. Think about that: we are to display the same unity that the Trinity does. After all, Jesus said that the world would know we were his disciples by our love for one another. But our love isn't visible when we call other Christians names and don't want to work with them. Small wonder the world doesn't believe it when we proclaim the good news. In a time of extreme acrimony, it looks like our “good” news is the same old news. There is nothing new or commendable about vilifying people who disagree with us. What is truly sad is that our disagreements are rarely over the essentials, but are often about interpretation of otherwise agreed upon facts, or about differing emphases. And our areas of agreement are greater than those in which we find controversy. Every church can and does recite the Apostle's Creed. Everyone knows Jesus declared loving God with all you are and all you have and loving your neighbor as you do yourself to be the two greatest commandments. All else, as N.T. Wright translated it, is footnotes. The church often reminds me of geeks arguing over latest Superman film or Doctor Who episode, forgetting that the purpose of them is to bring joy not animosity. Jesus came to draw all people to himself, not to found a theological debating society.

Where there is doubt, faith.” Faith is simply trust and faith in God is not merely that he exists but that he is trustworthy. A lot of people believe God exists but they aren't too sure that he is friendly or benevolent. But in Christ we see God's great love for us and as Paul says in Romans 8, “He who did not withhold his only Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” Our faith rests in God's love.

The thing about faith is you need it the most when it is hardest to hold onto. It's only when things are going well that trusting God is easy to do. The scripture that captures this paradox best is in Mark 9 in which the father of a child with seizures comes to Christ. Jesus says, “Everything is possible for the one who believes.” To which the distraught father says, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” The danger of doubt is not that we stop trusting God entirely but we stop trusting just enough to paralyze us and render us unable to act or respond to God. Inmates at the jail who come to me with problems don't come because they have no faith; rather their faith is weak and they want help strengthening it. So again, sowing just the seed of faith may be just enough for the person to reach the tipping point and commit to following Jesus.

Where there is despair, hope.” More often than crises of faith among inmates, I see crises of hope. They think that not only have they hit bottom but that there is no way to climb out. Either it is their first time in jail and they think they have totally screwed up their life and their future, or they have been in jail and prison more times than you can imagine and they think that they will never be able to break the cycle. Loss of hope kills. It can be a warning of suicidal intention, either imminent and by active means or passive and gradual. When they want to give up, I usually refer them to the many people in the Bible who have been imprisoned and especially Joseph. When he helps Pharaoh's cupbearer with his dream, Joseph asks that he mention him to Pharaoh. But Genesis 41:1 tells us it took 2 full years before the cupbearer did so. I tell them to imagine how Joseph felt and how he prayed, thinking he had been forgotten and left to rot in prison.

Hope is the future tense of faith, I tell them. And then I use the words taught to me by a very wise man, Bishop Frade, who stole them from a movie: “Everything will be all right in the end...if it's not all right then it's not yet the end.” That really is the message of the Bible: that God's restoration of the world, his putting all things to right, is a work in progress. But it is progressing. Wherever we are in that process, we have this reassurance: that God who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.

Where there is darkness, light.” We live in a time of spiritual darkness all the more inexplicable because we have access to so much knowledge. But knowledge is not necessarily light; wisdom is. The blind Buddhist monks who encounter an elephant for the first time have knowledge. Each one has a good grasp of what an elephant is like at the point they encounter it: to the monk touching the leg, it is like a tree trunk; to the monk touching its side, it is like a wall; to the one touching the trunk, it is like a snake; to the one touching the ear, it is like a big leaf; to the one touching its tusk, it is like a spear. They are all right and all wrong. They need the wisdom to see the big picture, that the elephant can be like all of these things, and more. Its structure is not obvious; neither is spiritual wisdom. What we have in the Bible is true but not exhaustive. We don't have every detail. But we do have the big picture, the goal, the shape of the new creation God is aiming for.

A candle in the darkness makes our path easier to pick out. It gives us a sense of distance and perspective. It dissipates the monsters of our imagination. It can show us we are not alone and that the task we have, no matter how big, is finite. Each of us can provide light by reflecting the love and wisdom of God into whatever stygian night in which we find ourselves and, armed with hope, make it shine until his glorious day dawns.

Where there is sadness, joy.” The word “joy” or some form of it appears over 200 times in the Bible. That's more often than the word “hope.” And yet somehow we have let the world think that Christianity is a joyless religion. Isaiah 35:10 says, “And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads; gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” As Nehemiah reminds us, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” You can take on a whole lot of otherwise dismaying tasks if your heart is full of joy.

But what about when things are scary? Think about the reaction of a small child when his father tosses him into the air and catches him. Kids love it! They erupt into peals of laughter. And it comes about because while getting tossed in the air is scary, he knows his father will catch him and that makes it fun. The combination of having the ground retreat from beneath your feet and your father's strong hands open to catch you as you fall makes you giddy. Which is a species of joy. Of course, the child can see his father's hands. We are often called to be the visible and palpable hands of Jesus, ready to catch those whose lives are in free fall.

It is harder to turn sorrow into joy but again, we simply plant the seeds. The joy will come when they look back and remember the strong hands holding them up when they were on the verge of collapse.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.” From pitting opposites against each other, the prayer turns to how they often come together in the paradoxes of the heart. Everybody would rather have this last petition was turned around. We would rather be consoled than console someone else, be understood than attempt to understand others, be loved first rather than go out on a limb and love others without a guarantee of their reciprocating. But someone has to start it. And in fact, someone has. In Jesus, we have someone who sought to console rather than to be consoled, to understand rather than to be understood, and to love rather than be loved. He consoles, understands and loves us, giving us the example and power to do the same for others.

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.” Here we move from the paradox of the human heart to the paradox of the Spirit. In a materialistic life, giving is not in any way receiving. It is a loss. Ayn Rand said altruism is a great evil. Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive. And it is not just that, as a Harvard Business School study found, that giving to someone makes you happier than buying something for yourself. Giving grows us spiritually. And that is the goal of following Jesus: to grow into his image, to become ever more Christlike.

We have already spoken of how we are pardoned by pardoning others. The last truth to examine is how we are born to eternal life by dying. And I don't think the composer of the prayer was speaking of the physical act of dying. I think he was referring to Jesus saying we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him and to Paul saying in Galatians, “ I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” We must die daily to ourselves, to our narrow concerns, desires and fears, if we are to make space for the larger life of God. As in death we are made to let go of all the things of this world, we need to let go of our personal priorities and agendas and take up those of God as revealed in words and actions of Jesus. We should be able to echo Paul in Philippians where he says, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

This prayer, though it did not come from the hand of St. Francis, came from the same Spirit that moved him to do the extraordinary things he did—giving to the needy, nursing the sick, working for peace. It is hopeful that we have a Pope who has taken the name of Francis and who has made clear his desire to love and serve Christ in others. God knows we need people who do more than parrot Christ's good words but also live lives filled with good works that he has prepared for us to do. So let us dedicate ourselves to such a life by saying together the prayer attributed to St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, union.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we 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.

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