|Posted on July 9, 2015 at 9:40 PM|
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
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.
Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Most people will recognize the words of the above prayer, though they may not attribute it to St. Francis. And even fewer readers will remember the second and third verses.
I’d forgotten about those verses myself until recently. That first stanza is a poetic marvel, a series of contrasts between the state of the world now and what God’s Kingdom will bring, a prayer of comfort so often murmured that the words themselves have become subsumed in a greater meaning. But the second and third verses speak rather plainly to me, offering a pragmatic prescription that I find hard to follow.
As I reacquainted myself with the prayer, I particularly felt the gentle sting of the second verse, a reminder that, while my first inclination is to pray for myself and my family, my fellow men experience vast concerns outside my immediate spiritual (and material) yearnings. Perhaps it’s only my lack of familiarity with the last two that make them more urgent and personal than the first stanza; St. Francis certainly requested ownership of the world’s problems as he uttered, “Lord, make me an instrument…” a monumental task even for all of the saints.
Whatever the reason, I focused on these words and discovered that the promise of the St. Francis prayer is that as we reach for strength and courage to help one another, we are, in fact, achieving cures for our own woes. It’s human nature to worry over our intimate griefs and sadnesses, to seek sympathy and validation from those around us regarding the problems we ourselves are facing. While we are engrossed in our own pain, it’s natural to be unconcerned or even unconscious of the hurts and needs of others; it’s less natural to see that our own healing lies in helping others heal. God calls us to push back against that natural instinct of self-interest.
The tension between our needs and those of others is difficult to ease; it’s nearly impossible to sublimate self-desires into concern for another, whether that person is our child, our spouse, a friend, or total stranger. That has been a source of tremendous guilt for all people of faith, including me, and the theme of many prayers as we seek absolution and guidance.
Answered prayers don’t usually come as bolts from the blue. And, of course, that makes them harder to spot, an example of how our God is a God of ironies, large and small. As I grappled with the directive of the St. Francis prayer, a paragraph from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity prodded another epiphany and lent me a key to making the St. Francis prayer a bit less daunting:
“The Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or — if they think there is not — at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the sun because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.”
I’ve spent a fairly significant portion of my life attempting to “do good” as though I were preparing for a test, hoping that I’d score enough correct questions to offset my misses. With that has come disappointment and failure and even hollowness and resentment as I did the right things for the wrong reasons.
The following discovery may seem simplistic to the reader, and I’m shamefully long in the tooth to be figuring this out, but I felt as though I’d stumbled upon spiritual gold: I am not relieved from my duties to love my neighbor, nor is any less expected of me, but I realized that I don’t have to do it myself through my personal strength or intellect or endurance. In fact, I can’t do it myself, any more than I can create a tree or cause the sun to set. God makes me good because he loves me. God’s grace defies our simple understanding and definitions, presenting itself anew depending upon what we need and what we’re ready to accept.
Old habits die hard, and I know I’ll spend huge chunks of my days worrying and trying to get it all just right, and feeling powerless and insufficient when I fail. The good news is I will occasionally succeed at consoling, understanding, and loving others. The better news is that I won’t do it alone, and I won’t even have to work as hard at it, because God’s grace and promises and love are sufficient for the task. A beautiful irony, eh?
-Jo Ann Crooks Hall