I’m beginning a daily consideration of the Prayer of St. Francis, going line by line. Reciting this prayer out loud every morning is a wonderful practice to open to the mystery of opposites and experience being a threshold of both/and. Though I’ve gotten out of the habit, I was doing this a few years ago during what I would soon discover were my father’s last months. Since I’d never experienced the death of a parent till then, I can only intuit that this prayer worked quite a bit of magic on me. It certainly helped me to be present to the paradox and profound mystery of life and death, love and loss.
Although I was raised Catholic, my mother—who had the most influence on me as a child—was not a practicing Catholic, so we didn’t do much prayer around our house. In fact, other than saying a pretty rote grace before dinner, we prayed not at all. My self-consciousness about prayer is tempered with a fascination for people who do pray, especially those to whom it’s like breathing: just as natural and just as necessary.
The great storyteller Kevin Kling says there are three kinds of prayers that change as you grow up. Kids say, “I want, I want,” which then changes to “Help me” in adolescence and, for some people, that’s pretty much where it stays. He discovered a third prayer after nearly being killed in a motorcycle accident: “Thank you.” I love that, especially since Kling had a very painful, many-year recovery and some permanent disability as a result of that accident.
Anne Lamott takes it one step further, though I’m sure Kling would agree. She says the three prayers are “Help, thanks, and wow.” Her book by that name is a generous, loving and amusing romp through her mind and heart; highly recommended. In an odd symmetry, I was reading that book in the weeks leading up to my mother’s death, eight months after my dad.
Which brings us to a wonderful guide, John O’Donohue, who says we all carry the wound of mortality within us, and therefore need prayer to bathe the wound in divine light, allowing it to heal.
“Very often, we need the peace within us, which neither the world, nor medicine, nor psychology, nor religion in its external manifestation can give us. We can belong externally to so many things, but if you don’t belong intimately to the divine in prayer, then you’re only half alive. “
That phrase, “the peace within us,” reminds me of my other favorite prayer, this one from Thomas Merton. It makes a nice daily pairing with the St. Francis prayer.
May we all grow in grace and peace,
and not neglect the silence that is printed
in the centre of our being.
It will not fail us.
I feel self-conscious about prayer because of my modern western bias towards the rational and the seen, and also the Christian interpretation of prayer as a conversation with or supplication to a deity, often imagined as (in my son’s words) “an old white guy with a beard living on a cloud.” But even I know that prayer is so much more than that. It is a way of paying attention, of summoning the humility to be amazed by this world, and, taking it a step further, offering heartfelt and spontaneous thanks. Every human culture before ours had a sense of their reciprocity with the world, and prayer was one way they communicated that understanding.
I will begin this quest tomorrow. These are the questions I will use as a contemplation and writing prompt:
- What do these words mean to me?
- How does this pairing of opposites show up in my life?
- What can I do today to strengthen my embrace of this pairing?
The first line of the prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” is admittedly not a pairing of opposites, but there you have it. Why not join me and share your insights, questions, and/or experiences?
Exploring the prayer, so far:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy 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.