O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
Two aphorisms come to mind: You reap what you sow, and ‘Tis better to give than to receive. I mentioned at the beginning of this project that I had been reciting St. Francis’ prayer each morning before meditation in the months leading up to my father’s death. During the sad days and weeks following his passing, this phrase was very much in my awareness, offering its own consolation.
Seeking to be consoled is a turning inward, a way of balling up into a shell and waiting for help. I might as well dare people to show me that I am worthy of love. Consoling, on the other hand, is an act of loving connection, even at a time when everyone is in need of consolation. The distinction is not between being selfish or selfless. It’s about hiding or reaching out.
Wise teachers say that you always get more of what you focus on. So if I go about yearning to be consoled, I will experience more of that yearning. My inward focus dooms me to isolation and loneliness. And perhaps bitterness, after a time of not getting what I want.
I have found that, at the most lonely times, the only thing that helps me feel better is to do something for another person. I learned this from a close friend in graduate school. My boyfriend was studying abroad, so she recommended that I volunteer weekly for Habitat for Humanity. Mostly, we painted kitchen cabinets and bedroom walls of the poor and marginalized people in our town, neighborhoods not far from campus but worlds away. When we did meet the residents, they were always sincerely grateful for our help. It became the highlight of my week.
I do get this mixed up with my lifelong reluctance to ask for help when I need it, which is yet another tool in the toolbox of separation. A way to keep myself apart, to hide my weakness from others. This is where the first part of this verse comes into play. St. Francis is asking divine source to grant that he may, on balance, be in a position to offer consolation, rather than mostly seeking it. I see this as a reminder that the unseen world is there, standing by to help us, if only we ask.
In old cultural traditions, there are various names for these invisible helpers. The Celts knew them as angels. Shamanic people were guided and aided by the spirits of plants, animals, elements and ancestors.
Part of my work these days is to gently shift my heart, mind and habits away from treating these perceptions as quaint histories. Our post-Enlightenment, rational materialist culture sees itself as having displaced such beliefs with superior modes of thought and action. What if this has blinded us to sources of guidance and assistance and power that we need now more than ever?
I’m fascinated by anecdotes that “prove” the efficacy of prayer. Two examples come to mind: 4,000 people meditating during seven weeks in summer 1993 in Washington, D.C., and a recent podcast story of a regular guy who put up a concrete statue of Buddha in his high-crime neighborhood in Oakland. In both cases, events unfolded that included significant drops in the crime rate: a 23% reduction in violent crime in D.C. and an 82% drop overall in the Oakland neighborhood.
What happens if I shift to considering the helpers in the spirit world as real as my next-door neighbors, or those elderly folks whose houses we painted? Maybe when I do console or help another, my motivation is fueled by that spirit realm. Maybe prayer isn’t an empty superstition practiced by inferior minds, but an invocation of great power and mystery. A ripple sent out, returning echoes of love and connection.