Monday, May 14, 2012

The prayer of St. Francis of Assissi (part 1)

(By the way, how many other St. Francis’s do you know? Why do we usually qualify him as ‘of Assisi’?)
I’m writing this from the cozy little hermitage at the St. Clare’s Monastery just outside Duncan, BC.
This is my second visit here, and it is a beautiful spot for contemplation. Appropriately enough, St. Clare was the close friend and co-conspirator of St. Francis, 800 years ago.

The prayer we are looking at is probably the most well known writings of St. Francis. Even those of us who don’t know too much of his life and calling know something of this prayer.
Over the past several weeks I have been leading a short meditation on the phrases of this prayer with our CARTS outreach volunteers. Every phrase speaks to our purpose in serving the marginalized and wonderful people of downtown Victoria.
This prayer is a literary masterpiece. The symmetrical structure and cadence lends itself to being sung and remembered.
As a faithful Roman Catholic, Francis would have been very familiar with what we call the Lord’s (or Disciples) Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster. I’m sure he understood the various themes of that prayer, and could have written much about it.
But it seems to me that in the prayer of St. Francis that we are looking at, he zeroes in on the ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as in heaven’ section of the Lord’s Prayer. To me the whole flavor of Francis’ words is concerned with how the essence of God is liberated into the world around us. I believe he recognized that sometimes the most powerful value of praying is that it refocuses our own attention on how we can bring about the answer. So Francis asks for the insight to be able to be a significant part of being the implementation of what he is asking for.
(By the way, remember that Francis was Italian, not English, so his original words have been translated. Not being fluent in Italian, I will have to resort to the common English rendering of his words.)

He begins: ‘Lord make me an instrument of your peace’. In my heart, he is saying ‘The focus of my life is to bring You to the people around me. Your peace. Your influence. Your presence. Your essence.’ He recognizes that at best we are tools, instruments, in the hand of God. As much as we may want to change the world, we need to be a well-formed piece of equipment in the skilled hands of the Divine One. He knows that peace, not war is God’s way. Francis wasn’t on board the whole Crusades bandwagon of his time. He takes his cues from the Beatitudes, including the one about being a peacemaker. As well, he realizes that people need to be brought back into that place of closeness with their Creator. So the whole theme of this prayer is: ‘How can I bring the Peace of God into my world?’
The next 6 phrases are all in the parallel form—‘Where there is________ let me sow ________’, with the first half being a condition of dis-ease healed by the second. The words ‘let me sow’ are assumed in the next 5 phrases. I like the idea of planting seeds that will bring healing and wholeness. Seeds need to find fertile soil, be watered and fertilized, be warmed by the sun, be allowed to mature, and then finally a harvest is seen. So it is with bringing healing to the broken. It takes time, and lots of tender loving intentional effort.
‘Hatred…Love.’ With love being the all-encompassing source of healing, Francis starts with it. He knew the presence of hatred in his world. He knew the tendency to fight. He knew the misguided strategy of even Christians to wage war on those who didn’t agree with them. Few of us today would look back at the Crusades as our finest hour, yet we still seem to think that the solution for differences of understanding within our world is to declare war. We still sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, even though that sense of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ has turned many away from a God who loves them. Francis had it right: the answer to hatred is love. No one said it would be easy, but that is exactly what we are called to. Even little seeds of love will bring a big harvest.
‘Injury…Pardon.’ This is perhaps a strange concept. Yes, I can not only forgive you for hurting me (and vice versa), I can make sure you suffer no consequences for your actions. But not all the injuries you suffer are caused by me. And how can I offer you pardon for something someone else did to you? Victoria recently hosted a weekend of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was established by the government in order to provide opportunities for First Nations people to voice their stories of pain as a result of residential schools. There is no question, much injury was done—often in the name of the church. But how can I sow seeds of pardon when in effect, I am part of the guilty system that perpetrated the violence? Certainly we move in a direction of seeking forgiveness, but I also think we can plant Kingdom seeds by making sure we are a forgiving people. As we keep the air clean by forgiving any injustice done to us, we encourage a healing atmosphere in the larger sense.
‘Doubt…Faith.’ Look around you. People don’t tend to have a lot of trust in governments anymore. Influential people and institutions are demonstrating that the problems are pretty huge, and the resources aren’t adequate. People are choosing not to vote. They are exiting religious institutions. They don’t have a lot of hope in their retirement savings, so are living for the moment. Francis encourages us to be faithful. To trust in people. To be people of our word. To hang on anyway. Even if we find that our theology is being rewritten, we still know there is a God behind it all. It is not a faith that believes in something that is unbelievable, but a confidence based on the reliability of the One in whom we trust.
‘Despair…Hope.’ Despair is probably the saddest condition to find yourself in. It says you don’t expect things to ever get any better. It can lead to suicide. And the longer you wallow in it, the less you are capable of seeing any spot of light. So Francis prays that he would bring hope to the one in despair. That he could in some small way meet the needs of the hopeless one. If they were fearing starvation, he would offer food, or fill some other need. And little by little the sense of being overwhelmed by circumstances is replaced by the potential of rising above them. But hope can be broader than specific situations. Even as despair can be overwhelming, so can hope. Even if the darkness seems to have squeezed out every speck of light, seeds of hope can begin to shine the light again. Where before there seemed no chance of survival, now the possibilities of improvement can be seen. The heaviness lifts. Hope returns.
‘Darkness…Light.’ Much like despair, darkness can cloud ones thinking. It’s like getting lost in a forest. As daylight fades, you lose your sense of direction, and fear sets in. You go around in circles, or you give up and curl up in a ball. But as the light returns in the morning, you can start to get your bearings. You now know which way is north, where the river is, which way to go to find civilization. Like planting seeds of hope, seeds of light can grow and redirect the wanderer to the Source of Peace. We bring light into someone’s darkness by sharing it, by exposing specifics that might have been lost or forgotten, and by working together on understanding the challenges being faced. And we are reflections of the Light of the world.
‘Sadness…Joy.’ Like each of the previous ‘evils’, sadness seems to pile on and on. One disaster is followed by another. One loss comes on the heels of a previous loss. Before you know it, you are grieving many things, each one weighing heavier and heavier. Sadness makes a person introspective. Guilt may be a close companion. Francis reminds us that the antidote isn’t merely happiness, that momentary splash of emotion. Instead, we look for something with deeper roots—joy. As John refers to the ‘living water’, joy comes from a spring deep within. And our sense of equanimity, our place of peace, our relationship with the God of the Universe becomes a seed that is planted in the sad heart. It’s not that we are always laughing, trying to turn tears into laughter. But we are rooted, planted in the Source, and that anchor becomes the beginnings of an anchor for someone else.
In all of these 6 settings, it is from our own place of strength that we in turn are able to invite others. Our love rubs off on them. Our spirit of forgiveness, our trust, hope, light and joy become a handle for others to grab on to. And then we are able to see them find their own Anchor, and in turn become a place of strength for their friends.

1 comment:

Your Friend Aaron said...

I've been praying this prayer a lot lately, and it seems to deepen in meaning every time I pray it.


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