A few decades ago, I announced to myself, quietly, and to almost no one’s notice, that I was going to be an Agnostic. Even while going to Mass, I was secretly hiding the rebellious notion that I was going to “suspend”my beliefs. That was at heart until I encountered C.S. Lewis’ brilliant work,”Mere Christianity”, thereby rendering my nonsense…well…nonsense.
But my rebelliousness reoccurred later, and I was fishing in Buddhist waters, now taking more seriously another failed approach, this time by shoehorning my Christianity into Buddhism. Once more, I was a rebel without a case!
I share this because at the time I was running around in Buddhist circles, there were the competing New Age notions attempting to interfere with genuine Buddhist thought, something that while I am no longer as enamored with Buddhism, to be fair, Buddhism has really little to do with the New Age.
But what the New Age does is to taint other religious traditions to a watered down version of itself, reducing everything to a “spiritual, but not religious” mantra, which makes ambiguous anything specific in genuine religious life, and not surprisingly, to notions of God Himself.
While not completely caught up in this, I did sometimes view my Christianity through a kind of ambiguous lens. And among such things was the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – 3October 1226: Source: Wikipedia).
A “quaint” encounter with potency
St. Francis is the right “candidate” for New Age spirituality. Non-assuming, harmless, even preaching to the animals (isn’t that adorable!), this person of selfless alms-giving and charity seems to appeal to an interpretation of a quaint and “wise” Christianity. Even I had to admit, the prayer that has been connected to St. Francis does seem lightweight. I mean, the first lines of the prayer, “Make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred let me sow love” sounds harmless and easy enough to do.
Before we go further, let me give you the whole prayer:
“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.
Nothing to it really!
Recently, I bought a framed version of this prayer from a religious store to give as a farewell present to someone I knew. As I was looking at this beautifully ornate rendition in my hands, I just knew my friend would love it! Then, I looked more critically at the words and my eyes fell on the last line:
“and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.“
“Wait a minute,” my mind said.”That seems rather out of place, considering the motif of the prayer.”
So I read the whole prayer again and as I did so, I realized the center of the motif was not in the first stanza, but in the last. And what I realized is an eye opener.
It was one of those times where I realized that all these years I couldn’t see the forest for all of the trees in my way. Reading the context in reverse, I looked at the line I mentioned above in relation to the rest of the prayer. You see, if I am to do all of these wonderful morally quaint things in the first stanza, I must first realize that I had to surrender my life in the last line of the second, that is, I must surrender all the way. In other words, to be an “instrument of [God’s] peace,” I need to know what it is I have in order to be an instrument. A guitar has strings, a flute has keys and a hole to blow air in. They have significant qualities that make them work.
The Catholic Church has identified seven gifts of the second person in the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at four gifts in relation to the first three lines of the prayer. They are:
Look familiar? You might see it reflected in the first stanza if you know where to look:
“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.”
Let’s go together through these lines, shall we?
Planting with the right seeds
“where there is hatred, let me sow love”
First of all, if I am to sow love, doesn’t it follow that I need to know just what love is in order to sow love in someone else? We use love in various ways. “Oh, I just love that color you’re wearing!”. “Don’t you know I love you? Marry me!”.”I just love the fact that my best friend is going to finally get his promotion.” In English we have a singular word for a quality that’s not singular in nature at all.
I won’t prolong this more than I have to, and I would recommend my readers here to read C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Four Loves” for further discussion on the different aspects of love. What I can say is that God has no needs outside of His nature, but the members of the Trinity share a love for each other that turns around and shares that love with humanity. Consider the most often quoted verse in all of Scripture:
“For God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”(John 3:16)
God has no needs. He needs nothing from us, but looks at us with immeasurable worth, as something altogether other from Himself. Here, He shares Himself with us dramatically by giving us His Son. In the words of C.S. Lewis we hear, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (‘The Weight Of Glory’). In the context of this article, Lewis believes in Christianity, that is, he also believes what is at the heart of Christianity, the Trinity revealed through Jesus Christ. The point is that as we draw ever nearer to Him, we see the world as He does, and our lenses as it were are transformed and everything gets turned upside down. Understanding is one of the first gifts of the Holy Spirit we encounter when we see things from God’s perspective.
“where there is injury, pardon“
This is a tough one for many. When we are injured, we want reparation. But the “injury/pardon” pair requires two gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely “Wisdom” and”Council”. Wisdom doesn’t sugar coat. A spade is a spade. If some injustice has been done, it requires justice. Justice here also relates to the truth, for if justice is to be done perfectly, it can only do so with truth. And quite frankly, the only perfect justice is the One of Truth, God Himself.
Yet, in pardon we get the other gift of the Holy Spirit,” Council”. Sometimes our tendency to an injustice is to “stick it to ‘em’ “. But if we take the Holy Spirit as our Counselor, we will find the following:
” For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)
The Council of God drives us to wisdom so that in the proper order we can also say with Jesus at Calvary, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke: 23:34), and elevate others to a more perfect justice and mercy.
“where there is doubt, faith“
The gift of encouragement towards someone in doubt over his or her faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit when we are led by Him. In fact, in John 14:26, Jesus says He will bring the “Councilor”(Greek: “Paraclete”) to do what? Here is the full text:
“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”(Italics mine).
Knowledge counters doubt. Knowledge gives us confidence in light of faith.
Dying to be filled!
There are many more gifts I’ve not covered, nor do the lines of any stanza of the prayer of St. Francis limit themselves to a single gift. In fact, there can be more than one gift operating on a single line. But what this does mean is that in order to be an instrument, one must be filled with God, “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace”. (Italics mine)
Which takes me back to the last line, “and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Dying here is a loaded word. It doesn’t only hearken to our own physical death, but to our relational one with God. For if you took the three examples from the first stanza and flip them over; “injury”, “doubt”, and “despair”, you have “gifts” the Holy Spirit can never give, and the Holy Spirit, the second person of the Trinity, is not in His nature to be such. He can only fill according to His nature.
So, who is dying here?
You are. Like a glass, the only way that it can be filled is to be empty. Likewise, we have to die to ourselves, to empty ourselves, in order to be filled. And the end of it is to surrender to God so that He can “kill” off the things that keep us further from Him so that He can fill us with Himself. That requires our cooperation in Him.
So, rather than being a fluffy, feel- good prayer of a New Age kind of “love”, the prayer of St. Francis is quite God-centric in its approach to love.
And another reason why this prayer, seen in this light, has more substance than just a feel-good thought.
Note: All Scripture references are quoted from the New Revised Version Catholic Edition (NRVCE)