Often times, the simplest prayers of our Faith go unappreciated, due to trite use of them at Mass, manipulation to serve a particular agenda, or perhaps even over-use of them in para-liturgical contexts. This is a shame, because it relegates beautiful, heartfelt prayer to some sort of desacralized statement of one’s cultural Catholicism. It goes no deeper in men’s hearts because it’s only about the emotion associated with the prayer, and our understanding stops there. It “feels right,” so we run through these prayers quickly, without consideration of their real worth or value.
While the “Prayer of St. Francis” is usually attributed to St. Francis, it was actually most likely written in Italy around the turn of the 20th Century. It was brought to the United States by Cardinal Spellman, who renamed it “The Prayer of St. Francis.”
I’ve often felt that this is the case with the prayer of St. Francis. Growing up hearing the song “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” made me shy away from actually prayerful utterance of this classic text. The oozing sentimentality made me feel uncomfortable, because the music made me feel strong emotions. The text came second in achieving that.
Just the other day, though, I was in a bit of a disagreement with some associates regarding the limits of charity and Christian love. “You’re doing too much. You’re being used.” Well, perhaps. But then I heard the words of this prayer in my mind. More accurately, I should say I felt them in my heart, but I’ve just been complaining about “oozing sentimentality,” haven’t I? This prayer asks God that we might have the grace “not so much seek to be consoled as to console: To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love.” And I realized, quite simply, that this is the heart of the Christian life. We must give freely of ourselves in order to find genuine and lasting contentment and joy.
This is why I’ve decided to look at this prayer, line by line, and pray it over with you. I hope you don’t find this to be the overly-emotional, trite usage we often see and hear with this prayer. Rather, I’d like to look at it as it really is.
The prayer begins thus:
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.
Our immediate interaction with the Divine is a command, which is something quite bold when you think about it. There is no language of, “would that Thou might look with favor on Thy lowly servant.” There is no explicit supplication. This first sentence is uttered in the same spirit as the words of the woman with the hemorrhage, who reached out and seized Our Lord’s garments. There is a presumption here on our part, on her part, and we take it upon ourselves to take a great liberty with God. “God, do this.” No please. No other softener of the blow. But this audacity is mitigated by the Faith which prompts it in the first place. After all, if there were no faith in our hearts as we make this prayer, if there were no faith in the heart of the woman who reached out to Our Lord, our prayer and her reach would either be stripped of any real value, or cease to be a possibility at all. It just wouldn’t happen.
Our faith leads us to make this bold demand. “Make me an instrument of Thy peace.” But it is a bold demand with a higher purpose, that we might both reflect and extend the Kingdom of God. “Let not my will, but Thine be done.” For our will, so often runs contrary to the litany of “wheres and lets” which follows. We withhold our love, because hatred feels so intensely gratifying. We withhold pardon, to compound the injury of an offending party. Our intentions undermine God’s, and it is this realization that makes the recitation of this prayer happen. We see ourselves as we are, and in our fear and desperation, in our desire to please only God, we cry out, “Lord, make us instruments of Thy peace!”
We then proceed to undergo a sort of examination of conscience. Where there is hatred, Lord, give me the grace to spread Your love. How often do we shy away from being truly loving, wholly giving of ourselves, because of how others might perceive that? What is more scandalous, friends, to sow love, or keep it hidden and ungerminated? Should we shirk the pain and burden of the Cross, because resting in its shade is so much more comfortable? Love was God’s gift to us. Love was nailed to the Cross. That was God’s sowing; what shall be ours? We must run towards those who shame and humiliate, those who challenge and defy, and show them love. Charity is active, not passive, and so, in order to be charitable, we must go into the world and sow the seeds of love.
And love begets pardoning. Did not Love pardon the malefactors and crucifiers on Calvary? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” From love comes all the strength necessary to realize the attainability of the fruits of this litany. St. Paul explains this most eloquently in his first letter to the Corinthians.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Love is then, quite clearly, the source of pardon, faith, light, hope, and joy. And Christ is the source of our love for one another. If our love has not Christ as its center, if our cry to be a “channel of peace” is motivated, not by love of Christ, but by selfish motives, then it falls short. It is a hollow love, and can achieve nothing. True love gives till there is nothing more to give. Love doesn’t heed the shallow objections of nay-sayers. Love that is true, that is “pure and faultless, is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is why we cry out the way we do in this prayer’s opening words. This is why we proceed to list all those ways in which we might fall short, and why we pray that where there is doubt, we might bring faith.
To reach out to those in need, those who are in darkness, those who live in doubt and confusion, are those who need our love, our charity (caritas) most. This does not mean that our showing of love will be easy. It doesn’t mean it will be unopposed or wholly understood for the pure and genuinely-motivated thing it is. That is no excuse to ignore the needs of others, even if it is convenient to ignore them. It is no excuse to withhold light when we see people dwelling in darkness. If you want to be channel of His peace, you need to give wholly of yourself, and not count the cost. But that’s another post for another day.