Over the past week I have been reading about two things: Syria and World War I. The crisis in Syria is everywhere, headlining the news and popping up in church, on social media, and even in overheard conversations at the gym. I couldn’t avoid it if I tried. WWI comes to me by way of an audiobook mystery novel, which has turned out to be a much more worthwhile read than I anticipated when I chose it as this week’s soundtrack for my long-distance training runs.
Because I am a Google addict, all the reading I’ve been doing has had me link-hopping through the last century, from the War to End All Wars, to the war that came after it, to the creation of Israel, to the current conflicts in the Middle East, then back to the Holocaust, and then back again to the invasion of Poland (which, as a former Wujek, is close to my heart) until one night I found myself weeping silently in bed at a 1939 photograph of a young Polish girl kneeling over the body of her sister. The endless internet access given to us by the iPhone can be a great or terrible thing.
It hasn’t been cheerful reading. It hasn’t made me all that proud of my human DNA. It’s hard to keep believing that love wins and that people are essentially decent when it feels like we have spent the last 100 years with the collective fingers of humanity hovering just above the DESTROY button.
In bad times, stories about the helpers — the people that Mr. Rogers tells us about, the people who are, in fact, always there when life is at its worst – usually bring me moments of clarity when I know that goodness overcomes evil. But this week, those stories just haven’t been enough. I can’t stop thinking about the mud of Passchendaele, or the cold of Auschwitz, or the heat of Iraq, or of all our empty repetitions of “never again.”
This is one of those times when the world is too much with me and I feel overwhelmed by the weight of our cruelty toward one another. I feel overwhelmed, but not overcome.
This weekend at Mass, in a ritual as simple as the closing prayer, our priest reminded me that even when it feels like we are just a pebble in a rising tide, and that there is nothing we can do to stop the forces of violence and suffering, we can never be overcome. He ended Mass with the prayer of St. Francis.
He reminded me that I can be an instrument of peace. That where there is hatred, I can sow love. That where there is injury, I can forgive. That where there is discord, I can bring harmony. That where there is doubt, I can inspire faith. That where there is darkness, I can bring light and that where there is sorrow, I can bring joy.
He reminded me that even if these changes happen only in my own heart, I can make them happen.
The prayer of St. Francis may seem on the surface like a submissive prayer, but really it is a prayer of empowerment. It is a prayer in which we open ourselves up to love, so we can use that love to conquer pain and darkness. It is a prayer that gives us a strength that can’t be weakened, not by anything.
The Prayer of St. Francis
“O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, harmony.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.
Oh 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.”
The prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but was most likely written by a French priest shortly before WWI.