Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And 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.
The Prayer of St. Francis has been one of my favorites for a long time – for many reasons. When I was younger, I felt that I had a special connection with the saint of Assisi: we shared a name (along with both my grandmothers), I was born days after his feast day in October, and we shared a deep love and care for animals and nature. I still smile when I see him in someone’s garden.
As I grew older and began to further investigate the role of the saints in my Catholic faith tradition, I read more about Francis and was moved by his message of peace and love.
Now, I do realize that the prayer that is often attributed to Francis was probably not actually written by him, but I still hold it close to my heart and often come back to it for comfort or inspiration. In my year as a Jesuit Volunteer, it has given me guidance for how to live a life of love and service. At first glance, the prayer seems to encourage the reader to seek out injustice in the world and work to replace it with justice, love, peace, etc. This is how I read it for many years. But recently, I have found new meaning in the verses of the prayer, and interpreted it in a way that has shifted not just the way I view my work and vocation, but every aspect of my life.
A few weeks ago, my sixth grade class undertook a Lenten day of service and reflection. They made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and delivered them to a local daytime shelter for homeless people. When they returned to school, they took the afternoon to write and reflect on what it means to do service and help those in need. One of the ways the other teachers and I guided their reflections was by having them read and write about the Prayer of St. Francis. As we read aloud the words I know so well that I basically have them memorized, I found myself nearly moved to tears with a new understanding of the prayer.
Instead of seeking to replace hatred, injury, doubt and sadness in the world around me with love, pardon, faith and joy, the prayer is calling me to replace those things within myself with their positive antitheses. How can I expect to be an instrument of peace if I am harboring feelings of hate? In the moment, it was a freeing realization. Only I am capable of eliminating the negative feelings that may exist in my heart. Even if I seem to have found reason to hate (a person, a broken system, an injustice in the world), even if I cannot see evidence of God’s presence in a situation, even if I have been injured by someone else’s words or actions, I am the only person who can turn those feelings around – because they are my feelings. It is my choice to love (a person, someone hurt by a broken system or injustice in the world – my students, for example), it is my choice to have faith that God is ever-present, it is my choice to forgive.
These choices are certainly not always easy – and I, like most humans, often struggle to make the positive choice. But now, when I pray the words of the Prayer of St. Francis, I am able to refocus my thoughts and emotions on being loving, forgiving, faithful. I am able to focus myself to be an instrument of peace.