An Ancient Prayer For A Modern World

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth;

From the laziness that is content with half truths;

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth;

God deliver s, deliver us.

We need to pray this prayer because it names three of the cardinal sins of both the ancient world and the modern.

  1. Fear of new truth – perhaps because it threatens our suppositions – along with willful ignorance and a mind closed to fresh ideas.
  2. An indolence that is satisfied with a job half done or poorly done.
  3. A proud and egotistic mind that supposes it has nothing more to learn since it already has all the truth it needs.

And this old prayer, by indirection, calls for three virtues that will bless a new commencement of life for any high-school or college graduate.

  1. Courage. Courage to think, to adventure, to question and even to doubt. The courage to be different if need be, and in the face of failure to pick up the pieces and start over.
  2. Diligence. Hard work, whether physical or mental. An honest day’s work is becoming a rare virtue in our culture.
  3. Humility. The virtue of realizing how ignorant we are, and to be able to say with old Socrates as he confronted the vast ocean of unexplored truth, “I know nothing.”

This prayer teaches still another virtue, brevity, which college graduates, long exposed to loquacious professors (I confess!) may have trouble learning. Ours is a world of words, too many words, assaulting us with more verbiage than meaning.

To cultivate brevity one need not go as far as the fellow who sought to escape our noisy world by seeking refuge in a monastery. The father superior warned him he would have to work, study, pray, and even eat in complete silence. “That is just what I’m looking for,” he told the monk. “All right,” he was told, “After five years you can come back to me and say two words.” After five long years the man returned, and the father superior asked him what he had to say, two words only, “Bad food,” he blurted out.

“All right, five more years of silence, and then two more words,” he was told. After the second five years he was back again, and when asked what he had to say this time, he said, “Bad sleep!” Sent back for another five years and returning for the third time, he was asked for his two words. “I quit!” he said with emphatic finality. “That figures,” the father superior replied, “all you’ve done since you’ve been here is to complain, complain, complain.”

While brevity is a virtue I grant it can be overcome. One may wonder if Alan Alda, who played a doctor on TV’s Mash, did not overdo it when he delivered the Commencement Address at Harvard Medical School a few years ago. He stood before those graduating doctors and said, “The head bone is connected to the heart bone,” and then sat down. That was all he said, a one-sentence Commencement Address!

The graduates, at first taken back, burst out in applause, not so much because of the brevity of the Address, but because so much had been said in so few words. While it was surely the briefest of all Harvard’s commencement addresses it might also be the most remembered and the most meaningful. The head is connected to the heart. It was something for a doctor to remember.

The main speaker for the dedication of the national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863 was Edward Everett, one of the nation’s foremost orators. He spoke for two hours, but no one remembers what he had to say. The President of the United States was to say only a few words in tribute to the 50,000 men who had died there. You can read what he had to say in two minutes, but Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lives as on as one of the greatest speeches in American history. It shows us that brevity has its virtue.

Brevity is more than an economy of words; it is reflective of character. It is seen in Jesus’ instruction to “Let your yes be yes and your no be no, for whatever is more than this is of the evil one.” He is telling us to speak with moral clarity, and not to be ambiguous in our ethical decisions. Lincoln was that way when they asked him how he would treat the southern states once they returned to the Union. “I will treat them as if they had never left.” His yea was yea, his nay was nay. Case closed. When a girl says no with absolute moral clarity, the boy gets the message!

In my search of such moral clarity in great literature I have come up with some helpful examples.

Henry van Dyke tells us what living in this world is all about in his poem “Four Things to Do.”

Four things a man must learn to do,

If he would keep his record true.

To think without confusion clearly,

To love his fellow man sincerely,

To act with honest motives purely,

To trust in God and Heaven securely.

The prophet Micah reduced the equation to but three mandates.

What does the Lord require, O man, but to

Love mercy,

Do justly, and to

Walk humbly with our God.

The poet Edwin Markham, known for his brevity, reduced the equation to two.

For all your days prepare,

And treat them all alike.

When you are the anvil, bear –

When you are the hammer, strike.

Markham was right as he was brief as to what life is about. We have to learn to be the anvil and take what life has to offer with grace and dignity. And we must learn to be the hammer and act for the right against the wrong when we must.

Our Lord Jesus, when he was asked to name the greatest commandment, was disarmingly brief. The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. The second is like unto that, you are to love your neighbor as yourself.

And when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he called a prayer that can be said in 20 seconds. And he highly recommended a prayer shorter still, God be merciful to me a sinner.

These examples serve as a commentary on the meaning of our ancient prayer, and there is another prayer, a more recent one, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, that shares the inspiration and brevity of the ancient one.

O God, give us the serenity to bear what cannot be changed,

The courage to change what can be changed,

And the wisdom to know the difference.