Around eight hundred years ago people in a number of European cities began to feel a peculiar and unheard-of-desire. They wanted to know what time it was. Of course, there had always been church bells. The ringing of the bells summoned the faithful to worship, proclaimed the arrival of death, warned of fire and approaching enemies. Their chimes divided the day into morning, afternoon, and evening. Nobody had a watch.
Then in the year 1188 the citizens of Tournao, in Belgium, got permission from the King to set up a clock in a suitable spot, to strike the hours, “for their pleasure and for the city’s business.” The first mechanical clock was installed in 1309 in Milan, and it wasn’t long before every sizable town had one. Thus people began to live in a new era. They called it “modern times.”
After a number of centuries of modern times, generations of living with the atomic bomb, numerous wars and conflicts between nations, we find our enthusiasm for modernity somewhat dampened. We wonder what went wrong ever since people started asking what time it was.
Around the period when men first felt the urge to divide their days into shorter intervals, for the sake of business engagements and deadlines, a son was born in Assisi to a cloth dealer, Pietro Bernardone. I have always been moved by the life of Francis of Assisi so I was delighted to recently read The Last Christian which is about that son – Francis of Assisi. Born of wealthy parents, Francis lived a luxurious life until he suffered a serious illness, after which he turned to religion with consummate dedication, and with a resolve to live like Christ as nearly as possible. The book argues that in the person of Francis the premodern world, so to speak, gathered itself together before coming to an end. For one last time, before the forces of progress thundered off on their triumphant path, one man looked into the motivating thrust behind the whole thing and decisively rejected it: Francis of Assisi, the last Christian. No one ever worked as strenuously against the forces of modernity as he did, with his body, with his very life. Francis had no new theory to offer, but an old practice – the practice of Jesus Christ.
He saw this as living in object poverty, even if this may not have been the way Christ lived. As far as is known he was the first person in history to receive the stigmata, the marks of Christ’s crucifixion on his body. He preached in the streets, ministered to the poor, and lived among lepers. Even though he felt called to preach, he was never ordained as a priest. He nevertheless gained the reputation of being eminently Christlike, and gained followers to his austere way of life. This led to the Franciscan Order in the Roman Catholic Church, an Order that still exists, one committed to a life of poverty and mission to the poor. He was made the patron saint of animals and the environment.
The first thing to say about this prayer is that it is not by St. Francis of Assisi, who died in Assisi in 1226 A.D. at only 45 years of age. The prayer first appeared in 1917, and the author is unknown. We may assume the author, surely an admirer of St. Francis, attributed the prayer to him because it is the kind of prayer Francis would pray. It is reflective of the values treasured and the kind of life he lived.
As for the poem itself, it is far more than a poem. It is a worldview, a philosophy of life that scores selfish pride and emphasizes service to others. In calling for mutual love, forgiveness, compassion, and joy it provides the basis for universal brotherhood. It calls for values that have the power to restore common decency to a world afflicted by hate and distrust. We would do well to keep a copy nearby for frequent reference, and to hold it before our children and grandchildren as a mandate on how to live in such a world as ours, and as an example of beautiful literature – English that sparkles!
Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
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;
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.