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Prayer for the week

03 October 2014

Christopher Collingwood on a prayer that has been attributed to St Francis of Assisi


Near Baghdad: an Iraqi policeman at the site of a car-bombing last week

Near Baghdad: an Iraqi policeman at the site of a car-bombing last week

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.

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; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

Anonymous, 20th century  (attributed to St Francis of Assisi)

MANY will assume that this prayer was composed by St Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), but, according to the French scholar Dr Christian Renoux, it cannot be traced back in its present form before 1912. In about 1920, it was printed on the back of an image of St Francis by a French Franciscan priest, but without any attribution. Perhaps it was this that encouraged the assumption that it was by St Francis, although it was not until 1927 that any attribution was made.

It arguably came to greater prominence in the UK when the late Margaret Thatcher somewhat controversially recited a version of it outside 10 Downing Street on the morning after winning the General Election in 1979.

Many prayers arise out of self-centred motives. Although this is a prayer for oneself, it lacks any hint of selfishness - quite the opposite. As it reaches its climax in the final clause, it assumes that being an instrument of peace oneself is inevitably costly, because it involves us in the life of Christ by sharing in his death and resurrection.

Being an instrument of peace requires us to die to self because we put the other first: to refrain from hating and instead to sow love; to pardon when we have been hurt; to desire to understand someone else who has wronged us. All these seem to require a Herculean effort on our part.

Notwithstanding that we all need the grace of God, we have to begin to put it into practice somehow, and sometimes that feels as if we are being asked to give something of which we are not capable. We have to go on trying, trusting that the grace of God sustains us, and enables us to start afresh when we get it wrong.

The plea for peace is universal. There has always been conflict, violence, and war in the world, but just when we think that we have seen it all, the forms such things take can seem outrageously inventive. Although beheading is no new form of execution, the murder of hos-tages by violent Islamic State jihadists recently is characterised by a callousness that we might have thought was a thing of the past. How do we sow love, offer pardon, and seek to understand, in such circumstances?

We have a living example in the Chaplain of St George's, Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, who, by staying in the city at great risk to his own security, demonstrates selfless love as an alternative to hatred. Such costliness is Christlike.

Perhaps it is precisely because of this attitude, which in St Francis led to his sharing in the Passion of Christ by manifesting the crucifixion wounds of the stigmata, that the prayer is so readily associated with him.

The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of York Minster.

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