“Reflections on the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi” by Musa Askari
“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;
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. Amen”
It was my late father, Syed Hasan Askari, who introduced me to the prayer of St Francis many years ago. My introduction came in the form of hearing it read aloud. Perhaps to come to a new prayer not by reading it first but by hearing it one is somehow able to let the prayer rest more gently upon one’s soul. Especially if hearing it read by a person one trusts. Therefore, prayer may also be understood not only as a sign of devotion but also trust between seekers of truth and greater still a sign of Trust in a Higher Power to which the prayer is directed.
To hear such words of love and devotion for the first time resonated very deeply. In the years to follow the prayer would become one among many of my constant sources of inner support. I would not only read it in silence or remember it during the course of a day but moreso I would make a point of reciting it by whispering it to myself at some late hour of the night. Through this whispering recital the prayer became more real, an experience, not only of emotional support but far beyond that to moments of experiencing the prayer as a form of being itself. That it almost had a life of its own. A life in which I was hoping to participate if only momentarily due to varying levels of inner intention and alterness.
Over and above the actual form, order and beauty of the words it is worth exploring, if only superficially through this reflection, the manner in which the prayer is working upon our inner being. What is its outer effect and what is its inner influence? What kind of inner preparation is required to utter such words as authentically as possible? If one is an “instrument” it begs the question who is the invisible artist and what is the melody that is being played? In what way, if at all, do the first and second verses talk to one another? Does a prayer stop when we have finished uttering its words of devotion and praise? Or is there a life, above our own embodied life, in which the prayer perpetually participates? Are prayers, in the form presented to us by inspired individuals who first uttered them, an echo of a far greater recital of praise and devotion that goes on above our consciousness?
Where there is an echo there must be a source from which it emanates. Where there is vibration there must be the beat of a drum. Where there is beauty there must also be the eye which recognises it as such. Where there is thought there must a thinker. And where there is a question there must be a clue or the answer complete. Is there such a question and answer present within the prayer of St. Francis? Is there any such dialogue implied between the one who prays and One to whom the prayer is directed?
At first glance perhaps not. However, if one looks more closely, at the first verse in particular, the following may be a clue where there are six question and answers present and not only that but clear intruction or remedy provided.
Take for example the line, “where there is injury,pardon”. By considering it as three lines a dialogue becomes apparent:
We ask, “Where is injury?”
The prayer answers, “There is injury”
Remedied by, “Pardon.”
Take another line: “where there is despair, hope”:
We ask, “Where is despair?”
The prayer answers, “There is despair”
Remedied by, “Hope.”
Is it not so that through most of our heartfelt prayers, either handed down by tradition or uttered by oursevles spontaneously, we somehow feel in “conversation” with the Supreme? It is into such a “conversation” the prayer of St Francis invites us to enter. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, the human soul is in constant “communication” with its Source. A Source from which it emanates and to which it longs to return. It is perhaps this “communication”, this greater dialogue, that the prayer somehow lifts the reciter innerly to become more conscious of. All great prayers take us in this direction. The prayer becomes a door into another kind of awareness.
Prayer, as both dialogue and a form of worship, is a most peculiar kind of dialogue. We are asking questions and we hear only our voice. A voice that may be frail and shaking, through some traumatic experience, or overjoyed with gratitude for what we have been shown or recevied. The answer to our prayers, however, is heard in silence. The Great Silence of The Supreme Presense, the First and the Last. The Hidden and the Manifest, everywhere and yet nowhere, Immanent and Transcendent. I am reminded of the following from an much earlier piece of writing of mine, “It is in such silence that the Divine Command is uttered perhaps”(The Sound of Silence, 1992) https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/the-sound-of-silence/
In our corporeal nature we hear corporeal things. How can the physical ear hear an answer from One who is Supremly immaterial and Beyond Being? Therefore, silence and patience become the means through which our inner ear becomes more atuned and there we may wait, atentive, alert, humble and above all listening by stilling all distraction within our lives, touching the fringes of a greater peace. Hearing as it were by another mode.
In the prayer of St. Francis we have a deeply moving dynamic where not only are question and answer co-present but also the remedy or instruction to the question. The prayer consoles, reassures and embraces all at once. There is no delay in compassion. The remedies of love, pardoning, hope, faith, light and joy are instantly provided as soon as the question and answer are complete. Infact, the prayer does not wait to be asked how one corrects the disorder within and without. It rushes the remedy towards us faster than we inhale our next breath. Life before life.
One may choose simply to reflect or meditate upon only one line of the prayer and be moved beyond measure. The question, “where is despair?” may be asked outwardly addressing the world and we are presented with images of oppression between human beings or come across testimonies of those who continue to suffer and through such images and accounts we are told innerly, “look! there is despair”. All one need do is ask the question wholeheartedly, compassionately and sadly too many answers come flooding to our consciousness of lives lived in despair. The prayer challenges to ask and notice the other and by doing so abolish otherness from our being. One need not look far to see despair if one chooses not to walk by on the other side. On the other hand the same question maybe asked about oneself to oneself, “where is despair?”. Here personal courage is needed, for now we are looking into the face of our lives and should we be able to peer with unwavering inner strenth the answer comes, “there is despair”, directing us to some long forgotten memory or unravelling chains of thought which enslave and cripple us mentally, distancing us from the world and from ourselves.
To both outward and inwardly directed questions on despair the answer is the same, “hope”. In other words, do not despair, there is hope. The very question itself is “hope”. The question carrying within itself its own liberating power. The question is hope “embodied” as a thought. The question cannot come from an abyss of utter want or lack, the question must carry with it the source which sent it on its way. As referred to previously; the prayer consoles, reassures and embraces all at once. It can only do so if it is enveloped by an inspired inspiration. In the outer form of one line, the question and answer go hand and hand, as like two hands coming together in prayer.
Further, the first verse gives us another insight. It offers a definition of “peace”. Of what “peace” means when commencng a recital of the prayer. Here peace is to love. It is also to pardon, to have faith which implies to trust, to be hopeful for the Light of the One to whom the prayer is addressed is neverfailing and our overriding inner state of such peace in that moment is to be joyful.
The prayer of St. Francis begins in the name of peace and that is perhaps why it has survived to this day and recited by so many. The human heart in perpetual quest for peace. If humanity’s “humanity” is to mean anything it must surely begin with peace regardless of it being called sacred or secular. The Russell – Einstein Manifesto (1955) sums it up beautifully, “We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”
Would that those who wage war in the name of “peace” remember such qualities of peace as offered by St. Francis. Would that they pause and re-think in “silence” if they truly are bringing peace or the oppositie of peace which the prayer of St. Francis does not shy away from making clear. Namely, hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness.
In my view the first verse is where the inner work is to be done. The first verse prepares the inner ground, turns the soil, so that we may “sow” such seeds as love and hope. Thus making the earth of our being a fertile ground from which may spring, over the ocean of our consciousness, all that the second verse leads us toward. The second verse finally frees us from enslavement to our ego-bound mindlessness. Of collective hypnosis from our exclusive one-sided attitudes to identities of race, ethnicity, culture, creed and ideology (religious or humanist).
We are in a totally new frame not only of mind but consciousness when proceeding through the second verse line by line. When the first verse has “consoled” us, “understood” and “loved” us like a kind friend or beloved. When it has enriched and pardoned us our failings. When we have been transformed within and without through the power of the first verse then, and only then, we may truly mean the words which pass by our lips of surrender from the second verse. We ask nothing for ourselves when we have been given more than could have been asked for. Now, one may recall how the prayer began, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”.
Through the discourse on soul we are told body is the instrument of soul, the material is later to the immaterial. Yet, it is not the body which seems to be the “instrument” implied when we notice how the prayer ends, “it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” What other could it be that perishes, passes away, than body? And what other than soul could we speak of when we speak of life eternal? It is soul that has the right to eternal life. Only soul un-embodied remains immortal. Soul, impartible, invisible, indivisible, non-material companion of our self, both one and many at the same time.
The higher levels of the beautfiul prayer of St. Francis may only be reached when perhaps we consider the prayer to a prayer of the soul. An echo of a greater prayer that continues above our consciousness. What the words of that greater recital may be, only as souls shall we come to know. Soul, here and now. Peaceful greetings to the soul of St. Francis of Assisi.
I conclude this brief reflection with the words of my teacher:
“Pray that you are granted an unbroken awareness of your higher soul, that which is the authentic principle of your being, that un-embodied, immortal, all pervading reality, which is one and entire everywhere, every time; that which is in perpetual contemplation of the Divinity above it, that which remains separate, apart, above all you do, relate, experience and suffer as a…body here. Remember it, for it is the true source of your peace and power. Remember.” (Hasan Askari, “Pray” from his book “Alone to Alone”)
Originally published as guest article http://soul-licious.com/?p=918 Thank you to Mia Caruso for asking me to write about the Prayer of St Francis.
See also: Prayer for my Parents & O Light of Lights