Reflection: Prayer for the Summer

A Challenge Given to the Emmaus Road Teams for 2012

I would like to offer a prayer for you as you launch your summer journeys down the many Emmaus Roads. Many of you will recognize the words of this prayer . . . but I’ll take my own circuitous path to get there.

During the week when I was deliberating over Westmont’s offer, I was in Israel as part of a review team for a semester-abroad program. We lodged at a Catholic retreat center at the crest of small hill, surrounded by bleached stones and olive trees, only a few hundred yards from the wall separating Jerusalem from the West Bank. From our windows, we watched a crescent moon rise over Bethlehem and the barriers around Rachel’s Tomb, a site sacred to all three Abrahamic traditions. Occasionally, just after dark, we sauntered down the rocky slope and through the idling taxis and checkpoints into Bethlehem, where we grabbed some yogurt or ice cream at a local café. Young Israeli guards, with their automatic rifles, took hasty glances at our American passports and waived us on.

If you have passed through these checkpoints, you will recall the relentlessly gray face of the wall turned toward Jerusalem and the collage of graffiti on the Bethlehem side. In Christ’s birthplace, most residents are Palestinian, most signs in Arabic. But the multi-chromatic dissent covering the partition relies on English, an appeal to international tourists and Christian pilgrims. Some of the markings are spray-painted outbursts of local youth, while others—such as the peace dove with a flak jacket—are the work of European artists in sympathy with the Palestinian cause.

Back at the retreat center one evening, with Westmont never far from mind, I was shuffling through some magazines on a library table when I ran across a photo of a prayer—more graffiti actually, a phrase crudely spray-painted in red on a cement barricade. The words, in English, were familiar: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .” The wall, reportedly, was in Berlin.

Most of us know those words as the opening to the “Prayer of Saint Francis.” Recited in open-air revivals and Nobel Prize ceremonies, the prayer has been performed in cathedrals and sung on YouTube. Recently, while walking up to the Old Mission, I encountered it on a mosaic inset in the brick wall on Los Olivos Street, adjacent to the Monastery of Poor Clares. There, as usual, this “Prayer for Peace” is attributed to Saint Francis, the 13th-century friar from Assisi.

But this prayer originates not in medieval Italy but in 20th-century France, sometime prior to the outbreak of World War I. Intended for liturgy, it was first published anonymously exactly one century ago—in 1912 in a French “Bulletin of the League of Holy Mass,” entitled “La Clochette,” or “The Little Bell.” Three years later, after the hostilities had spread across Europe, the president of Souvenir Norman, an Anglo-French association, sent it to Pope Benedict, proclaiming the prayer to be an expression of the “peace and justice” inspired by “the testament of William the Conquerer.” The pope had it translated into Italian in 1915 and published on the front page of the Vatican’s daily. Within a year, as casualties in the ongoing Battle of Verdun surpassed half a million, the prayer and the Vatican article were reprinted in the Parisian newspaper La Croix.

During the heights of the conflict, this “Prayer for Peace” occasionally found its way into liturgies. As the war subsided, a Franciscan priest included it on a postcard bearing the image of Saint Francis. Although the card makes no claims of authorship, the prayer was soon regularly attributed in print to the famous friar of Assisi himself, first by the French Protestant Knights of Peace and then by American Quakers. Today, people from many denominations proclaim that the prayer evokes “the spirit of Saint Francis,” even when they do admit that it is not the work of his pen.

For all our desires to see the prayer through the lens of Saint Francis, I find it even more compelling to consider that it captured the world’s imagination in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. That Franciscan postcard circulated during 1920, when the League of Nations held its inaugural assembly. As the league, without American ratification, stumbled through its early attempts to forge treaties, the prayer called for personal introspection and piety before the hard-won compromises of diplomacy and statecraft. Peace was not rooted in the proximate solutions of international parties, but in the purity of individual hearts. That’s long been the poetry of the prayer—that whatever cynicism or complexity presides in the corridors of power, the transformation of tragedy into hope begins with simple gestures of self-denial and charity in the life of each person. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . .”

That moment of introspection is an appropriate overture for the Emmaus Roads that you will travel. What you will see should stir hearts. You will work with victims of trafficking in Guatemala, orphans in China, or those dislodged by the tsunami or earthquake in Japan. Perhaps most of all this is an opportunity to see the global church at work. It is chance to learn from Christian communities around the world that, in the face of seemingly intractable economic and social problems, still recognize that bearing witness for Christ means caring for the least of these.

But there are other ironic overtones if we think of the prayer flourishing in the era when the League of Nations staggered. So many of the world’s formal instruments of peace did falter during that interval between the wars. Those breakdowns accent that the most enduring forms of compassion often require the passions of our minds. Short-term ministry trips can awaken the heart, but they also reveal just how much interdisciplinary learning becomes necessary for the making of peace and the resolution of contemporary ills. We need the long and broad view. After all, the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus had to remind His walking companions to look beyond their sorrow of the moment, which prevented them from seeing Him for who He was, toward the longer panorama of Hebrew tradition and prophesy. For those of you who will spend time this summer passing through the wall that borders the West Bank or talking with Israeli and Palestinian youth, I would expect that you will return, as I did, aware of the need to know more history, more economics, more sociology, and more art to imagine the bridges that might be built, not only in Palestine but in our own neighborhoods. As the prayer asks, we seek “not to be understood, as to understand.” In such petitions, we hear many of the richest possibilities for the Christian liberal arts.

A final note, a personal one. Returning to Santa Barbara after attending the university here more than 30 years ago, I have found myself checking ceramic plaques and mosaics for the initials of my cousin—Shannon Sargent, a UCSB alumna and longtime artist for Santa Barbara Ceramic Design. For a season of her life, she enjoyed some renown: I’ve found her lamps and vases for sale in New York, Alaska, and Europe. The ceramic “Prayer for Peace” that I encountered in Santa Barbara is not her work—rather, the craft of one of her contemporaries—but her hand-painted tiles still crop up here and there to mark an address in town, including a few of the homes along my Los Olivos route to the Old Mission.

It’s inevitable that I think of her, then, when I have spent an early morning hour walking up Los Olivos to watch the sun rise over the islands and the East Beach palms. On those mornings I’ve thought as well of her father, my uncle, an amateur painter, teacher, American G.I., and a witness to some of the fiercest bloodshed in France after the landing in Normandy. The sparkle in his eye, while always boyish, still betrayed that he had seen much that he chose not to tell. Their home near the Santa Cruz coast was one of those places where piety always danced with the imagination. At that time, I had not met other Baptists who wanted to draw like Wyeth, meander like Thoreau, and write like Tolkien. I suppose the Middle Earth I imagined always had a little of the fog rolling across the fallen eucalyptus tree that we climbed over on the edge of the Santa Cruz surf. My mental landscapes no doubt had a few of the dry, Israeli hills that I surveyed with my uncle in the wrinkled pages of his Bible atlas, well before I knew much about the Palestinians’ sufferings. It was in his home that I first learned something of Saint Francis himself, not long after Zeffirelli’s “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” made the medieval friar a countercultural icon. And it was also there that I had an early intimation that a blend of art, music, books, theory, and spiritual wonder could be a vibrant counterpoint to the memory of violence. I was far too young to know it at that time, but perhaps I found there some seeds of trust in the transformative power of the Christian liberal arts.

Just over a year ago, Shannon, my age, died after a long battle with cancer in her spine. She is not here for my return to Santa Barbara, where we walked around the driftwood and oil patches on the beach together a few times as college students. But arriving at Westmont does feel like something has come full circle—if nothing else, it has reminded me of the family, friends, and mentors who saw the need for our faith to be inquisitive and longing, without forgetting its simple call upon our lives to become alternatives to sorrow and injustice.

So, as prelude to your work this summer, I offer for you a prayer of simplicity and counterpoint—a prayer that I recently rediscovered while looking for my cousin on a morning walk, and a prayer that may well have been recited 100 years earlier in the trenches of Alsace-Lorraine. May it provide a little inspiration on the road ahead, not only for a summer journey but also for a life that unites charity and scholarly perseverance:

  • 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,
  • and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
  • Amen.