Fear, Self-Protection, and the Prayer of St. Francis*

St.FrancisPreachingtotheBirds_Giotto
St. Francis Preaching to the Birds by Giotto, 1299

I was driving today and thinking about some work I’m doing with a client who has been kicked out of her home by her mother for having an abortion. She needs a lot of things right now, mostly housing and food, and when I find myself in this position, I often turn to my friends as sources of help. I’d put out the call for anyone who had some spare toiletries and nonperishable food and several people reached out with offers.

As I drove down 66th, I thought about how often I impose on my friends in this way. My ministry is entirely self-funded which means barely funded. My friends and some patrons have donated a lot of money and goods to help ensure women get access to abortion care or get out of abusive relationships. I started to wonder if they saw me as a burden. I mean, I ask them all the goddamn time.

I don’t know why but just then the prayer of St. Francis flashed into my mind.

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.

I may be nontheistic but the imagery in this prayer is instructive. It’s basically the Cliff’s Notes version of the gospel.

What struck me most was that line “to be loved as to love”. I may be speaking out of turn but I wonder if this is what my friends mean when they allow me to impose on them again and again; they seek to love rather than be loved. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to them that I ask so often for their help because through my work they can demonstrate a no-strings-attached love to a stranger they’ll never meet. Perhaps it is simply the joy that comes from giving and knowing that you have cared for someone in their darkest hour.

We don’t often think about how completely counter cultural the gospel message is, and no wonder. It’s been co-opted to serve the interests of the state over and over, ever since Constantine robbed the message of its power by making it the official religion of the empire. It’s no different today. Ironically, Christianity with a capital C has become the religion of the status quo. Rather than understand and respond to its challenge, we have disarmed it, robbed it of its power and reduced it to a narcotic dose of self-satisfaction. In this way, Christianity has indeed become the opiate of the masses.

But the gospel, whether you are religious or not, nontheistic or not, is counter cultural for those “with eyes to see”. How much sense does it make to help others before you get your own?  In our free market society, why the fuck would we give away money??? In my extremely individualistic home country, why would we care if someone has been outcast, made homeless, and reduced to begging for their existence? They probably deserve it and we’re not doing them any favors by showing compassion and love.

The truth is that most of us won’t dare to see the challenge of the gospel and St. Francis’s words because we are terrified of what it will cost us. Once heard and understood, the message stays with us, mocking us and the way we live, asking us to do better. We are like the rich man in the parable who asked Jesus what he must do to enter the Kingdom (which, by the way, is not heaven but rather the beloved community, a vision of radical equality). The rich man turned away in despair when Jesus told him that he had to give away all his wealth. We don’t know what became of the rich man. Maybe he thought hard about what Jesus said and decided to follow his advice. But more likely he didn’t. More likely, he is like most of us who found the challenge far too difficult because to give up our wealth is about more than greed. It’s about becoming vulnerable. It’s about exposing ourselves to ridicule, misunderstanding. It’s about becoming the holy fool. It’s about loving with no expectation of return.

At least for my friends and patrons, they have taken up the challenge. They probably don’t know it, really, but they have and I am intensely grateful.

*I’m thinking I’d like to make this part of a series of reflection on the prayer of St. Francis. Stay tuned for another one.

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