A Prayer Practice: The Prayer of Saint Francis
An afternoon in Tuscany over 40 years ago initiated me into the mystic power of The Prayer of Saint Francis, and everything I have learned since on my search has only deepened my joy at its depth. It seems to me a prayer that transcends any particular religion; in a very few utterly stripped and simple phrases, it condenses the deepest wisdom of the Path of Sacred Activism. Over the years I have shared it with seekers and activists of all kinds; they have all recognized the transmuting power of the holy inspiration that still sings in its lines. One young Tibetan doctor I met in Ladakh translated it into Tibetan and started to use it every day in his morning prayers to the Buddha of Compassion. A Hindu devotee of Shiva I know, who works with slum children in Mumbai, uses it every morning in her prayers to the “Lord of Love.”
Begin by sitting calmly in your place of meditation, breathing in and out deeply to steady your mind. If you have any incense, light a stick of it so the whole atmosphere around you can become fragrant.
When you feel ready, read the entire prayer slowly once through, savoring each word and trying to enter as deeply as you can into the meaning of each phrase. When you have done so, rest a little in the sacred emotion such a reading will arouse.
I find it helpful at this moment to pray to God to open me still more deeply to the holy passion of the prayer. Often I say something like “May the love speaking this prayer open me completely to itself!” or “Remove all fear from my mind and heart so it can go fearlessly into the fire of absolute love!”
Then, slowly, I start to say inwardly the first line: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” I try to dwell richly on each phrase. What does it mean to say “Lord, make me,” for example? What is an instrument of peace, and what has to be given up in oneself to become one? Why does Saint Francis seem to stress the holiness of peace above all other aspects of the spiritual life? What is thy peace? To each inner question I try to bring the totality of everything that I have understood about these questions from my search and from my own experience and from the experience of others.
Very often my mind starts to wander almost immediately. Something about the power and beauty of this prayer scares it profoundly. I think this is a prayer that breathes in each phrase the kind of sacred selflessness that terrifies the ego. I try to be compassionate to my mind and its need to evade the seriousness of the prayer’s intentions, but I also try not to let it wander too far. As soon as I catch it wandering, I bring it back to the line of the prayer it was contemplating before it started to wander. This can be difficult work, but it is worth it. It trains the attention and, over time, allows the sacred power of the prayer to infuse the mind and spirit at profound levels.
Slowly and with as much sacred concentration as I can muster, I go through the prayer phrase by phrase, trying to bring everything I know and long for to my reading of it. Then, after a brief pause, I go back to the beginning. In the course of half an hour’s meditation, it is rare that I find myself saying the prayer in this way more than 12 or 13 times; instead, I find that if I practice with sufficient devotion and sincerity, the prayer draws me into the passionate silence of the heart that it was created from. To enter and become one with this silence is the true goal of all prayer. So, when this silence arrives, I stop speaking the words of the prayer inwardly and continue only when my mind starts getting restive.
At the end of the practice, I find it helpful to recite the entire prayer once more, steadily and slowly, dedicating my whole being to its force and power. Then, as the final act of the exercise, I dedicate whatever insights and sacred emotions saying the prayer has aroused in me to the awakening of all sentient beings. To make this dedication at the end more real and vivid, I imagine that saying it sends dazzling white light in all directions in God’s name, light that will heal, save, inspire, and embolden all those it invisibly touches. §
Andrew Harvey is Founder and Director of the Institute of Sacred Activism, an international organization that invites concerned people to take up the challenge of our contemporary global crises by becoming inspired and effective agents of change. Andrew has taught at Oxford and Cornell Universitys as well as at various colleges and spiritual centers throughout the world. He has written over 30 books. Read more at www.andrewharvey.net.