Friday, September 7, 2007

God's Instrument

St. Francis Day is October 4. I have just learned that today. I looked it up because a prayer that is commonly attributed to St. Francis has been with me all my adult life and it’s time to share what I found in it. When I first heard it, I thought there was only one “Prayer of St. Francis.” It was sung at my first wedding, and I later paid an artist to do a calligraphy rendition of it for my wife.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy 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.

Around the time I turned 50 and came to Missouri, I told my late cousin, Walt Bouman, who was a prominent theologian, that I had come to realize I had a calling as a “secular minister.” He chuckled and replied in his rich and resonant voice, “to those who are called, there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular. A minister is a minister.”

In the last couple of decades, I have developed some altogether contradictory religious ideas. I even hesitate to say “I” developed them. Maybe they developed me. I’m not being cute when I confess that I don’t know if there is a boundary that separates “my” action from action I do at the prompting of “that.”

I once began a journal, several years ago, lost in a computer failure, in which I was prompted to begin with the sentence, “God is not human” and go on from there. Though my religious tradition asserts that “God” is not subject to definition, we use the metaphors of humanity to express our sense of that which is beyond understanding. So when I speak of “God,” I am not suggesting that “he” has a gender, an age, or a point of view. I don’t know anything and yet I have something to say about this.

In the midst of a charette in Osage County, Missouri in 2001 I suddenly connected religious tradition to the work of a county historical society. Religion is prominent in the social customs of the people in Osage County. They even asked me to sing the Doxology as a blessing for our parting meal. I realized in the midst of a brainstorming session with them that the stewardship we know from our religious education is identical with the stewardship we must exercise in our voluntary associations.

Remember the Bible story of Cain and Abel? After the Bible’s first recorded murder, Cain barks back at an inquiring God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the lesson of this tale is, Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. We are the keepers of endangered species, as Noah discovered, much to his inconvenience. We are the keepers of strangers, and even reviled populations are composed of people who possess divine goodness, as Jesus taught in the parable of The Good Samaritan.

This sense of wide-ranging stewardship extends to historical work. A county historical society is inherently married in a relationship of stewardship of both the intelligence of the population and that population’s sense of relationship with place. No other entity in a county is so intimately connected with the stories that pertain to this place or to the things that distinguish this place from any other places.

If we are stewards of place, what may we do to increase people’s appreciation of all the beauties, virtues, sorrows, and other meanings that belong here and nowhere else? That was the question I posed in the charette in Osage County, Missouri, and the people there reached into their store of social skills, creativity, and kindness and developed a new form of activity that would engender love of place. For me, it was a religious experience. It was beyond “business as usual,” and it changed the way I see the work I do.

One of my avocations is singing. I keep in shape by vocalizing every morning during my 20-minute drive to work. One day as I approached the office I took the most remarkable breath I have ever drawn, and suddenly the opening of the Prayer of St. Francis popped into mind, and it occurred to me that God had just drawn that breath, through me. I had experienced the feeling of being the instrument of God’s breathing. One thought led to another, and before you know it, I’d embraced an idea that “God loves to sing, and I’m the only opportunity for God to sing in the space I occupy.” So I became the instrument of God’s love of singing, and that concept rippled out in all directions until virtually everything I touch or do is touched or done with a sense of a divine presence not of my making, but which inhabits and uses me. And what is true in my thinking about me, is true in my thinking about you. My sense of the divine is much more immediate since these ideas were granted to me by some deity called “Holy Spirit” in one tradition, or “Athena” in another.

Three years ago I quoted the opening line of The Prayer of St. Francis at a charette in the Champ Clark House in Bowling Green, Missouri. “This house may be thought of as an instrument of God’s purpose,” I said. “What sort of purpose becomes divine participation?” Something to that effect. I wasn’t implying that the trustees convert the house into a place of worship, but that they see the house as an instrument of active energy rather than as a stationary object intended as a container of various items and the occasional visitor. A historic house is a tool of education. The prayer might be extended this way: “Lord make us and this historic house the instruments of a learning that is worthy of divine participation. Where there is hesitancy, let me extend a hospitable greeting; where there is befuddlement, an opening moment of focus; where there is indifference, let me spark interest; where there is too much to tell; help me talk less, and listen more!”

I know an instrument of learning that is also the product of prayer. It’s the touring exhibit on Sac and Fox heritage. The exhibit contains and communicates a Sac and Fox story about “Twelve Boys” and their sacrifice of self to provide enduring aid to the people. Sandra Massey, who served as the lead tribal liaison in developing the exhibit content, recently wrote me an eloquent letter about the meaning of the exhibit as a tangible thing. She said, “Because the exhibit is the result not only of tribal history but prayer, it has taken on a spirit of its own. It is connected to the heart of the people through the Twelve Boys, who have found a modern venue through which to help the Sac and Fox survive in more than a physical sense….The Missouri Humanities Council did not form a partnership with the Sac and Fox to facilitate the return to our homelands, but through the “Homeland” exhibit it happened. Where the exhibit may stand so also is our presence as a people.”

Seven years ago I was among crowds of visitors in the Basilica of St. Francis in the town of Assisi in Italy. Inside that space I felt positively infused with the hopeful and holy energy that pilgrims had brought there. I have not had such a feeling before or since. It opened me to considering another indefinable and indescribable “that,” which some refer to as “the power of prayer.” I sensed that power as an environment that day in Assisi. I believe now that it radiates outward like radio waves, such that the thing we pray for may or may not be the thing affected by the energy we release and receive in the mental stance of a prayer. Indeed, this text is a prayer. You don’t have to relay it to 16 friends. If you got this far, the energy is already at work.


Anita Allee said...

It is not often individuals care to display their faith openly. I appreciate this. Morgan County and the United States were fouded on a strong Christian Faith. There is no way one can separate that from the foundations of our society. Plus the Judeo-Christian Ethic is necessary for the sustaining of our great nation. Thanks, AA

Seeker said...

You know, there would not have been a Sac and Fox heritage exhibit if the Sac and Fox people who developed the content were unwilling to share their beliefs openly. They did not share the Story of the Twelve Boys in its entirety because aspects of the story are considered private cultural property, but they shared enough of the story to give me, a product of that Judeo-Christian heritage, a sense of how my faith orients me on a path of "loving attention" to creation that is parallel to the Sac and Fox pathway. I wonder if the greatness of a nation is not a matter of its might but of the extent of a spirit of caring that prevails in the population. The ethic of "caring widely" is not unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I think it may be the thing that matters most in the future of the human story. It is certainly the central concern of Cormack McCarthy's book, "The Road," about which I wrote a blog a few weeks ago.