Have You Met St. Francis?
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Have You Met St. Francis?A mystical encounter in Tuscany.
When I was 18, I spent eight months hitchhiking around Italy. At the time, I was about to go to Oxford, and I thought that I wanted to be an art historian. So I visited all the great centers—Florence, Rome, Naples, and Venice. Then, one day in early May, I found myself in Assisi, where Saint Francis had lived and died. Nothing I had seen prepared me for the impact of Giotto’s paintings of the life of Saint Francis in the basilica; their grave, exalted purity dazzled me. I decided to stay to contemplate them for a week, and I slept out in the ruins of an old castle, surrounded by the rough, fragrant hills of Tuscany in spring.
I can still remember the sunlit afternoon when, sitting in a field of yellow and blue wildflowers, I first read the Prayer of Saint Francis. Every word pierced me with the freshness of Giotto’s vision and of that high and noble Tuscan landscape:
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;
Where there is sadness, joy.
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,
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
I remember that afternoon, reading the prayer over and over, savoring every word, how astonished I was at its spiritual truth and beauty. The more I contemplated the prayer and the holy passions behind it, the deeper my joy became, until I, the sunlit afternoon, and the wind moving in the brilliant flowers seemed to become one vast sustained movement of adoration within the being of God.
The practice I am going to describe is found in its essential outlines in many of the mystical traditions; it has great power to transform your heart and personality.
Memorize the Saint Francis Prayer. Then, sitting calmly in meditation, say it over and over again to yourself very slowly, bringing your mind home to its words whenever it begins to stray. Do this for about half an hour at a time and you will find that your mind and heart will be made joyful and peaceful and that, over time, your entire being will begin to fill with the strengths and virtues that the passage celebrates. All mystical systems know that we become what we think; this exercise is a wonderful way of saturating the heart and mind with holy truth and passion.
That afternoon in Tuscany 40 years ago initiated me into the prayer’s mystic power, 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.”