Writing after his time

A dear friend dropped me a note saying she enjoyed something I wrote. That’s why she’s a dear friend. (“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” [Eccl 1:2].)

She added, however, that I had made a common mistake. I had cited the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi and attributed it to the saint himself. He had not written it personally, she kindly reminded me.

You know the prayer. Everybody knows the prayer, believer or nonbeliever. It’s a carry-around-in-your-wallet prayer. It begins:

“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.”

I knew it hadn’t been written by St. Francis, but I confess that I had thought it was relatively contemporary to his times in the 13th century. But there’s actually no traceable existence of the prayer prior to the early 20th century. After appearing in the Holy Father’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, in 1916, it grew in popularity. Around 1918 it was published on a holy card of St. Francis. That’s probably how the mistaken connection to his authorship was started.

But there’s something else here that’s good to keep in mind. Attributing the prayer to St. Francis is such a Catholic thing. It made a beautiful prayer more welcome, more loved, more universal by connecting it intimately to the universal saint. We just naturally accepted it. Because it fits him so perfectly.

Old line from an old movie, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I guess I fell into that. I wrote the legend.

The stories of our saints teach. But they don’t teach dry history. We know that, even if we conflate the two at times. That’s the difference between their lives told in hagiography and biography. It’s what we do with our saints. Because we love them.

I was sent a parish bulletin from the beginning of the school year that gave some select patron saints for students. St. Thomas Aquinas, author of that encyclopedia of Catholic belief, the Summa Theologica, as the overall patron saint of scholars; St. Francis de Sales as the patron saint of writing for his “Introduction to the Devout Life,” a spirituality for laypeople, and his Counter-Reformation apologetics; and St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of lost things, maybe to help explain that missing homework.

Like most things involving the saints, it was devout and fun at the same time. It even included St. Expiditus, patron saint of procrastinators.

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That’s the way the saints are with us. We do this every day. We define ourselves as the Church militant on earth, intimately connected to the Church triumphant in heaven and the Church suffering in purgatory, but to be the triumphant in time.

The saints aren’t dead and gone to us. We talk to them in prayer, tell stories about them, enjoy our moments with them. We have no trouble seeing things as new when we are talking about old saints. And that’s how St. Francis being the author of a prayer not heard before the 20th century is not so surprising to us.

As we approach his feast day Oct. 4, let’s conclude that prayer. His prayer:

“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; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.” Amen.

It brings out the best in us. I bet Francis just loves it.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @BobPLockwood.