Many people are shocked to learn that the prayer most closely associated with St. Francis was not actually written by him. In fact, the prayer called “The Prayer of St. Francis” is generally believed to be only about 100 years old, a creative and sincere prayer penned by an anonymous French writer. Over time this anonymously drafted prayer became linked with the spirit of the 13th-century friar whose continual striving to follow more closely the Gospel of Jesus Christ led to a renewal in the church at many levels.
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters very much that St. Francis isn’t directly responsible for this prayer because, although St. Francis never actually said or wrote these particular words, he lived the prayer with his whole life. And when we do look at a few of the authentic writings that we do have from the Poverello (the “little poor man” of Assisi), we see the values, insights and spirituality of the Franciscan tradition reflected in this now-classic prayer.
The most well known writing of St. Francis is probably the Canticle of the Creatures, in which the Saint from Assisi poetically praises God in and through various elements of the created order. The fundamental spiritual insight of the Canticle is that each aspect of God’s creation gives glory and praise to God by being what it was created to be. The Sun praises God by giving the world light; the wind praises God by bringing every kind of weather; and the Earth praises God by sustaining us through producing fruits, flowers and herbs.
All of God’s creation perfectly praises God because each element does what it was intended to do. Near the end of the Canticle St. Francis finally introduces human persons. He writes:
Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation.
Blessed are those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned.
Human beings give praise to God — they live most authentically as they were created to be — through loving one another amid difficult times and by being peacemakers who seek reconciliation. Just as the Sun is most genuinely itself when providing light and warmth, women and men are most truly themselves when they love, forgive and make peace.
In this sense, the so-called “Prayer of St. Francis” reflects the spirit and outlook of the man for whom it is named. The prayer is a petition to God that we might live up to the true way of being-in-the-world that God intends for the human family. To be most authentically human is to be an instrument of peace or, to put it in the sense of the prayer’s following lines, one who sows: love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy in our world.
If the first part of the “Prayer of St. Francis” reminds us about whom we should strive to be in asking God to help us live out that identity, the second part of the prayer is a reminder of what not to be. In a word: selfish.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be understood, desiring to be loved, or seeking forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. But living after the example of St. Francis, whose whole life was modeled on the life of Jesus Christ, means putting others first and caring for the rest of creation in a way that reflects our interdependence and family relationship. It is a call to remember who we really are in the eyes of God, see who others are from that same perspective, and act in a way fitting our identity as human beings.
St. Francis once wrote to his fellow friars: “All creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you” (Admonition V). Unlike the Sun or wind or water, you and I have the capacity to choose to live in accord with our truest selves, or ignore it; to praise God by our words and deeds, or not; and to recognize our place in the family of creation, or pretend that we are above and apart from it.
The “Prayer of St. Francis” offers us is a chance to pause, pray and reflect on who it is that we are and what it is that we are created to do.
As we mark this (feast) day in honor of the great peacemaker, lover of all creation, and icon of holiness from Assisi, may the prayer offered in his name show us a way to live today as it reflects the way St. Francis once lived in the world.
For it is in living as authentic human persons fully alive that we become instruments of God’s peace and, like St. Francis, our whole lives can become a prayer.
– Rev. Daniel P. Horan OFM