Some of the most powerful prayers/reflections of the 20th Century have similar themes: serenity, patience, and humility. Some of these prayers will be familiar to you, but others may not be. All of them are worth praying and reflecting on over and over. I will give a brief background on most of these, and short passages from each. I strongly encourage you to read the entire texts of these, which you can easily find online or elsewhere.
The familiar “Prayer of St. Francis” was not actually written by St. Francis of Assisi, who lived in the 12-13th centuries, but rather by an unknown Frenchman, perhaps Franciscan Fr. Esther Bouquerel around the year 1912. The sentiments are consistent with those of St. Francis, but the prayer was written many centuries later. (Misattribution will be a frequent theme of my “Musings” today!) “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love…Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand…for it is in giving that we receive, …and in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Reformed theologian, wrote the Serenity Prayer around 1930. It has become a standard, especially in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The prayer continues for several sentences beyond this, but this is the best known part. I have come to see “serenity, courage, and wisdom” as a great synopsis of the Holy Spirit’s gifts for myself.
Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” However, God certainly did great things through her. She was truly an instrument of God’s peace. This one sentence captures much of her humility and serenity, accepting our human limitations.
A man named Kent Keith at Harvard University wrote The Paradoxical Commandments in 1968, in a Handbook for Student Leaders. This reflection was a favorite of Mother Teresa, and has often been incorrectly attributed to her. Keith says, “People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered; love them anyway… The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds; think big anyway. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs; fight for a few underdogs anyway…” While there is a certain defiance in this reflection, it is really about serenity, the peace of mind that comes from doing the right thing without worrying about approval or disapproval, and leaving the success or failure to God.
There are two powerful reflections that speak especially of the virtue of patience. Both were written by Catholic priests, one probably in the first half of the 20th Century, the one well into the second half.
The first was written by the Jesuit philosopher, paleontologist, and mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who died in 1955. He wrote many philosophical works, and has many great quotes. His most famous prayer is sometimes called Patient Trust. It was given to me by a spiritual director, a religious sister, at a difficult but pivotal time in my life. “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are impatient to reach the end without delay, to skip the intermediate stages…It is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stage of instability—and that it may take a very long time…Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves…Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
One of our own Archdiocese of Detroit priests, who later became bishop of Saginaw, the late Ken Untener, wrote a reflection in 1979 on the themes of patience and humility. It is called “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own.” This prayer too has been incorrectly attributed, to another bishop, the recently canonized Oscar Romero. But Bishop Untener was certainly a holy man in his own right, renowned for his preaching and the care of his flock.
Untener wrote, “The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work…No prayer fully expresses our faith…No program accomplishes the Church’s mission…We plant the seeds that one day will grow…We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.”
Summing up these great prayers, God wants to do great things through us—things that will make a difference in our families, our communities, our church, our nation, and our world. But it takes humility, serenity, and patience for God to bring the work he has begun in us to completion.