There is a tendency in human nature and especially in our society today to make everything selfish, to focus inward on the all-important “me,” while overlooking the way our behavior and attitudes affect those around us. It is so easy to forget that focusing on others is an important way of focusing on God, and some of our best opportunities to serve God well are found in serving our neighbor well. This beautiful prayer by St. Francis of Assisi perfectly articulates a truly Catholic spirit of love—to serve, not to be served:
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; 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. Amen.
We have a responsibility to take our affect on others seriously, and not to abuse our power to hurt or help another person. Because one response prompts another, even the smallest of actions can have a huge effect. We’ve all experienced having a day made or ruined because of one simple interaction with another person, having one quick word or gesture change everything. Our lives are full of opportunities make a difference in someone else’s life–whether positive or negative, and rather than simply avoiding harm, our goal should be to actively choose love and be a true “instrument of God’s peace.”
Because God’s love itself is boundless, it is impossible to count or list the ways that we can reflect His love and share it with others. St. Francis’ prayer, however, can be divided into three particular ways. The first of these is an attitude of mercy and forgiveness, as we pray, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.” Throughout the Bible, Our Lord repeatedly reminds us of the importance of forgiveness, telling us that there can be no limit to the number of times we forgive those who have hurt us. We must cultivate an attitude of compassion, of offering mercy rather than revenge, even when it is difficult to do so. This can be done in so many ways—whether it is giving up the hurt of an old family fight, or simply defending someone from malicious gossip, whether you know the person or not.
St. Francis also focuses on the love we show by simply being joyful and positive people: “Where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy.” Cultivating a spirit of thankfulness for God’s blessings does so much, not only for those who we come in contact with, but also for ourselves, because by reminding others to be grateful, we remind ourselves as well. It is amazing how little we have to do to raise someone’s spirits—a quick visit to an elderly or sick neighbor, a “just because” gift, or simply noticing someone and giving them a compliment and a smile. How often is the phrase heard that someone’s random act of kindness has “restored my faith in humanity”? When we live a life in Christ full of holy joy, we restore not only faith in humanity, but also more importantly, faith in God.
One of the most challenging ways to show love is to stand up for what is right, even when no one agrees with you or wants to hear it. As St. Francis says, “Where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, light.” We are sometimes confronted with chance to share our faith or to simply speak difficult truths to others, and we can be too intimidated to say what needs to be said. It is an act of love (sometimes tough love) to reach out to someone, even when they are too depressed, proud, hurt, or resentful to listen—it is an act of love to tell the truth in a loving and gentle way. Whether we are helping a friend to break a destructive habit or defending our faith to a stranger, it takes courage and love to act.
It is crucial that we understand that we don’t do these things to seem “nice” or to make ourselves feel “holier than thou,” but because it is our duty to do so. The tremendous beauty of God’s love is that blessings go both ways, and the efforts we make to love others will come back to us tenfold. St. Francis concludes his prayer with the reminder that our actions reflect back on us, and that to love is to be loved. Let us pray for the strength to be selfless in our love for our neighbor and to model Our Lord’s perfect love by giving of ourselves without asking for anything in return.
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