Small “t” Tradition and the Peace Prayer of St. Francis

In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium (CCC 83).

When I was a kid, my older brother purchased Radio Dinner, a comedy LP by National Lampoon. Whether he did so with the knowledge of my parents is an open question – the group had a bawdy reputation – but, no matter. We thought it was hysterical and wore that disc out.

My favorite cut was the first one, Deteriorata, a sarcastic send-up of pop ‘70s philosophy. It begins with a female vocalist (a young Melissa Manchester) who sets the ethereal stage: “You are a fluke of the universe,” she sings. “You have no right to be here.” Then a mellifluous narrator intones a series of pseudo-wise aphorisms – like “Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep,” and, solemnly, “Rotate your tires.” Ommmm…

It’s still a pretty funny bit – at least I think so – but it’s especially funny if you know what it originally satirized: a pompously brooding 1971 recording of the era’s hackneyed stand-in for a life philosophy, Desiderata. You know it, I’m sure. It’s the one that begins, “Go placidly amid the noise and haste,” and ends up recommending, “be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.” I had a groovy Desiderata poster in my bedroom back then, all paisley and cosmic – maybe you did, too. If so, I’ll bet yours had a mysterious notation at the bottom like mine: Found in Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore, dated 1692.

Somehow, that notation made the poem’s banalities seem more…enticing and legit. The anonymity, the relatively ancient provenance, the discovery by “accident” – or was it? Ommmm…

Turns out that mysterious notation is all bunk – a fact pointed out to me by my dad. “You know, that thing was actually first published in the ‘50s,” he said. “It’s by a guy named Max Ehrmann.” Of course, I didn’t believe him – he was my dad, after all – so he produced a volume of Ehrmann’s collected works. Sure enough, there it was: Desiderata, copyright 1952 – point to dad. Apparently the prose-poem was once disseminated to a Maryland congregation on the church’s letterhead that referenced the parish’s 1692 founding. As that copy was passed around to others outside the congregation, the Desiderata verses (sans Ehrmann) and the info on the letterhead gradually merged, and a literary legend was born.

Once the mystique of its provenance was discredited, Desiderata wasn’t nearly as compelling any more. I took down my poster.

My youthful flirtation with Ehrmann’s poem came to mind recently as I scoured the internet for a decent link to the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, one of the world’s most beloved prayers. Countless Christians, Catholic and otherwise, recite it regularly – I know I do. “Make me an instrument of your peace,” it reads. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” and so forth. Beautiful.

Here’s the thing, though…are you seated? Get ready now…the Peace Prayer was not composed by St. Francis – surprise! Maybe you already knew that, but it came as quite a shocker to me. For a quarter century, ever since a friend gave me a Peace Prayer holy card, I’ve imagined myself praying along with St. Francis of Assisi – daily. It never occurred to me to verify its authorship – what for? There was Francis feeding the birds on one side and the Peace Prayer on the other. Case closed. Besides, even the hymnals in the pew bore out the connection – heck, they still do. Our parish’s current hymnal, Worship (4th ed., copyright 2011, GIA), includes the song, “Lord, Make Us Servants of Your Peace. The fine print identifies the tune as an “English melody,” but the text is based “on a prayer attrib. to St. Francis of Assisi” – check it yourself when you’re next in church.

Sadly, that attribution is incorrect, and the prayer’s history involves a mix-up along the lines of the Desiderata jumble. The Peace Prayer first appeared in a French devotional magazine, La Clochette (The Little Bell), in 1912. It was originally titled “A Beautiful Prayer to Say During Mass” and unsigned, although some suspect that the magazine’s publisher, Fr. Esther Bouquerel, was the author. In any case, it made its way to the “Peace Pope,” Benedict XV, in 1915, and eventually into the pages of the Vatican’s de facto official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. “Around 1920, the prayer was printed by a French Franciscan priest on the back of an image of St. Francis with the title ‘Prière pour la paix‘ (Prayer for Peace),” writes Dr. Christian Renoux of Orleans University, “but without being attributed to the saint.”

In time, an English translation made its way into a book by American Protestant minister and peace activist, Kirby Page, who definitively linked it to the saint of Assisi. “During World War II and immediately after, this prayer for peace began circulating widely as the Prayer of St. Francis, specially through Francis cardinal Spellman’s books,” notes Prof. Renoux, “and over the years has gained a worldwide popularity with people of all faiths.”

So, has my enthusiasm for the prayer waned since this discovery? Not a chance. In fact, I used the word “sadly” a couple paragraphs back, but I’m really not sad at all. I still recite it after Mass every day, and I still envision myself praying it in the spirit of St. Francis. The Peace Prayer isn’t, I suppose, technically by the saint, but that doesn’t impinge on the prayer’s value to me or anyone else – even insofar as it connects me to the Franciscan tradition. As Marion A. Habig, OFM, wrote in the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources, the Peace Prayer “admirably expresses the thought and spirit of Francis, ‘the Man of Peace.’” And while Habig acknowledges the prayer’s true history, he nevertheless includes a full translation in the Omnibus under the heading, “Francis of Assisi: Writer.”

Why? Because the prayer has clearly been adopted by Francis-minded people as part of our Franciscan heritage – that is, our “tradition,” customs and practices passed down through the generations. Unlike Big “T” Tradition, which includes unchanging essentials of the faith (the Creeds, for example, and even Sacred Scripture itself), little “t” traditions (like the Peace Prayer) are creations which are subject to alteration over time – something we can all have a hand in. Yet, that doesn’t make manmade traditions just “cultural window dressing,” according to Mark Shea. Instead, they’re “a way of being, thinking and seeing which powerfully (and often unconsciously) influences our lives,” writes Shea, “and even our relationship with God.”

Regardless of authorship, the Peace Prayer’s admonitions and sentiments have helped ground me in the Gospel, and, by keeping me tethered to the saint of Assisi, it has given me a concrete vision for living it out. I’ll not hesitate to continue referring to it as a Prayer of St. Francis, and thereby do my part in ratifying its authentic and traditional Franciscan identity.

Richard Becker

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Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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