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The Parish of Christchurch. Christchurch Priory, St George at Jumpers, St John at Purewell

A prayer of St Francis of Assisi

Last updated Monday, 23 March, 2020

Most high and glorious God,

lighten the darkness of my heart

and give me sound faith, firm hope and perfect love. 
Let me, Lord, have the right feelings and knowledge,

properly to carry out the task you have given me.

 

This is one of the earliest prayer from St Francis.  I discovered it a few years back when I was on a retreat. Before I tell you why it is so important to me, let me give you its setting.  

 

Francis, at this stage of his life was no saint!   In fact, he was living the high life as the son of a rich merchant, a cloth seller, in Assisi.   He enjoyed mixing with other young people in his social bracket, he enjoyed inter-city wars where he could cut a dashing figure for the girls in shiny armour on his war horse, and he did not want to know about the sick and poor who also lived in and around Assisi. In fact not at all promising if you were looking for saintliness.

 

One day he visited a church that was falling down – the Church of San Damiano (St Damian to you and me – Damian was an Arabian physician in the town Cyrhus in the Roman province of Syria, he was martyred in the year 287).  In the church was a crucifix and young Francis, while he was praying there, felt he saw the lips of Our Lord move and he felt that he heard the voice of Christ say, “rebuild my church”.   This prayer was his response to that call.  

 

So far so good, but remember what sort of person Francis was at that stage of his life.  His practical response was to go to his father’s warehouse and “acquire” some rolls of cloth, sell them and take the cash to the priest for the repairs to the church.  Quite properly the priest refused to accept this dodgy cash, so Francis did the work himself, stone by stone – redemption and transformation were underway.  

 

We will leave the story of Francis there, except to note that he did become one of the most important figures, if not the most important, in the renewal of the church in the middle-ages.  He was indeed instrumental in rebuilding the Church (not buildings but the Body of Christ). 

 

Why then is the prayer of man who prayed this prayer at a time when he was far from being a saint, and with so much to learn about himself, so significant for me?

 

Well, for me Francis’ petitions in this prayer are spot on.  I don’t know about you but I recognise that first petition, “lighten the darkness of my heart”.  It speaks to me of those bleak moments – the times when division and lack of generosity have threatened the life and harmony of the church.  In almost 50 years of ministry I have seen more than a few of those and over time I am sure this building has played host to more than a few as well.  Or those moments when emotionally or spiritually I have felt, lost or abandoned or betrayed.  “Lighten the darkness of my heart” speaks right into my prayer at those moments.

 

And what more could we ask for as tools for living the Gospel message - “sound faith, firm hope and perfect love”?  Straight out of one of the many purple passages in St Paul’s letters - 1 Cor 13  specifically v13 “and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

 

These are the key, day-by-day tools for living as followers of Christ but they are also aspirational – for surely we can never say we have “got” them, surely we are always looking to achieve a more profound faith, to have a more elevated understanding of the hope to which we are called and a deeper entry into loving and being loved.   This is not just about being better disciples of Jesus in and around here, it is about being transformed into the person God our creator intended us to be.

 

And finally Francis prayed, “Let me, Lord, have the right feelings and knowledge, properly to carry out the task you have given me.”  First I will remind you of my context - I found the prayer (or did the prayer find me?) when I was on a retreat.   As was often the case when I went on retreat, in my bag was my computer and in my head were things I needed to sort out.  Here was space I had carved out to focus on my relationship with God, but here was a space when I could catch with things that were slipping and get ready for things I would need to deal with when I got home.  But the prayer says “….properly to carry out the task you have given me.”   Not taskS but task.  So often we clutter our lives, or at least I do. It is probably inevitable and always has been, but when I pray this prayer I believe I am asking God to guide me to that one task that He needs to be my priority for that day. 

 

But what about the context for Francis? He was given just the one task, “rebuild my church” and he recognised it and went for it ……. Getting it spectacularly wrong!   Both in understanding what our Lord was calling him to do and in thinking that stealing from his father was an acceptable means to the end.  It is SO helpful when the great saints are shown to be so fallible.  I can pray this part of this prayer and get it spectacularly wrong knowing that, sadly I am treading a well-worn path of misinterpreting the will of God for me, but also knowing that if I keep trying, keep listening and keep praying this prayer it will be OK.

 

So thinking of Francis kneeling before the San Damiano Cross let us pray his prayer together.

 

Most high and glorious God,

lighten the darkness of my heart

and give me sound faith, firm hope and perfect love. 
Let me, Lord, have the right feelings and knowledge,

properly to carry out the task you have given me.  Amen