Saint Francis: Building Faith & Hope
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
This excerpt is the second part of Easwaran’s commentary on the first stanza of the Prayer of Saint Francis. The excerpt stands alone, but you’re also welcome to read the first half of his commentary.
Where there is injury, pardon.
When children cry, my mother used to remind me, they are really trying to speak to us. They have some problem and do not know how to explain what is bothering them, so they use the only language they have: lifting the roof off. Grown-ups usually go in for a more subtle style. When they get really annoyed, they let loose with some choice epithets, stalk out of the house (often tripping over the threshold), and growl something rude to the first person they see. We understand this more easily than an infant’s tantrum, but it is just as childish. When a baby raises the roof, most people do not respond by taking it personally and getting hostile; they try to find out what the problem is and solve it. Saint Francis is reminding us that there is no more reason to take grown-ups’ annoyance personally than we do children’s.
No one would claim for a second that this kind of response comes easily. Dealing with acrimonious situations and self-willed people with a calm patience requires toughness, the inner toughness that real love demands. In matters like these, one of Francis’s earliest disciples, Brother Juniper, won a reputation for his naive ingenuity. Once, when a superior reprimanded him with great severity, Brother Juniper was so disturbed by the grief he had caused that in the middle of the night he jumped out of bed, prepared some porridge with a big lump of butter on top, and took it to his superior’s room. “Father,” he said, standing at the door with the bowl of porridge in one hand and a lighted candle in the other, “today when you reprimanded me I noticed that you were hoarse from excitement. Now I have prepared this porridge for you and beg you to eat it; it is good for the throat and chest.”
The superior impatiently told Brother Juniper to go away and let him sleep.
“Well,” said Brother Juniper simply, “the porridge is cooked and has to be eaten, so please be so kind as to hold the light while I do the eating.” His superior must have laughed in spite of himself, and we are told that he was sporting enough to sit down with Brother Juniper so they could eat the porridge together.
Most of us will never be so ingenuous as Brother Juniper, but we can still learn to head off resentment in every way possible. The more resentment is allowed to grow, the more damage it is going to do. Resentment is like swallowing a seed from the elephant nettle: soon our whole insides will ache from top to bottom from its stinging, and we won’t have the vaguest idea how to get rid of it. Just think about the comparison a little. Not only will that resentment wreak havoc with our emotional well-being, it will gradually break down the functioning of our physical system as well.
Resentment will defend itself with a foolish argument: “Well, it’s my own business.” Not at all. In the first place, unless the person against whom you nurse the grudge is extremely secure, you are making that person into an agitated missile who is going to injure a lot of others. This is no exaggeration. Resentment is contagious, much more so than a virus. In a home where it is allowed to fester, everybody gets infected: the children, the children’s playmates, even the dog. But kindness is even more contagious. Whenever people see somebody facing harsh treatment with quiet security, with a kind of infectious good humor, they get infected too. “How I wish I could do that!” they marvel. We can use kindness to inoculate those around us against the dread disease of resentment.
Where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope.
I keep up with a variety of magazines and newspapers, and I find a lot of people throwing up their hands. Many tell us civilization is doomed, perhaps even the planet itself. I am not one of those who claim all is well no matter what is happening. On many fronts, the horizon is dark. But who is responsible for all these crises? Not the three Greek sisters of fate, not the Power which created us. It is we ourselves who are totally responsible; therefore it is we who can set these wrong situations right.
The shining examples of spiritual figures like Saint Francis stand as monuments of hope. They had to face adversities of every description, opposition from every imaginable kind of entrenched self-interest. Often they were able to make use of such problems to spur themselves on. When we take a good look at the state of the world, we are sometimes inclined to say, “There is nothing to be done.” If we would only turn to the example of Saint Francis we would have to admit, “It’s not impossible, really. Look what he was able to accomplish. Why can’t we manage some of the same?”
When I was in India, I came across a number of American expressions which baffled me. One was “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” I resolved that when I came to this country, I would look for some person performing this acrobatic feat! This is the marvel of meditation – a marvel I have never been able to get over. Nobody pulls you up; you pull yourself up. It should appeal enormously to the justly lauded spirit of American ingenuity. Francis himself said, “More than all grace and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit . . . is the conquering of yourself.” You go to work on your own mind and change whatever needs changing, making yourself into the kind of person most suited to meeting the challenges of the day. There is cause for enormous hope here.
None of us need be ashamed or embarrassed if ghosts out of our past come and whisper, “Remember what you did in high school? All the escapades you took part in? How unkind you were, how you wasted so many opportunities?” To me, this sort of guilt is a trick the ego plays to make us doubt ourselves. It is most unfair. Here we are looking back at our behavior of ten or twenty or thirty years ago and judging it by our standards of today. Who has not made mistakes at some tumultuous period in life? If you ask me personally, “Did you?” 1 will say, “Plenty.” And if you ask, “Well, don’t you too feel guilty about what you did?” I will say, “I’m not proud of it, but that is how I saw life then.”
If you want to judge yourself, the only fair way is to judge yourself with today’s eyes as you are today. Look at yourself straight on and ask, “Have I been selfish today in any way?” If you have a competitive streak, this is where you can make good use of it. Just say, “Today in such and such ways I have been somewhat selfish, but tomorrow I’ll do better.”
Where there is darkness, light.
On a dark night when you are stumbling along the road trying to pick your way home, what would you say if somebody came up and offered to help with a flashlight that has no battery? People who are quick to anger or who nurse grudges have no battery in their flashlight; we would do well to tell them, “Please don’t bring your flashdark here.” Isn’t there a battery called Eveready? Well, resentful people have a battery that can be called Neveready. By refusing to let their compassion shine, they darken the path of everyone around them. On the other hand, people who are patient and who can love you more than they love themselves have a flashlight that shines in all directions at the same time.
There are many different sizes of flashlights. I have one by my bedside which is the size of a fountain pen. I can hardly see anything with it, but it is better than the dark; at least it shows you where the walls are so that you avoid walking into them and banging your head. That is the first stage of our transformation: we appear as little fountain pens of light. A group at a party is saying, “I can’t see any good in Ebenezer at all,” and we chime in, “Oh, he has helped me out a few times.”
As we are able to work more comfortably and harmoniously with people, we will find that instead of a penlight we hold a normal, hand-sized flashlight. People begin to look to us for advice and solace. They like to be around us because we somehow make them feel more secure. Finally, when we see the spark of divinity burning in the people around us, we are like a big beacon. People are drawn to us, because they find that by our light their paths become clear and well marked.
Where there is sadness, joy.
This line touches me deeply. Saint Francis is quietly bringing home to us a tremendous responsibility. Our influence, whether for sadness or for joy, reaches everywhere. We cannot ever say, “I live alone in an attic off Fourth Street. This line does not apply to me.” Don’t you ride on a bus where thirty people see how solemn and sad you look? Everywhere we go we affect people.
“Once a student of mine in India thought he had found an answer to this. I met him on campus and said to him casually, “I’ve been noticing how downcast you look these days. It grieves me. Is there anything I can do?"
“There is no need for you to be concerned about the way I look,” he replied politely enough. “It’s my face.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “it is your face. But it is we who have to look at it.”
Francis himself was far from being a solemn-faced ascetic. Often he went about singing softly, and on the road he liked to regale his companions with songs of God’s glories which he composed himself – in French, the language of the troubadours. “We Friars Minor,” he exclaimed once, “what are we except God’s singers and players, who seek to draw hearts upwards and to fill them with spiritual joy?” Their joy was so great that “when they returned from their work at evening time or when in the course of the day met on the road, love and joy shone out of their eyes, and they greeted each other with chaste embraces, holy kisses, cheerful words, modest smiles. . . .”
This excerpt is from Easwaran's book Love Never Faileth.