Saint Francis: An Instrument of Peace
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
When I first came to this country, in 1959, I looked hard for a suitable meditation passage for the West. In this Prayer of Saint Francis I found the perfect answer. During all these years I have been recommending it to everyone because, as you can see, it is a very rare thing: an attempt to reverse almost all the ordinary tendencies we find in human nature. It gives us a blueprint for making our life a blessing for everyone.
In this profoundest of prayers, Saint Francis confides in us how the son of Pietro di Bernardone was transformed into a son of God. We too can aspire to such a transformation by making his Prayer an integral part of our consciousness. This cannot be done through reading or discussion, which take place only on the surface level of consciousness. It can only be done by regular, systematic meditation. If we meditate on Saint Francis’s words diligently and with enthusiasm every morning, the marvelous transformation that Francis worked in himself will gradually be effected in us too.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace
Without spending a single moment beating about the bush, Francis comes straight to the point of the spiritual life: Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Our first priority is to reform ourselves; without that, how can we expect to help other people reform themselves? It is the living example of a man or woman giving every moment to making love a reality that moves our hearts to follow. We do not have to call ourselves religious to serve as examples of love and unity. We do not need a bumper sticker that says, “You are following an instrument of the Lord.” Our everyday actions speak for themselves.
Just as the example of Jesus inspired Francis a millennium later, Francis inspired thousands of people even during his own lifetime. Near the end of his life, while he was making a mountain journey, Francis’s health failed. His companions went into a farmyard to borrow a donkey for him to ride. On hearing for whom it was intended, the peasant came out and asked, “Are you the Brother Francis there is so much said about?” Receiving a nod from one of Francis’s companions, he added, “Then take care that you are as good in reality as they say, for there are many who have confidence in you.” Deeply stirred, Francis kissed the peasant in gratitude for this reminder of just how much such an example could mean even to people he had never met.
How can we go about making ourselves such an example? To begin with, as long as we are full of ourselves, our own small desires and self-centered thoughts, we leave no room whatever for the Lord to work in our lives. Jesus says simply, “Thy will be done.” The implication is clear: to live in harmony with the divine will, our petty, selfish, personal will – self-will – has to go. When we ask to be made instruments of peace, what we are really asking for is the boundless determination to empty ourselves of every ugly state of mind that disrupts relationships – anger, resentment, jealousy, greed, self-will in any form.
Transforming these negative states of mind into their positive counterparts is not at all an easy task. Selfish desires and resentments masquerade as part of us, part of our personality. In reality they are only a mask, which can be removed to reveal our real personality. Mystics call this mask self-will. I often call it the ego. Either name means the self-centered drive to get what I want, have my own way, whatever the cost to others. This is the source of all selfish and destructive behavior.
In English fiction there is a fascinating character known as the Scarlet Pimpernel. He shows up here, then there, then here again, breaking the law for what he considers worthy causes, but the authorities can never lay eyes on him. That is how the ego behaves. It simply is not possible to challenge him to a duel. He will not reply to your invitation; he will never pick up your gauntlet; if you shout at him, your echo will shout back at you. But there are a million little ways in which you can slowly track the ego to its lair.
If someone were to pull over to the side of the road in San Francisco and ask me how to get to Los Angeles, I wouldn’t say, “Go north.” Everyone knows you have to go the other direction. Similarly, spiritual figures like Saint Francis tell us, “Don’t follow your selfish desires and angry impulses; that is the way to emotional bankruptcy.” But we reply, “Oh, no! I know what I’m doing. It’s obvious which way is better.” Francis would insist, “Please believe me. If you go that way, you will become more insecure. People will slowly lose their respect for you, and you will lose respect for yourself. Eventually you will not feel at home anywhere on earth. Instead, let me show you a secret trail that will take you slowly round so you can surprise the ego in his sleep. He’ll never know what hit him.”
Like most people I have met in this country, I too was conditioned at an early age by talk about not “repressing” the ego. I believed that if you defy a strong selfish impulse, sooner or later your frustrations will explode. The lives of men and women like Saint Francis, however, show us just the opposite: reducing the ego for the sake of fulfilling a higher goal, a loftier desire than self-interest, is not repression but transformation. The signs are sure. Repression bottles up our energy, so that it can make itself felt only in destructive ways. When this energy is transformed, however, it is released every day in creative ways that we can see: patience, resilience under stress, skill in building bridges between others and ourselves.
When a selfish urge is crying out for satisfaction, then, that is an ideal opportunity to summon up your will and go against that urge. Because so much of our vital energy is caught up in pampering these selfish impulses, they offer us a long, long trail right into the depths of consciousness. When we defy the impulse and use its energy for some selfless purpose, we are following a trail that will eventually allow us to get around the ego.
These are the dynamics of spiritual transformation. The route is always there and it is always open; that is its promise. We must be prepared for many, many years of arduous hiking over rough terrain. Very likely we are going to have lapses; some very attractive detours may distract us temporarily. All that we are asking the Lord for is the determination to do our best to stay on the right trail and go forward.
As a practical first step toward becoming an instrument of peace, we can try our best not to harbor grudges. One suggestion is that when you have a falling-out with someone, instead of deciding on the spot that you are not going to come within ten feet of that person, try going out for a really fast walk, repeating the Holy Name in your mind until the immediate wave of anger rolls over you. (If a fast walk is not feasible, sit down quietly to repeat the Name.) Then you can make a simple effort to recall some of the good things that person has done for you. He may have let it go by when you said some thing particularly unkind to him one time; or perhaps when you got sick she took care of you. Anger makes us utterly forget all these incidents, so that for a while we see only the dark side. When we remind ourselves that even though at present we may be nursing a very real injury, the past has brought us kindness and aid from this person, our anger will find it difficult to burn for very long.
On another front, I have come to feel that one of the cornerstones of peaceful relations everywhere is the capacity to avoid becoming wedded to one’s own opinions. Francis repeatedly warned his brothers about trying to “embrace poverty while keeping the purse of your own opinion.” When we do not have this capacity, arrogance often makes its ugly appearance. At the mere hint of disagreement we get agitated, and our views are liable to come out clothed in harsh tones and intemperate language. The message to the other party is clear: we have scant respect for him or her as a person. Nothing wounds more deeply or muddies the original issue more thoroughly. It is then that war breaks out. We need not think of war only in terms of the War of the Roses or the landing on the beaches of Normandy. Skirmishes are fought in the dining room all the time; guerrilla warfare is often waged in the kitchen.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
To the south of my ancestral home in Kerala, South India, beautiful rice fields stretch almost to the horizon. When I was a little boy, every morning during the planting season I would be awakened just after dawn by the sounds of the villagers plowing the land with their bullocks, talking and singing as they worked. First the tiny seedlings must be planted. Somebody goes along with a big basket, planting them one by one in a row, so carefully that when you look at rice growing, it looks like a gigantic green carpet. Later each seedling must be transplanted. All in all, it is difficult to believe that these minute seedlings are going to bear such a rich harvest.
You and I can go in for a similar kind of hand labor. When you plant just one kind word with somebody who has been unkind to you, though it is only a tiny seedling, it is going to bear a rich harvest. A lot of people get the benefit – secondhand, thirdhand, fourthhand – from our little kindnesses. Every time you focus on what brings people together instead of what drives them apart, you are planting a long row of these seedlings. Every day – in the office, at school, in the kitchen, at the store – everyone has opportunities for this kind of hand labor. We may think our opportunities are hardly worth the trouble, but little things like kindness catch on and spread.
In Kerala we have a giant, fierce-looking plant called elephant nettle. It seems to flourish in every nook and cranny, and you have only to walk by for it to stretch out to touch you. One little touch and you feel as if you have been stung. By the time you get home, you have a blister that won’t let you think about anything else until it goes away.
My grandmother, my spiritual teacher, was expert at driving home great truths with homely illustrations. She used to say, “A self-willed person is like an elephant nettle.” That is why the moment we see somebody who is given to saying unkind things, we make a detour. We pretend we have just remembered something that takes us in another direction, but the fact is that we just don’t want to be stung. “I promise not to go near the elephant nettles,” I always assured my Granny. But when it came to a classmate I did not like, she would say, “Here, you have to learn to grow. Go near him. Let yourself slowly get comfortable around him; then give him your sympathy and help take the sting out of his nettleness.”
I am not one of those philosophical people who say, “No matter what you do to me, it is all right.” Certainly not! When someone is being unkind, whether to me or to somebody else, I feel a loving obligation to remonstrate with him, kindly but firmly. When a person senses that we have his best interests at heart, when he knows we will not move away from him whatever distress he is causing, we can remonstrate and at the same time support him in his efforts to overcome his problem.
This excerpt is from Easwaran’s book Love Never Faileth.